Primitive Madman or Reinventor of Tradition?

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The New York Sun

Like the artist it celebrates, “Soutine and Modern Art” is bursting with energy and ideas. This intelligently exuberant exhibition presents Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) as the father of two traditions: American Abstract Expressionism and British Expressive Realism.

Of the 46 works on display at Cheim & Read, 17 are by Soutine himself, including such showstoppers as “View of Cagnes” (1924-25), on loan from the Metropolitan Museum, and “The Carcass of Beef” (c. 1925), from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. These hang cheek by jowl with a range of modern and contemporary artists, including such giants of the New York School as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, and Joan Mitchell; School of London painters Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, and Leon Kossoff; and individualists as various as Alice Neel, Joel Shapiro, Avigdor Arikha, and Bill Jensen.

The organizers of the show, Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow, collaborated with Klaus Perls on Soutine’s 1993 catalogue raisonee, which sold out its first hardback edition of 25,000 – a rare feat for a scholarly work of this kind. The Soutine cult doesn’t register with MoMA, however: None of his paintings hang in the museum’s permanent display, and the museum recently deaccessioned an important 1934 canvas, “Chartres Cathedral.” Such official disdain bolsters Soutine’s status as painter’s painter.


Soutine has been vaunted as a kind of painterly madman, a latterday van Gogh. Phrases like “hallucination,” “drunkenness,” and “Dionysian frenzy” litter the Soutine literature. One critic even spoke of his flinging down ready-made compositions and not particularly caring if they landed on the canvas. Yet a fiercely rigorous, hidden order binds together his frenetic marks and energized compositions. That is the crux of the Soutine paradox.

This duality comes across in the masterful, perplexing “Landscape With Figures” (c. 1922). The painting was completed during Soutine’s watershed three-year period in Ceret, when his work reached a height of abstracted, expressive intensity (he destroyed many of the fruits of this creative outpouring in disgust at its extremity.)

In it, a group of women sits on a village terrace overlooking a ravine. There are violent flashes of color – red chairs, the orange tiles of the surrounding houses, the blue of distant hills, and the near black of the steep wall disappearing beneath the figures – which somehow survive a tendency to chromatic mush. Similarly, forms are carefully observed, emerging from what could initially come across as a formless, expressive swirl.


The elongated features of a woman with her back to the viewer seem almost carved out of the negative space around them – intense greens and yellows that are animated by a life of their own and pop forward into the picture plane. Chairs and benches are at once specific and perfunctory, concrete and shorthand, lumpen and animate. The whole composition is caught up in a kind of frenzy, submitting to the force of a spiral that is dragged down along the wall, up through the tree, and down again into the ravine. One senses things both coming into focus and melting away.

Some of the artists in “Soutine and Modern Art” are clearly drawn to his primitivism. For instance, the grinding, dense, existentialist gloom of Jean Dubuffet’s “Pierre Philosophique (D’Epanouissement)” (1951) and “Paysage Fossile” (1952) speaks to Soutine’s expressionist angst. And two sculptures by Louise Bourgeois – a suspended bronze titled “The Quartered One” (1964-65) that resembles a leg of meat, and a wall piece, “Rabbit” (1970) – relate to the totemic, almost ritualistic identification with slaughtered animals in Soutine.

But it was Soutine’s modernist sophistication that truly galvanized the interest of the New York School when his retrospective was shown at MoMA in 1950. While Pollock is represented by a 1934 canvas whose robust, hefty awkwardness feels like Soutine, his classic, allover drip paintings relate to a defining quality in Soutine, identified by another Abstract Expressionist painter included here, Jack Tworkov: “the way his pictures move towards the edge of the canvas in centrifugal waves filling it to the brim.” It is this sense of a swirling gestalt – of method in the madness of compulsively accumulated marks – that also justifies the inclusion of the poetically intense Milton Resnick.


De Kooning, on the other hand, relates directly to Soutine’s instinctive rapport with materials, the luscious, succulent, urgent presence of oily pigment that brings both their canvases so rudely to life. De Kooning’s “Untitled XVI” (1976), which hangs with “Carcass of Beef,” has an unmistakably sexual presence in the way slippery pinks, whites, and grays ooze into each other. It is the kind of canvas that exemplifies de Kooning’s remark that flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.

The English painter who comes across as the most Soutine-like is Mr. Kossoff, who is represented by two of his finest works: “Here Comes the Diesel, Spring” and “Christchurch, Winter Evening” (both 1987). Mr. Kossoff (like Messrs. Freud and Auerbach) shares Soutine’s paramount need to have the subject present, although these Kossoffs were actually painted in the studio after copious drawings sur le motif.

Where Soutine would destroy many of his canvases, an equally doubtdriven Mr. Kossoff scrapes down numerous unsuccessful earlier attempts at achieving the desired image, some memory of which lingers in the final effort. His motifs, like Soutine’s, seem to wobble precariously in the expressive effort of landing in the picture. And his buildings and trains, like Soutine’s French villages, anthropomorphize as if under the weight of their author’s ambition to instill in them a depth of feeling.

Like Soutine, the English painters are romantics yearning to commune with classical tradition. Soutine was mistaken as a wild primitive who painted from inner necessity, oblivious of conventions; in fact, his style was rooted in sophisticated emulation of revered old masters. His hilltop French villages clearly relate, for instance, to El Greco’s views of Toledo, while still-lifes of fish and fowl recall Chardin.

The School of London painters have a similarly paradoxical obsession with the past, a yearning to work instinctively and from direct observation. Just as the artist from the Lithuanian shtetl saw himself as keeper of the flame of French painting (reworking Courbet and Chardin), the London painters (refugees from Nazi Germany, or, in the case of Mr. Kossoff, the son of emigrants from Eastern Europe) as often echo Constable and Hogarth as other Old Masters.

A glaring omission in this show is the chef d’ecole of the School of London, Francis Bacon, whose “Painting” (1946) directly quoted the Soutine/Rembrandt carcass. Mr. Freud is represented by “The Painter’s Garden” (2003), a relatively rare outdoor subject that looks more to Constable, Durer, and Soutine’s hero Courbet as much as to Soutine himself.

There was a tension in the way Soutine was viewed in his own day: primitive madman or reinventor of tradition. The diverse range of contemporary artists drawn to his magnetic paintings suggests the tension is alive and kicking.

Until September 9 (547 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-242-7747).

The New York Sun

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