The Intensity of Chaim Soutine: Flesh

By Gina Cashia

Chaim Soutine, Hare with Forks, c.1924, oil on canvas. Privat collection.

Currently on view at the Jewish Museum is Chaim Soutine: Flesh which celebrates the notorious Expressionist artist in an impressive gathering of his most famous works. Known for his gestural and densely populated canvases, Soutine was a true avant-garde of the early 20th century though his canvases are equally relevant today, when so much contemproary painting is witnessing a return to figural abstraction and gestural techniques.

This exhibition showcases 32 paintings by Soutine which demonstrate his unique visual vocabulary and ability to revive a certain energy in the undervalued genre of still life painting. After all, the French Academy's judgment against still life - as ranked well below history painting, portraiture, genre painting, and landscape - still held enormous sway at the turn of the century. Still life and landscape were considered lowly because they did not involve human subject matter. Still, Soutine managed to fuse old master influences with modern stylistic qualities, creating animated compositions that are, in themselves, very much alive.

Chaim Soutine, Fish, Peppers, Onions, c. 1919, oil on canvas. Barnes Foundation, Merion and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Image provided by The Barnes Foundation.

Chaim Soutine, Fish, Peppers, Onions, c. 1919, oil on canvas. Barnes Foundation. Image courtesy of The Barnes Foundation.

Organized into four sections: "A Modern Still Life," "Fowl," "Flesh," and "The Life of Beasts", Chaim Soutine: Flesh presents works from the artist's early years in Paris through the 1940s, including his last composition before his death. It showcases his development from traditional conceptions to the achievement of his paintings from the mid-1920s. Extending beyond the tradition of still life, in haunting images of violent disturbances, these paintings offer a “tour de force” of visual expression and impose a lasting, visceral effect.

From the very beginning of the exhibition, Soutine's exposure to violence is made clear. The galleries' opening wall text focuses on the anti-Semitic violence Soutine faced as a child, and the tragic loss of many peers and acquaintances in pogroms. This tension between artistic mastery and suffering is extended through the first galleries of work - "A Modern Still Life" - which includes paintings highlighting Soutine's ability to present very basic subject matter ('poor food', for example) with renewed life through the use of gestural brushwork, vivid colors, and expressive compositions.

The works invite the viewer in, urging an examination of the details, and proposing a new interpretation of otherwise 'everyday' matters. Fluid and mobile, Soutine's early still lifes are anything but still; from the very beginning of the exhibition, his talent is apparent.

Chaim Soutine, Chicken Hanging Before a Brick Wall, 1925, oil on canvas. Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland. Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Image provided by Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

Chaim Soutine, Chicken Hanging Before a Brick Wall, 1925, oil on canvas. Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland. Artwork © ARS New York

The second section, "Fowl," highlights Soutine's paintings dedicated to still lifes of waterfowl and studies of birds. Here, the artist's well-known fascination with game and butchery emerges as a dominant theme in his oeuvre. As the very thorough didactic texts make clear, as a child, Soutine witnessed a butcher cut the throat of a goose and bleed it out. He long claimed this experience, in combination with the presence of kosher butchery and the ritualistic slaughter of animals in the shtetl, to be a lasting influence on his choice of subject matter.

Soutine's canvases of dead birds have also been interpreted as a childhood memory of the kapparot, a ritual in Jewish communities where sins are transferred to the bird before it’s sacrificed during Yom Kippur. Although dead game have long been included in compositions of the still life genre - one need only look to Dutch vanitas paintings or Old Master social scenes - Soutine's fowl are often transformed in a way that diverges far from historical precedent. In some works devoted to this theme, the bird hangs, suggesting motion, while in others the treatment of the paint suggests that the animal may still be alive. Soutine's handling of the subject is highly tactile, imbuing his works of this period with an easily felt air of tragedy, a tangible sense of mortality.

Chaim Soutine, Flayed Ox, c. 1925, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Bern, Legat Georges F. Keller, 1981

Chaim Soutine, Flayed Ox, c. 1925, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Bern, Legat Georges F. Keller, 1981

In reworking the established still-life tradition, Soutine freed himself from the artistic conventions of the genre, specifically in his use of expressive gestural marks, highly saturated warm and cool color palettes, and emphasis on a single object (rather than the historical standard of carefully calculated arrangements). As Stephen Brown, the Neubauer Family Foundation Associate Curator at the Jewish Museum, explained, the exhibition "showcases the relationship of tradition with modernity." It is this tension between tradition and innovation, familiarity and unpredictability, that makes this exhibition so intriguing.

The third section, "Flesh," reveals Soutine as a master of observation. An exemplary highlight of the grouping is Soutine's variation on Rembrandt's The Flayed Ox. Working from direct observation rather than copying the original piece, Soutine reduces Rembrandt's realistic setting to focus solely on the animal. Placing the flayed and butchered carcass within a modernist, highly contrasting blue backdrop, Soutine manages to concurrently intensify the flesh and bring our attention to its stark reality, while still providing a highly abstract play on Rembrandt's classic painting.

Chaim Soutine. The Duck Pond at Champigny, 1943. oil on canvas. Shmuel Tatz Collection.

Chaim Soutine, The Duck Pond at Champigny, 1943. oil on canvas. Shmuel Tatz Collection.

The last section, "The Life of Beasts," focuses on later paintings including The Duck Pond at Champigny. At the beginning of World War II, Soutine sought refuge in the countryside of Paris, where he created many of these works. The small paintings of animals possess a naturalistic quality compared to earlier works and also suggest a vulnerability that is distressing in the context of the hostile political situation. The Duck Pond at Champigny evokes the tradition of painting outdoors while Soutine's brushstrokes still edge toward abstraction. According to the inscription on the back of the painting, Soutine painted this in July 1943, a month before his passing, making it one of the most important pieces in the show. It also, like so many works in this fascinating exhibition, speaks to a key moment in history - an in-between period when ties to the past were vital, yet innovation and change were inevitable.

The exhibition includes paintings from major public and private collections in the U.S. and abroad, including the Barnes Foundation, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum, Kunstmuseum Bern, Musée de l'Orangerie, and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, among others.

Chaim Soutine: Flesh is on view at the Jewish Museum from May 4, 2018 through September 16, 2018.

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