With each still-life, Soutine studied his subjects in person with a fervent attention to detail. The liveliness inherent within the artist’s palatable representations derives from what has been described as: ‘Soutine’s obsessive, if not fanatical, attention to observation of reality’s details.’ (Rudy Chiappini (ed)., Chaïm Soutine, Milan, Lugano, 1995, p. 120). Were it not for the gaping yawn of the fish in the present work the sweeping lines could give the impression of the animal’s moving through water. The ambiguous, flat background upon which the fish is set against further confuses the notion of Le Poisson as a still life; as all spatial awareness is distorted the fish traverses the work’s surface as if through water.
A great admirer of Chardin and Courbet, Soutine drew inspiration from his artistic predecessors and amalgamated classical elements of the still-life genre, as favoured by the Old Masters, with the spatial and technical innovations of his contemporaries, such as Manet and Van Gogh. Soutine’s salmon is reminiscent of two works executed by Gustave Courbet titled The Trout. Whilst Courbet’s trout are captured in a moment of visible anguish, however, Soutine extracts his fish from the point of capture and deploys dramatic brushstrokes to articulate a sense of psychological torment. The very line of Soutine’s brush echoes the subject which he paints: ‘Soutine’s characteristic is not a line but a greasy smear left by some entrails’ (Maurice Tuchman, Chaïm Soutine, Catalogue Raisonne, Cologne, 1993, vol. I, p. 35). In Le Poisson Soutine boldly opines a radical reworking of a traditional subject matter relishing in the depiction of the raw and expressing the real in lieu of the glossy academic portrayals of a food removed from its reality. Soutine’s textural bravura elevates the still-life to a platform upon which human anxiety can be projected.
Soutine’s representation of the still-life underwent a change following his return from Paris during the mid-1920s. Prior to this stylistic diversion Soutine had depicted food severed from its former animal existence, as can be seen in earlier works such as Carcass of beef (Albright Knox Gallery, New York). Painted circa 1933 Le Poisson is the first time that Soutine removes the fish from the setting of a meal and the animal becomes the sole focal point of the composition. Soutine’s development with the subject of the still-life has been described as ‘'an evolution in animal imagery,' He begins with the animate still-life images of food, moves to an increasingly isolated and spotlit focus on food, not as part of a meal-time setting, but as the animal in its slaughtered state. Finally, he moves to the animal itself as a natural living creature, Soutine has represented the full circle of life and death’ (Esti Dunow, An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaïm Soutine, New York, 1998, p. 143). Le Poisson marks an important art historical turning point within the artist’s development as he reconceptualises the animal within a still life.
As Soutine’s focus drifted from a concern to represent food to a desire to represent the animal, his works adopted a heightened intensity of expression. The fish becomes a platform upon which Soutine can develop his psychological portraiture. As a Russian Jew living in Paris Soutine had few friends and his interpretation of the world around him became that of an outsider. His experience of religious discrimination caused Soutine to bleed feelings of anger and despair into the thick impasto of his canvases. Possessing this ability to transform a traditional subject matter into self-expression Soutine’s Le Poisson sways between the ghastly and sensual appeal, portraying a harrowing reflection on subsistence and the trials Jewish people were subjected to on a daily basis. Food dominates much of Soutine’s œuvre due to the artist’s complex relationship with it, resulting from its prominent place in Jewish ritual. He developed a deeply unique perspective regarding his subjects and this, combined with his temper and bouts of depression, lend his paintings a poignancy and angst distinctive of his canon.
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