The Jewish Museum
May 4-September 16, 2018The Jewish Museum presents an exhibition of 31 paintings by Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), the Expressionist artist known for his gestural and densely painted canvases, from May 4 through September 16, 2018. Chaim Soutine: Flesh highlights the unique visual conceptions and painterly energy that the artist brought to the tradition of still life. Soutine’s remarkable paintings depicting hanging fowl, beef carcasses, and rayfish are now considered among his greatest artistic achievements. These works epitomize his fusion of Old Master influences with the tenets of painterly modernism. Virtuoso technique, expressive color, and disorienting and unexpected compositions endow Soutine’s depictions of slaughtered animals with a striking visual power and emotional impact.
Credit: Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Image provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY
Chaim Soutine: Flesh presents works from the artist’s early years in Paris through the 1940s, showing his development from more traditional conceptions to the impressive achievement of his paintings from the mid-1920s. Pushing the limits of the tradition of still life, in tableaux evocative of violent dislocations, these paintings offer a tour de force of visual expression and visceral effect.
Soutine’s highly personal approach to the subject of still life and the depictions of hanging fowl and beef carcasses were influenced by his childhood memories growing up in a Jewish village in the Lithuanian part of western Russia (now Belarus). The strict Jewish observance of dietary laws, requiring the ritual slaughter of fowl and meat, provides a context for these emotionally charged images.
In 1913, at the age of 20, Soutine moved to Paris. He painted landscapes at various locations in France and created an important body of work in portraiture. Soutine’s study of Old Master paintings in the Louvre impacted his dramatic and novel compositions of a single object isolated in space.
Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Flayed Ox (1655), and the still lifes of Goya, Chardin, and Courbet were of particular importance to Soutine.
Soutine painted directly from life. He would bring dead fowl and rabbits, and carcasses of beef, into his studio to use as subjects for his paintings. These subjects began to occupy the entire canvas, allowing the artist to engage with the images as a painted surface. Soutine’s haunting imagery, energized brushstrokes, and rich paint have served as touchstones for subsequent generations of artists, from Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, to contemporary artists such as Frank Auerbach, Cecily Brown, and Damien Hirst.
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. It is organized into four sections: “A Modern Still Life,” “Fowl,” “Flesh,” and “The Life of Beasts.”
The first section, “A Modern Still Life,” showcases how Soutine embraced the modernist notion that gesture, material, and color are as much the subject of art as the objects depicted.
Fish, Peppers, Onions (c. 1919) shows the rich play of warm, earthy tones that is an established tradition of the still-life genre, yet, the effect is jarring — while the peppers and spring onions are identifiable, other objects are difficult to interpret.
“Fowl” highlights Soutine’s paintings devoted to this theme. While dead game birds are a staple of still life, the fowl Soutine painted are transformed in a way that departs from tradition. The bodies of the birds hang, pendulous, perhaps in motion. In these depictions, Soutine creates a powerful statement through his handling of paint.
In Dead Fowl (c. 1926), the abjection and horror of the blood-spattered meat makes the viewer uneasy, but an expressive beauty is integral to the overall composition. In these paintings, Soutine focuses on capturing the moment between life and death, a fixation which develops throughout his work of the 1920s.
In reworking the established still-life tradition, Soutine freed himself from the artistic conventions of the genre, particularly in his use of expressive color and brushstroke and in his focus on the portrait-like images of a single animal. This section, “Flesh,” reveals Soutine’s mastery of observation and his visceral handling of paint.
Soutine restaged Rembrandt’s The Flayed Ox in his studio, working from direct observation rather than copying the masterpiece.
In the resulting painting, Flayed Ox (c. 1925), Soutine reduced Rembrandt’s realistic setting to a single object on a ground of contrasting hue, creating both an intense perception of quivering flesh and an abstract surface of tone and texture.
Finally, “The Life of Beasts” includes paintings from the late period of Soutine’s life. At the outbreak of World War II, and due to the menace posed to France’s Jews by the German occupation, Soutine sought refuge in the countryside to the west of Paris, where he created many of the works on view in this section. These small paintings of animals possess a naturalistic quality different from his earlier works. They also suggest a vulnerability that is particularly poignant in the context of the threatening world situation.
The style of The Duck Pond at Champigny (1943) evokes the tradition of painting landscape outdoors, while the spirited brushwork and sensuality of surface anticipate abstraction. According to an inscription on the back of the painting, the work was painted in July 1943, a month prior to Soutine’s death.
The exhibition is organized by Stephen Brown, Neubauer Family Foundation Associate Curator, The Jewish Museum, with consulting curators Esti Dunow and Maurice Tuchman, authors of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) catalogue raisonné (1993).
The exhibition is designed by Galia Solomonoff and Adriana Barcenas of SAS/Solomonoff Architecture Studio. Graphic design is by Topos Graphics.
In August 1943, Soutine was secretly rushed from the countryside to Paris to receive urgent medical care —his chronic stomach condition had been exacerbated by the stress of hiding during the Nazi Occupation. To avoid detection, he was taken in a hearse, using a circuitous route. He arrived at the hospital more than twenty -four hours later and died during surgery. Soutine was interred at the cemetery of Montparn asse. Among the few mourners were his companions, Marie- Berthe Aurenche and Gerda Groth, the artist and playwright Je an Cocteau, and Pablo Picasso.
Chaim Soutine, Dead Fowl, 1926, oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1937.167.
Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Image provided by the Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NYChicken on a Blue Ground, c. 1925 Oil on canvas The Lewis Collection
Against a warm brown ground, the golden flesh of the plucked fowl emerges from the deep blue tones of the wing feathers and ruff. The bird is suspended from a skylight brace, which intrudes into the composition, disorienting the viewer. The turkey seems to be energetically swinging, an ambiguity that is amplified in its ruddy head: the beak gapes open, but the eye is closed, blinded in the ecstasy of the instant of passing.
Hanging Turkey, c. 1925 Oil on millboard The Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on long term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey
This image is difficult to read. Certain details, however, are depicted precisely, including the louvered awning at top, the turkey’s extended wing feathers, and the cord tying its legs. The plucked flesh becomes a centrifugal force that spreads out in every direction, suggesting violent struggle and the an ger and horror of entrapment.
Dead Fowl, c. 1926 Oil on canvas The Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1937
© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
This bird sprawls on a chair with legs and wings akimbo. Deep brown and blue tones provide a ground for the intense play of light and dark in the flesh, feathers, and head. The upended creature plunges downward, suggesting the acceptance and inevitability of death. Soutine creates a powerful statement through the handling of paint in his depictions of fowl. The abjection and horror of blood -spattered meat makes us uneasy, but an expressive beauty is integral to the overall conception. The artist’s intense and novel vision of the still -life tradition conveys sacrifice and tragedy.
Hanging Turkey, c. 1925 Oil on canvas Private collection, courtesy of McClain Gallery, Houston
They say Courbet could give in his nudes all the character of Paris. I want to show all that is Paris in the carcass of an ox. Chaim Soutine
The beef carcass paintings have entered the mythology of Soutine’s creative process. Anecdotes abound of the artist hauling sides of beef from nearby slaughterhouses and hanging them from the rafters of his Montparnasse studio. There are reports of neighbors vehemently complaining about the stench of rotting meat and the artist’s practice of acquiring animal blood to revitalize the decomposing flesh. One tale relates the suspicion of murder when blood leaked under his studio door and into the hallway. On an other occasion the police came to confiscate the putrefying flesh, only to be lectured by Soutine on the overriding demands of Art. In reworking the established still -life tradition, Soutine freed himself from the artistic conventions of the genre, parti cularly in his use of expr essive color and brushstroke and in his focus on portraitlike images of a single animal. His fixation on capturing the moment between life and death develops throughout the works of the 1920s. The artist uses this motif as an armature to evoke powerful emotion in the viewer.
Flayed Ox, c. 1925 Oil on canvas Kunstmuseum Bern, Legat Georges F. Keller, 1981
Soutine restaged Rembrandt’s famous painting The FlayedOx in his studio, working from direct observation rather than copying the masterpiece in the Louvre. He reduced Rembrandt’s realistic setting to a single object on a ground of contrasting hue, creating both an intense perception of quivering, decaying flesh and an abstract surface of tone and texture. This painting was ori ented incorrectly at some point and signed by another hand — thus, the signature in the lower right corner is upside down.
Side of Beef with a Calf’s Head, c. 1923 Oil on canvas Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, Collection of Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume
In this composition, the display of meat is curiously prosaic: a rack, pegs, hooks, and a chain in the upper register provide a note of naturalism. At the same time, using sumptuous facture and high -keyed tones, the artist envisions the carcass as an organic silhouette. The head looks on reflexively, a savage meditation on life transfo rmed by death.
Carcass of Beef, c. 1925 Oil on canvas Albright -Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, Room of Contemporary Art Fund, 1939
Soutine obsessively painted carcasses as many as ten times in 1925 and 1926, each with a different visual result. This beast, hung by its hind legs and gutted, dominates a closely cropped composition empty of other objects. The striking contrast of deep red and yellow against the cooler blue of the background presents butchery as a dramatic spectacle. The artist once said that the beef paintings exorcised his memories of a harsh childhood. Kosher law, which the artist may have had in mind, prescribes that animals be killed efficiently, without pain or delay: the beast must be decapitated and drained of blood immediately. In the studio, Soutine repeatedly poured blood onto the decaying carcass to enhance its color, lending the meat a fresh appearance and preserving the image of slaughter.
Hare with Forks, c. 1924 Oil on canvas Private collection
In this painting, the form of the animal is voluptuously modeled in warm colors, set on a golden cloth against a dark upper register. Such imagery recalls the work of seventeenth -century masters of Dutch still -life painting, such as Jan Weenix. His reputation was based on scenes of the hunt and on elegant and exceptionally naturalistic paintings of dead game.
In Soutine’s work the view is from above and down onto the table, but without the extreme tilting effect of his
Still Life with Herrings. Like that earlier still life, this composition has two forks, now foreshortened, which seem to grip the hare with a sense of mastery.
Two Partridges on a Table, c. 1926 Oil on canvas Private collection
Many of the images of fowl communicate struggle, but others are more peaceful and express the stillness of death. Here, Soutine evokes the animals’ quiet acceptance of their fate with virtuoso brushwork.
THE LIFE OF BEASTS
The canvases from this late period of Soutine’s life capture the threatening political climate. At the outbreak of World War II, he and his lover, Gerda Groth, a German Jew, found themselves in immediate peril. Groth was arrested and deported to an internment camp in the French Pyrenees, but survived the war. Soutine went into hiding in the countryside to the west of Paris, where he created many of the works on view here. These small paintings of animals possess a naturalistic quality different from his earlier creations. In them, he continues to develop his still-life concerns: the raw material of human consumption is rendered with a haunting sense of the animals’ suffering. This effect reminds the viewer of the fundamental themes of agony and compassion.
Chaim Soutine’s art was the result of an exacting marriage of sensual paint to acute observation. From this highly personal style emerges work of g reat seriousness and grandeur.
The Fish, c. 1933 Oil on panel Private European collector
In this detailed depiction of a live fish, Soutine strove for a heightened realism. To achieve this effect, the artist turned for inspiration to his predecessor Gustave Courbet, whose 1872 painting of a trout has a similar composition. Soutine elaborated on Courbet’s motif, endowing his own version with a feeling of anguish and passion.
Chaim Soutine, Plucked Goose, c. 1933, oil on panel. Private Collection
Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photograph by Joshua Nefsky
The broken neck and naked flesh of this goose are presented with precision and sensitivity, in an image at once savage and sublime. There is an intriguing echo of earlier depictions by the artist:
in Fish, Peppers, Onions the bird is present as a macabre crockery ornament. Through the naturalism of the 1930s, the artist conveys sentiments of vulnerability and pathos.
The Duck Pond at Champigny, 1943 Oil on canvas Shmuel Tatz Collection
In this late painting of the rustic outdoors, the rich blue greens of the woods and pond suggest a yearning for immersion in nature. Its style evokes the tradition of painting landscape outdoors, while its spirited brushwork and sensuality of surface anticipate abstraction. According to an inscription by Marie -Berthe Aurenche, Soutine’s last companion, the work was painted in July, the month prior to the artist’s death.
Turkey, c. 1925 Oil on canvas Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, Collection of Jean Walter and PaulGuillaume