ART / Heart, soul, blood and guts: His family beat him for his art, he destroyed it. But a major exhibition dedicated to Chaim Soutine is long overdue, argues Dalya Alberge
Tuesday 25 January 1994
If only he could have foreseen the extent to which his passionate brush- strokes, disturbingly brutal compositions and whirlpools of colour would one day inspire others. Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon were all affected by his visionary landscapes, his tortured, distorted portraits and his semi-abstract images of flayed carcasses. Yet, despite various exhibitions and studies since his death in 1943, Soutine remains relatively unknown, overshadowed by his friends Modigliani, Chagall and Leger.
But in the centenary of his birth, a lavish catalogue raisonne has just been published (Benedikt Taschen Verlag, pounds 39.99) after some 30 years of research by co-writers Maurice Tuchman, chief curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Klaus Perls, a leading New York dealer, and art historian Esti Dunow.
Modigliani would have been proud of the excesses recorded in the study. Soutine upset his neighbours by keeping rotting ox carcasses and buying blood to keep them looking fresh enough to paint - the stench was sufficient to warrant a visit by the police. Modigliani likened Soutine's work, with its uninhibited expression and often frenzied savagery, to his drug- induced hallucinations.
Soutine was born in 1893, in a Lithuanian village of wooden houses near Minsk. The 10th of 11 children, he came from an extremely poor and extremely orthodox Jewish family. By the age of 13, he was regularly sketching on scraps of paper and even walls - much to the disgust of his father (who beat him for his trouble) and the derision of his brothers (who saw his juvenilia as nothing short of sacrilegious). Aged 16, he nearly died of a beating from the family of a religious Jew he had asked to pose. The compensation he received for his injuries paid for the journey to Vilna, where he enrolled at art school. He ended up in Paris, where he was taught for a while by a former teacher of Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.
But life outside Russia was not much easier for Soutine. As Tuchman relates, in Paris Soutine endured 'the kind of gnawing, continual want that can break one's will to work or live. It left a permanent scar on him.' The desperation is evident in his bloody still-lifes of dead pheasants, turkeys and ray fish that transcend the divide between beauty and ugliness.
Not that Soutine could believe this of his own work. He would arrange a series of canvasses on the floor, as if for exhibition, study them for hours, then seize a knife and plunge it into those he disliked. He would destroy works immediately if anyone expressed the slightest reservation about their quality, or if the viewer happened to remark that they were reminiscent of another artist.
Nevertheless, around 500 paintings were spared. Collectors snapped them up when there was a chance to buy. In 1923, the American collector, Albert Barnes, bought every painting in Soutine's studio (said to have been between 50 and 100): he later declared that 'Soutine is a far more important artist than Van Gogh'. One historian described Soutine as the heir of Tintoretto, El Greco and Rembrandt (whose own 1655 painting of a beef carcass inspired Soutine). Yet there has not been a major Soutine exhibition for decades. It is long overdue.
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