Soutine Impacted: an essay-review

by Clayton Eshleman

The Impact of Chaim Soutine

I saw my first Soutine in 1963 in the Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan. It is now identified as "Hanging Duck," painted around 1925. Seeing this "thing" was so riveting that I remember nothing else in the museum. It was a hybrid fusion, at once a flayed man hung from a pulpy wrist and flailing, with gorgeous white wings attached to his leg stumps, and a gem-like putrescent bird, hung by one leg, in an underworld filled with bird-beaked monsters and zooming gushes of blood-colored and sky-blue paint. For the 40 years since, I have kept Soutine's art in heart and mind.

In 1993, Maurice Tuchman, Esti Dunow, and Klaus Perls edited Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) Catalogue Raisonné (Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Cologne), a boxed, two-volume collection of 780 pages. A magnificent advance on all Soutine books and catalogues up to then, it included newly-discovered paintings (and rejected some mediocre pieces as fakes, which had been used over the years to criticize Soutine's standing). I celebrated devouring this collection by writing a 22-page poem, "Soutine's Lapis," which is in my book From Scratch (Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, 1998).

Now Tuchman and Dunow have assembled The Impact of Chaim Soutine (Hatje Cantz, Cologne, 2002, $45), a 168-page book based on a 2001 exhibition at the Galerie Gmurzynska, also in Cologne. Its purpose is to deliver visual and verbal proof that Soutine significantly influenced "some of the most influential artists of the second half of the twentieth century"-in particular, Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, and Jean Dubuffet. The book has only a dozen or so pages of text (some of which contain a Soutine chronology), and is mainly filled with statements by artists and art historians juxtaposed with five de Koonings, three Bacons, four Pollacks, seven Dubuffets, and 66 Soutines (eight of which are recently discovered). The somewhat melodramatic and forced format is underscored by the back cover art: the four quarters of a grotesque face are each details from paintings by Soutine, Bacon, Dubuffet, and de Kooning.

In "Another Way of Seeing," an essay in the March 2002 issue of Harper's magazine, John Berger writes: "More directly than any other art, painting is an affirmation of the existent, of the physical world into which mankind has been thrown." Later in the essay, we find the following paragraph:

Soutine was among the great painters of the twentieth century. It has taken fifty years for this to become clear, because his art was both traditional and uncouth, and this mixture offended all fashionable tastes. It was as if his painting had a heavy broken accent and so was considered inarticulate: at best exotic and at worst barbarian. Now his devotion to the existent becomes more and more exemplary. Few other painters have revealed more graphically than he the collaboration, implicit in the act of painting, between model and painter. The poplars, the carcasses, the children's faces on Soutine's canvases clung to his brush.

Soutine always worked from a model, whether it was a bunch of houses in a hillscape, a beef carcass, or a human being. Like Caravaggio, he never drew. His "existents"—especially while he was in Céret, France (1919-1922)—besides being his focus are also projection-spooked. Whatever Soutine looked at there seems to have pulled wads of childhood nightmare out of him. His Céret landscapes are not only in earthquake rumba mode, but pixilated with a very personal, anthropomorphic hysteria. Houses often have grotesque expressions-something between a house and a terrified human face. Some houses even twist into humanesque shapes—they cower in clumps like frightened children or crawl up onto the "backs" of their neighbors.

Céret is strangely enough Soutine's extreme point. Had he been willing to abandon his "existents," he might have become an abstract expressionist. But he recoiled from his work at Céret (later destroying a significant amount of it), and his post-Céret painting (1923-43) is a kind of crab-wise retreat into traditional painting. To put it this way is a little misleading because some of the later portraits, the beef carcasses, most of the hanging fowl, the ray fish, and some of the last landscapes at Civry and Champigny are wonderful, bold achievements—yet none are as audacious or as intuitively fearless as the Céret work. It is as if John Coltrane played free form jazz as a young musician and then, after a few years, improvised off standards for the rest of his life.

Berger mentions that Soutine was traditional and uncouth. He was also adroit and clumsy. With portraits, he seems to have locked libido-wise onto certain parts of the sitter environment, and to have dismissed others. Faces and bodily postures can be uncanny, but backgrounds are often muddy messes, and hands can be almost comical. Tuchman and Dunow blow up two hand details in Impact—out of respect, I suspect. The fingers look like careless swipes or like deranged worms attempting to take off. These dualities are part of Soutine's essence. A more physically-driven painter than even Pollack, he seems to have worked in a frenzied, semi-trance, attached to his "existent" like certain American Indian initiates were attached to hooks through their chests to the "sun." When Soutine is "on," he produces paintings that are peristaltic, semi-metamorphic, absurd, brilliant, poignant, and unforgettable.

We must now briefly look at how effectively the authors have demonstrated Soutine's influence. Painters who are simply the sum of their influences are easy to deal with in this regard, but why bother if they have nothing of their own to offer. Specific influence is much more difficult to determine in the cases of painters who have made use of many predecessors, all of whom are blended in with their own originality. The four painters said to be impacted by Soutine are, with the possible exception of Dubuffet, major 20th-century figures whose best work is absolutely their own. In juxtaposing their paintings with those of Soutine, one almost needs an Artaudian nerve scale to determine the extent of Soutine's presence.

De Kooning openly, and incisively, acknowledged his admiration for Soutine, calling him, in 1977, his "favorite artist." De Kooning's "Woman as Landscape (1954-1955)," while not indicating any model, is filled with impulsive, Céret-like moves. The crazed, cartoonish smile in red, smeared where "her" genitals might be, is very much in the spirit of the 1920 Soutine. Another de Kooning here—"Woman, Sag Harbor (1964)"—is reproduced facing a 1923 "Street at Cagnes" by Soutine, whose undulant vertical yellow street is also a headless female body in profile. But outside of the "woman" patterned work, I don't find much of Soutine in de Kooning's paintings. They have no "existent" in any sense outside of de Kooning's own self-seeking, which increases in vacuity and aimlessness as he ages. There is a drift in de Kooning that is unimaginable with Soutine.

The late British art historian and Bacon-conversationalist David Sylvester is quoted to the effect that Soutine's paintings had "a crucial influence on Bacon's work between 1956 and, say, 1957—as they had on de Kooning's from 1951." I take it Sylvester had in mind the series of Van Gogh portraits, or such paintings as "Man Carrying a Child," or "Study for the Nurse in the film Battleship Potempkin," or "Study for Figure IV," all of which were done in these years. Yet none appear in Impact; instead, we are shown paintings from 1962, 1965, and 1978. Since Sylvester knew Bacon's work as well as anyone, probably better, recording over a hundred pages of interviews with him between 1962 and 1974, it seems to me that one should begin with his proposal and work out from there.

Bacon's portraits are significantly beholden to Soutine's, even though their distortions are more bravura gesturings than anatomical warpings. His decadent statement—"I wanted to paint the scream more than the horror"—is presented twice in Impact (as are some other quotations). The first time it is printed in bright-red oversized type on a page otherwise blank facing an opened-up, flayed Soutine rabbit: no relationship to a scream. The appropriate Soutine to juxtapose with Bacon's statement (obviously referring to the famous Munch "The Scream") is on page 99: "Side of Beef," which can be read as a flayed man in profile, head arched back, mouth gaping, screaming. The failure to find appropriate paintings to back up quotations is a problem throughout the book.

Jackson Pollock is more enigmatic than de Kooning and Bacon as one presumed to be influenced by Soutine. Pollock's early influences are well-known (Benton, Beckmann, Orozco, Picasso). Soutine is not among them. Impact reproduces 4 Pollocks: "Head with Polygons (1938-1941)," "Eyes in the Heat (1946)," "Full Fathom Five (1947)," and "Scent (1955)." There are a few paintings from the 1930s, such as "The Flame" and "Composition with Figures and Banners" (both dated 1934-38), that suggest Pollock had looked at the Céret paintings. However, "Head with Polygons" is not one of these, and its inclusion, in this context, is puzzling. It is presented twice, as a matter of fact, the first time turned at a 45º angle (perhaps to make some point that evades me).

From 1946 on, Pollock's work is relentlessly abstract. On page 67 the art historian William Seitz is quoted. He writes that Pollock pushed "values inherent in Van Gogh and Soutine to an ultimate conclusion." I have already mentioned that in Céret Soutine stood on a precipice beyond which was some form of abstract expressionism. But he did not make that leap, for to have done so would have meant giving up his "models," his grip on reality. Pollock never appears to have used a model (although there is one very early self-portrait), and his movement from the old to the new is the opposite of Soutine's. From my point of view, the fluffy white disintegrating patterns of the late "Scent" (which Frank O'Hara wrote was painted in homage to Soutine) have nothing to do with the essence of Soutine's work.

On page 28, the authors compare Soutine's excessive demands on his models to Pollock's painterly immersion. It seems like an irrelevant comparison.

Dubuffet, as is well known, came into painting at mid-life inspired by "art brut," and created a kind of sophisticated "primitivism" that is childlike often, and humorous. To me he seems closer to Jean Michel Basquiat than to Soutine. Unlike Soutine, Dubuffet seems to approach the making of art from a dadaist contempt for artistry and tradition. His world is one of mythic smears, melting geometric patterns, and the banal aswarm with itself.

On page 40, one reads: "The raw power of Dubuffet's early Corps de dame series... may have been prompted indeed by the fleshy meat paintings that Dubuffet knew (as the artist stated to Maurice Tuchman in 1968)." Since Tuchman is one of the authors of Impact, why does he present information in this form? If Dubuffet made such a statement, why is he not quoted? If such a statement has been previously published, why is it not cited?

The book design of Impact leaves a lot to be desired. No sources are given for quotations. There are ten photographs of the artists in the book by themselves or in their studios. All appear to have messy studios—does this ally them to the supposedly untidy Soutine? For contemporary relevance, I guess, the painter R. B. Kitaj is quoted to the effect that he attempted to draw Soutine's one painting of a nude. Facing the quote is a reproduction of "Female Nude (1933)," a sad and moving painting that is completely consistent with everything w know about Soutine (and it is utterly different than the de Kooning "women"). Since the Kitaj quote does not contribute to the book's thesis, how explain its presence? The Soutine nude needs no justification for inclusion. Finally, the "open-ended juxtaposition" format is, in my opinion, much less effective than including an extended analytical essay or two. However, I think Tuchman and Dunow would be hard pressed to make a convincing argument for significant influence in these four cases.

I don't think either of these approaches is the proper one if the goal is to gain Soutine a wider audience and increased status in the art world. Such a goal should be based on his uniqueness, on what is inimitable in his painting, on what sets him forth as one whose body of work makes a statement that is not subservient to any other painter. This is the Soutine that I "met" in Kurashiki, a Soutine capable of grasping the impact of common things and common people like no other 20th-century artist. This is the Soutine whose conflicted "existent" give and take is immune to all imaginal appropriations.

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