I honestly can’t say if the Soutine / Bacon exhibition is a great one, but it clearly reveals something about the enigma of painting. More specifically, it is the kind of enigma that slides between representation and abstraction, yet still manages to hold its painterly ground on all sides. It also takes us further away from the kind of academic jargon and calculated prowess that has become so endemic to contemporary painting in recent years. After seeing the exhibition at the Helly Nahmad Gallery on Madison Avenue a second time—after pushing my way through the crowds on opening day—it seemed that somehow Chaim Soutine comes out on top. Again, this is not to imply a competition between two masters. This is a select group of paintings—somewhat, but not entirely based on availability—made by curators Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow for a gallery setting that would necessarily include all the contrivances that go with such an affair. Therefore it would not be fair to posit this as a final conclusion or as some sort of fatuous, overarching assertion. This is not what I mean, and certainly not what happens to be the case. While I am a great admirer of Francis Bacon—even though I tend toward a more geometric abstract proclivity—there is no doubt that he became one of the great painters of the 20th century, as evidenced by two or three of the paintings included in his show. They would most likely include “Study for a Portrait” (1966), “Lying Figure” (1969), and the remarkable “Triptych: Three Studies of George Dyer” (1969). These suggest that perhaps the 1960s were a dynamic and profound sequence of painterly moments in the artist’s sensibility, shooting out of the cannon into a galactic ether that brought him to the brink of madness and episodic fits of self-recognition.
Given the paintings of Soutine, both early and late, it is difficult to make a similar assertion. I think I can defend the notion that Soutine was the kind of “natural primitive” that Bacon was not. For Bacon to do his best work, he had to rend his mind from his body in such a way as to create a schizophrenic polarity ’twixt the two. Soutine never had to endure this process, namely because that was his state from the beginning. To put it mildly, there is a purity in the gestural phenomena of Soutine that has nothing to do with what art students today call mark making. To observe and thereby enter the environs of Ceret, as in “Landscape at Ceret (the Storm)” (c. 1920 – 21), “Les Gorges du Loup” (c. 1921), and especially “Group of Trees” (c. 1922), is to become part of another world. Put simply, what Ceret provided Soutine was a subject that held the appearance of innocence, but clearly, once inside the landscape, an allegory took hold beyond normative recognition, a site that tore away at the vestiges of what a landscape is supposed to be, and went directly to the mind, like taking absinthe in the late wee hours before suddenly catching the bright light of dawn through the crevice of a lace curtain. This is to say, these tumultuous and haunted paintings each tell their own story—and it’s a horrifying one. It would be as if the interior site of conflict suddenly found its manifestation on the outside, as if there was nothing to thwart the envisioned rapture that would involuntarily become a relentless upheaval. I find these paintings harrowing and terrifying, as much as if not more than “Flayed Beef” (1925), which also dramatizes the fierce visions that would not let go of Soutine.
But, on another level, there’s an art historical conundrum that this exhibition further connotes, and that is the problem of influence versus what might be termed affinity, or the ability to comprehend what two painters from an approximate though not exact time period may hold in common and therefore express through highly individual masteries of the medium, but without having any actual contact in terms of a tactile or spoken sequence of events in which they both participated. In the old days before contemporary art had a market, before art was masterminded as an investment, and before oil paint was confused with oil, there was an art historical notion that certain artists were influenced by other artists, such as the influence of Poussin on Claude de Lorrain or Jacques-Louis David’s influence on Ingres or Cezanne’s influence on Braque.
In more relative contemporary terms, one might say that Duchamp had a certain influence on Nauman, or that Beuys influenced Polke or Palermo. How about Eva Hesse’s influence on Bourgeois—or was it the other way around? The point being this: Not so long ago—before market interference came into the picture—it was easier to do research and have it mean something. Now that investment has usurped aesthetics, it would appear that influences once used in art history—especially contemporary art (whatever that is)—are like derivatives on the financial market. They really don’t exist. If the argument over influences is brought to trial, you simply hire some sweet young punk in a turtleneck to take the stand and discuss “appropriation art.” Furthermore, to bring influences into the auction house would suggest that the artist on the block is not original and therefore the prices may equivocate or even slacken. For an artist to have market power, you can’t dwell on this stuff or the boat sinks. Just refer to your commodity as “the artist” in the most pious or hallowed tone possible. Make the audience understand that it’s not about rewriting history, but just cleaning it up a bit. Doesn’t everybody influence everybody else, anyway? And by the way, is everyone going to the fair in Dubai tomorrow evening?
Not to confuse the issue, there is a lot to be said about these artists and a lot to be said about why they are positioned together. Yet the difference between artists who may have directly influenced one another, and artists who have some kind of structural relationship to one another—an affinity—based on aesthetic appreciation, is not exactly the same. I believe there is the possibility to unwittingly engender a certain distortion of history if this distinction is not made clear. Unfortunately, this has become clear in a wide range of exhibitions in recent years, from Matisse and Picasso, to Barney and Beuys, and Pissarro and Cezanne, among others. Still, there can be no hard-and-fast or black-and-white distinctions to be made. One might claim, for example, that Matisse and Picasso did not exactly travel in the same circles, but they lived at the same time and were certainly aware of one another’s presence. Matthew Barney’s relation to Beuys is something else, perhaps more aesthetic (anti-aesthetic?) than personal; nonetheless, I found this pairing problematic, largely based on the absence of cynicism in Beuys, to which Barney seems largely susceptible. Pissarro and Cezanne had some cogency, but I was disturbed that the infrequent overlapping of these two Impressionists seemed to put them on the same qualitative level, which is simply not the case. Such comparisons seem to have become increasingly apparent. In some cases (not all), the comparison of one major figure with another lesser figure—particularly if the former is deceased and the latter is still in the throes of a career—is questionable, and perhaps more involved with marketing than actual art history. But the case for Soutine and Bacon is not that. It is something else. They are two great painters with raging visions of the human condition that stagger both eye and mind, and that reach the heart before grabbing you by the throat, making it difficult to breathe. Both artists confront us with dark realities that most of us realize somewhere down deep—or, as my Welsh friend says, “down there”—meaning, as Jacques Lipchitz once claimed to H. H. Arneson: art is something you feel in your bowels. Soutine / Bacon is a comparative exhibition – based more on affinities than influences, I would say—but still manages to hold an unmatched and unforgiving intensity, a howl beyond sensation, a turgid force beyond the spectacle. This is a show not for the faint of heart, but for romantic socialists and billionaire investors alike. The breach between the two may somewhere find a meeting ground on these premises.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.