Life in Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine
PAUL KASMIN | APRIL 24 - JUNE 14, 2014
On view at Paul Kasmin this past June was the under-represented Belarusian master Chaim Soutine. Life in Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine featured 16 paintings of dead animals, landscapes, and a few portraits, giving a limited but nuanced look into the painter’s oeuvre. Like this review, such a small selection could only capture a slice of Soutine’s complexity. This show (and its splendid catalogue) broadened my understanding about Soutine’s absence from museums and galleries: it is not because he’s been forgotten or misunderstood but rather, because his work does not fit within accepted classifications. Soutine is easily called an Expressionist painter, which helps to explain how he paints, but does little to penetrate his subject matter, particularly the still lifes and his obsession with food.
Perception of Soutine’s work is also complicated by different cultural influences. Though he is Jewish and Belarusian by origin, the time he spent in France studying Corot and Courbet at the Louvre made such an impact that his work carries many French elements. While “Landscape with Donkey” (1918) uses vibrant colors and skewed perspective like many Expressionists, “Still Life with Fruit,” (1919) shows an interest in traditional subjects, with a particular vibrancy that suggests Cezanne’s influence.
However, the biggest influence of all was undoubtedly growing up in the shtetl in Belarus. Shtetl life was very superstitious; Esti Dunow and Maurice Tuchman, co-curators and co-authors of Soutine’s catalogue raisonné, write that in the shtetl “the process of looking … was said to be dangerous.” Looking, and therefore painting, was prohibited. Soutine, the 10th of 11 children, was often beaten by his older brothers for his small drawings and scribbles, perhaps provoking his future obsession with art making and observation. In “Two Pheasants on a Table” (1926), for example, the artist observes so intently that his subject floats freely in the center of the picture plane, disregarding gravity and three-dimensional space.
In this regard, Soutine is constantly overturning the implicitly controlled relationship between space and time in painting. The carcasses he so often featured in his work, like “The Rabbit” (1924), which he infamously covered in fresh blood before each session in the studio (to the great vexation of neighbors), depict life lost to the irrefutable passing of time. In looking at these paintings, one realizes that work that does not directly address the passing of time implies by negation that time has stopped for the moment of that painting. Consider “Carcass of an Ox” (1630) by Rembrandt, which Soutine studied to make his animal paintings: the pristine carcass hangs, dramatically lit and forever preserved by the act of Rembrandt painting it. In “Plucked Goose” (1932 - 33), death is instead represented through the positioning of a broken neck. It is shown through gesture, and time is non-static: within Soutine’s painting, death and time are more of a concept than an observable reality. The still lifes allow us to see the contradiction behind consumption: that in the end, it is an act of killing that supports life.
Given Soutine’s unusual background, the show provides an unexpected context for his obsessive looking. The neuroscientific process of face recognition in art is broken down in a catalogue essay by neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel. Essentially, face recognition is based on no more than the correct placement of light and dark shapes. It is not a harmony of color and form, or resemblance to reality that causes us to empathize with a face, but rather the positioning of tones. Soutine’s portraits, which are off kilter and purposefully exaggerated, use light and dark to imbue each figure with emotion. In “Portrait of a Woman” (1919), the figure’s face is elongated, her eyes an empty black, her skin a strange mixture of green, orange, and yellow, and her face delicately outlined by a careful placement of blue and white. Contextualizing this work with Kandel’s essay proves that an obscured depiction of nature, while obviously subjective, is not so far from our experience of nature itself. Juxtaposed against the experience of seeing Soutine’s exaggerated portrayals, we realize that our viewing experience is in some ways universal.
This practice of abstracting his observations of the natural world shows that he embraced his own intense subjectivity, and perhaps that was aware of his own psyche, not unlike painters to follow, including the Abstract Expressonists: historians have suggested that de Kooning’s “Woman I” (1950 - 52) was heavily influenced by an October 1950 show of Soutine at MoMA, not to mention the close ties between Bacon and Soutine, explored in the 2011 show at Helley Nahmad Gallery, “Bacon/Soutine” (also curated by Dunow and Tuchman).
While Life in Death could have been larger and more varied, the prominence of the gallery helps establish this painter’s legacy, and perhaps indicates a growing interest in the artist. Prior to the 2011 show at Helley Nahmad, Soutine’s work was shown in New York in 2006 at Cheim and Read, and in an exhibition at the Jewish Museum eight years before that. Let’s hope that the future shows promised by the gallery are not as many years apart.