Chaim Soutine, Still Life with Rayfish, c. 1924. Oil on canvas. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Image provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY.
New York, NYJewish Museum
May 4 – September 16, 2018
The title of this rich, tightly focused show of thirty or so paintings is somewhat misleading. “Flesh” could imply sexuality or sensuality, a Rubensesque or Boucher-like delight in the human body. But such corporeal delights could not be further from Soutine’s relationship with formerly living animals. No other artist has taken nature morte, the French term for still life, quite as literally, reminding us that once life has been drained from a living organism, it becomes inanimate—that is, lifeless, it becomes a thing. No other artist enacts the transformation of matter into art with as much ironic self-awareness as Chaim Soutine (1893–1943).
The Fish (ca. 1933) dramatizes Soutine’s aesthetic. His subject alludes to the several pictures of trout painted by Gustave Courbet in the 1870s. In all instances, Courbet presents a trout in the water about to seize some bait. The point of view—the trout seen from above—is one Soutine also used frequently, but where Courbet depicts life, Soutine portrays death, or rather, the metamorphosis of dead matter into art. It is as if Soutine took Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1891 remark, “The world was made to become a beautiful book,” and applied it to the plastic arts: it is not the representation of life, but the notion that the phenomenal world is transient and can only achieve significance when metamorphosed into art.
Chaim Soutine, Carcass of Beef, c. 1925. Oil on canvas. Collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Soutine’s commitment to transforming the matter of world into art began early. However, the Jewish world of the rural Lithuania, where he was born, was hostile to anyone making “graven images,” an act specifically forbidden by the Second Commandment. Apparently, the son of an Orthodox rabbi tried to beat the image-making out of Soutine, and the ironic result of that harsh lesson was a financial settlement that enabled Soutine to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vilnius from 1910 to 1913. From Vilnius he made his way to Paris and a life of dire poverty, which he shared with his friend and fellow artist Modigliani. Soutine’s circumstances changed abruptly in 1923, when Dr. Albert C. Barnes bought sixty paintings right out of the artist’s studio.
Soutine’s Paris was not the proto-avant-garde Paris of the years before World War I, but rather the Paris of the Fauves. As we see in the earliest work included in the exhibition, a painting of the artist’s studio (ca. 1916), Soutine knew who he was stylistically from the start. Here, paint is both color and texture, so the exterior of the building (along with the rest of the scene) becomes a flattened surface, a canvas on a canvas.
But the main focus of Flesh is meat, animals—birds, fish, and cattle—dead and ready for artistic resurrection. Hare with Forks (ca. 1924) might be a reprise of a seventeenth-century Dutch painting of game, but as Soutine reminds us in many other paintings here, this hare is food. Two forks embrace the animal, itself resting on a golden cloth. Actually, the hare no longer matters as such and is now part of a complex juxtaposition of color fields. The deceased bunny reminds us that another element inhabits Soutine’s depiction of dead animals in his Still Life with Rayfish (ca. 1924). Certainly an echo of Chardin’s The Ray (1728), but again, as with The Fish, Soutine’s reworking of the art of the past could only have been painted by him. Chardin’s kitchen scene, with a cat frightened by the suspended ray fish, becomes in Soutine an image of sacrifice. The spread-eagled ray acquires a Christological aura: this is no domestic scene, but a bizarre Crucifixion.
As with his Flayed Ox (1925), a reenactment of Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (1655), the emphasis is on the ironies of loss and gain. Life must be sacrificed to produce art. While the viewer is likely to see carnage, Soutine would tell us that for art to exist something else must die: flowers cut and placed in a vase, herrings ready for breakfast; everything acquires meaning and value in art. Even landscape: Soutine’s late Duck Pond at Champigny (1943) is no longer a real place. It is a painting on the verge of abstraction, perhaps announcing a new artistic phase that the artist, who died at the age of forty-nine, would never live to see.