Soutine/de Kooning: Conversations in Paint
On ViewThe Barnes Foundation
Conversations in Paint
March 7 – August 8, 2021
Great applause is to be conferred upon any museum that has accomplished the installation of a beautiful exhibition, with a serious catalog during this past year in which the COVID-19 pandemic stymied cultural activities globally. Soutine de Kooning: Conversations in Paint is one such accomplishment, organized by Simonetta Fraquelli and Claire Bernardi, who also edited by publication. The show is comprised of approximately 50 energetic and ravishing paintings, each of them a special treat to encounter, all the more so at this time in which visits to museums have been radically curtailed. The paintings were on loan from major museums in the United States and France, plus many private collections—the latter providing the sole possibility for most art-lovers to see such works (museum professionals being otherwise privileged). No paintings by de Kooning are owned by the Barnes Foundation; those they currently own by Soutine are not included in this exhibition, although a checklist of them and their gallery locations in the collection is a useful inclusion in the catalog.
De Kooning’s admiration for Soutine is long known. As Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swann commented in their sympathetic 2004 biography, de Kooning: An American Master, after seeing Soutine’s 1950 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, de Kooning realized that “Soutine was a predecessor whom he could admire without reservation.” But admiring and being visibly influenced by are not one and the same; for me the cohabitation at the Barnes of the two painters’ works said less about their affinities than their differences. Within the exhibition’s five sections—“Looking to the Past;” “Soutine in New York;” “Between the Figurative and the Abstract;” “Women, Water, and Landscape;” and “Transfiguration” the artists’ conversation is most successful in the first, where portraiture creates clear connections between them, more a matter of subject than other artistic concerns.
Particular juxtapositions spaced throughout the installation stopped us in our tracks (“us” being myself and an art history PhD student with whom I viewed the show). At the start of the exhibition, one such juxtaposition includes three de Koonings: Woman (c. 1944); Seated Woman (c. 1940); and Queen of Hearts (1943-46), in which the resonances between them offered much about de Kooning’s practice of working in series that evolve over time. Another included his Woman, Sag Harbor (1964), and Woman Accabonac (1966), two markedly vertical works painted on paper then mounted on canvas, highlighting the important role working on paper played for de Kooning (as well as many of his contemporaries). Collage elements throughout Woman Accabonac are particularly compelling to track. To mention another of these special juxtapositions, the final “Transfiguration” gallery features a wall carrying four paintings by Soutine of carcasses, including the largest work by him in the show, Carcass of Beef (c. 1925). There were many more moments throughout the show in which our eyes necessarily darted from one canvas to another and back again. But for me, in few instances it was not to compare de Kooning and Soutine, but rather changes between their own works.
The elegant installation was enhanced by shifts in the wall colors from one section to another, making their separations immediately clear and creating different moods within the themes. Totally understandable, given the increasing instances of intentional vandalism to paintings in museums throughout the world, but it is impossible not to lament the current practice of covering oil paintings with glass when they travel (and often in their home institutions). For works in which the surfaces play such a critical role, it is especially disheartening to be unable to grasp their nuances; non-glare glass only helps so much. The friend with whom I viewed the show is more than 50 years my junior and grew up looking at paintings covered by glass, which I did not. She didn’t even notice it at first; but once she became aware of my increasing dismay, she became equally disturbed by its presence. More importantly, she realized on a second walk through the show that, on our previous round, there had been several instances in which the paintings to which she had been most drawn were lacking this barrier layer. This seemed telling about her viewing experience, conscious or otherwise.
De Kooning and Soutine were born approximately a decade apart and both had emigrated from their homelands to art centers in other countries; the Netherlands to New York and Belarus to Paris, respectively. And while Soutine was never aware of de Kooning, de Kooning mentioned Soutine on multiple occasions, some of which are noted in the catalog. But de Kooning likewise mentioned many other artists, including Ingres, for example. To my mind, both the wall texts and exhibition catalog overstate any visual affinity between their two subjects in particular.
Consider their paint handling, particularly their use of gesture. Soutine is dependent on the wrist, not the arm, whereas de Kooning’s resulted from much broader movements, even in the earliest works, that would have involved the arm and the shoulder, requiring a greater sense of distance between artist and canvas; suggesting a more intimate encounter between Soutine and his canvases than de Kooning and his.
And then there are the surface distinctions between the two artists’ work, related, of course, to the character of that brushwork. Soutine builds dense layers with his wrist-driven strokes, surfaces that are rarely translucent, even when the paint itself is less lusciously applied. De Kooning’s surfaces, by contrast, are generally translucent. White or off-white canvas or paper plays an important role both as a bottom layer that shines through the applied paint and also as a field, surrounding brushwork, creating a glowing affect that is quite different from such qualities that de Kooning recognized in Soutine’s art. De Kooning scholar Judith Zilczer quotes de Kooning’s memory of his first visit to the Barnes Collection, when de Kooning recognized that “…the Soutines had a glow that came from within the paintings—it was another kind of light.” Similarly with color: the selection here of de Kooning’s canvases tends to be more high-keyed than the works by Soutine, in which the palette overall is somber.
A point made frequently in wall texts and catalog is the artists’ shared interest in the history of art. The exhibition catalog references, for de Kooning specifically, the possibility of his concerns with his Netherlandish countrymen, including Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Peter Paul Rubens must be included as well. For Soutine, Rembrandt is among artists mentioned. A large number of texts have discussed how artists commonly embrace and build upon earlier artists’ work, and it is certainly not exceptional in the case of these two. One that was published in 1960, was popular among artists I knew then, and that I suspect de Kooning would have known, is K.E. Maison’s Themes and Variations: Five Centuries of Master Copies and Interpretations, still a mainstay in my library. 20th-century figures noted whose work is based on that of earlier artists include not only Braque and Picasso, but Derain and Jacques Villon, among many others.
Besides the immense pleasure of looking at this fascinating selection of paintings by Soutine and de Kooning, and the thought-provoking comparisons and differences among them (whichever one sees most vividly), made for a rich museum experience. As said above, all the more so after months of starvation of such experiences. Great thanks to the Barnes Foundation for this offering, and for highlighting Soutine’s importance to their collection.