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Transient and soulful: “Pastry Cook of Cagnes”, 1922, by Chaïm Soutine (©COURTAULD GALLERY)


In the Paris of the 1920s and 1930s Chaïm Soutine was an oddity. He stood out not because he was an émigré — there were any number of those, from Chagall and Modigliani to Picasso and Brancusi — and not because he was poor, the common artistic predicament. He went against the grain because he was an Expressionist in a city of Cubists and Dadaists. His thickly impasted and violently worked paint surfaces have always been read as manifestations of a troubled soul, a sort of automatic painting that bypassed the cerebral and went straight for the guts. His disciple, the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning, said that Soutine “builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There’s a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness in his work.” Soutine’s pictures, he thought, “had a glow that came from within the paintings — it was another kind of light”.

Expressionism was a German movement rather than a French one and although he had no formal links with them, Soutine had more in common with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and with the Blue Rider group in Munich than with his Parisian peers, who were more interested in the problems of representation than expression.

What Soutine sought to express was a tangled mix of early experiences, whether in his landscapes, his portraits or his celebrated paintings of beef carcasses. While he was painting them his Montparnasse neighbours called in the police when the stench from his studio became too great. Chagall once saw the blood from the animal leaking from beneath Soutine’s door and fled into the street screaming, “Someone has killed Soutine!”

Soutine had been born in 1893 to an impoverished Jewish family living near Minsk and his upbringing was marked by impecuniousness and persecution — not just the prevalent Russian anti-Semitism but closer to home: when he drew the local rabbi the man’s son beat him to the point of insensibility. When Soutine moved to Paris in 1913 he had a full decade of hand-to-mouth existence before he had any kind of success. And he had a temperament in which depression alternated with anger: “A man in torment,” is how one friend described him. “He paints a great deal, but he will suddenly slash at the canvas, tear at it, like one possessed.”

Soutine claimed that his art was all about one thing: “Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it,” he recalled. “I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat . . . This cry, I always feel it there. When I painted the beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate. I have still not succeeded.”

Looking for that cry in his portraiture may seem an odd exercise, but that is what the Courtauld Gallery seeks to do in Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys, an exhibition, running until January 18 next year, that looks at his paintings of the 1920s showing the serving class. Soutine felt he had more in common with these below-stairs figures he came across in Paris and in Nice than with the patrons of the restaurants and hotels in which they worked. Barely noticed by their clientele, Soutine did notice them and thought their anonymous lives worth commemorating.
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