PAUL SOLMAN: At New York's Jewish Museum this summer, before moving on to Los Angeles and then Cincinnati, the paintings of Chaim Soutine, the Russian Jew whose contorted imagery and wild brushwork became key features of French modern art in the 1920's. But this is his first major U.S. show in almost 50 years. Long hailed as a genius, today, Soutine's a gourmet taste. And this show tracks the taste for his work over time, instead of tracking his career, itself. Phase one, according to co-curator Ken Silver, Soutine, the exotic primitive.
KEN SILVER: His art looked rather wild and untamed, compared to that of many other Parisians, and so he was seen as a primitive artists or a primitive genius.
PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, Soutine was quite sophisticated, had studied art in Russia, following an impoverished boyhood in an Orthodox Jewish village. But he dreamed of Paris, and in 1913, at age 20, he made it there, landing a spot at the School of Fine Arts, Ecole des Beaux Arts, and a cot at La Ruche, the flea-ridden artist's studio that was home to many emigres. There, he turned out humble still lifes of his meager provisions. He did this self-portrait in 1918.
PAUL SOLMAN: What was he like?
KEN SILVER: Temperamental, very bright apparently, interesting, intense, a kind of in-your-face kind of guy, and I would say this was a rather in-your-face kind of portrait, in fact.
PAUL SOLMAN: When World War I broke out, Soutine enlisted to dig ditches but was discharged for poor health: stomach troubles that plagued him all his life. He fled to southern France to escape the German bombing and spent several years there putting his own dizzy spin on the Southern Alps. To critics, the spin was almost savage.
KEN SILVER: The landscape at Ceret here from 1919-1920 looked barbaric to certain of the French critics at the time. If you look at his landscape at Cagnes, also in the South of France, the landscape seems to be kind of rolling and turning, and the entire landscape is a kind of great distortion of intense feeling about the environment.
PAUL SOLMAN: Soutine's feelings weren't especially positive.
KEN SILVER: He said, I hate this place, it's like a living hell down here. He was a fairly agonized and miserable character who tended to find his own unhappiness wherever he went.
PAUL SOLMAN: If Soutine was a brooder in private, his canvases, to critics, now fairly heaved unhappiness, with a particularly Jewish kind of angst. "What his native ghetto poured into his blood will never be taken from him," one wrote, "suffering."
KEN SILVER: There were a number of critics, both Jewish and Gentile, who said, "This is a powerfully agonized Jew, a Jew of the Old Testament whose sense of suffering is as old as the millennia."
PAUL SOLMAN: Materially, however, Soutine wasn't suffering much at all. Another Jewish émigré artist, the Italian Amedeo Modigliani, introduced Soutine to his art dealer and painted Soutine's image on the dealer's door. The dealer-the guy with the beard next to Soutine-took the artist under his wing and in 1922, fabled Philadelphia art collector Albert Barnes bought 52 Chaim Soutines. "The main reason I bought so many of the paintings," Barnes wrote, "was that they were a surprise, if not a shock, and I wanted to find out how he got that way." Barnes showed his haul in Philadelphia and Paris, launching Soutine into the big time, at which point French taste-maker Madeleine Castaing took the artist under her wealthy wing. She and her husband, Marcellin, became Soutine's great patrons and friends in the late 1920's.
NORMAN KLEEBLATT: They must have had about 70 pictures by him. Their entire house was limited to paintings by Soutine because they felt that he was the modern master who could continue this classical French tradition.
PAUL SOLMAN: According to co-curator Norman Kleeblatt, this acceptance by the French bourgeoisie brings us to Phase 2 of Soutine's critical reception. The erstwhile primitive now became the last great hope for traditional French art. Same painter, totally different reaction.
NORMAN KLEEBLATT: A 180-degree turn, a complete contradiction of Soutine the barbarian, the primitive, the outsider Jew, the wild man, the beast. Here he becomes the most cultured Frenchman, the heir to the great tradition of European painting in general, French painting, in particular. Here he's seen as the artist who reinterprets Rembrandt, who reworks Chardin, who rethinks Courbet.
PAUL SOLMAN: Norm Kleeblatt's referring to famous French paintings Soutine "restaged" while living at the Castaing's. "The Siesta," 1934, is a mirror-image tribute to Gustave Courbet's "Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine," of the mid 1800's. Chardin's "Rayfish" of the 1720's, which Soutine had studied in the Louvre, was transformed into this still life 200 years later-transformed significantly.
NORMAN KLEEBLATT: What we have here is a painting that has very different perspectives incorporated into one painting. So he sees the Rayfish from underneath, the kettle and the pomegranates from a different angle. He's continually moving around his subject and purposely so. It's to put you off balance, to make you a little bit dizzy.
PAUL SOLMAN: Then there was Rembrandt's "Hendrickje Bathing," 1655, which Soutine morphed into "Woman Entering the Water," in 1931.
NORMAN KLEEBLATT: Soutine absolutely adored Rembrandt. He would take the train to Amsterdam and actually spend the night on a park bench just so he could look at the Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum. But, whereas Rembrandt captures sort of the silveriness of his attraction to the woman, for Soutine she's stodgy, she's hard, she's connected to the earth. And in that sense, one could almost see it coming out of impressionism and post-impressionism, and their love of connecting the peasants with the land.
PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, Soutine could be seen as heir to the great French art movement for the 19th century, especially when he took on French subjects, Chartres Cathedral, for instance, very near the Castaing home, or oh-so-French workers. After years of being intimidated by abstract art, intellectual cubism, psychoanalytic surrealism, critics could find relief in painterly kind Soutine.
KEN SILVER: They were thrilled that he was still someone who cared about paint, oil on canvas. He was held up by any number of critics as a man who could do battle with the Parisian avant garde.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, according to this show, the critics, the naïve outsider had become the naïve classicist, though to us the works may look awfully similar. But there was still one more critical reaction to go, because in the 1940 and 50's, Soutine was transformed again, into the forerunner of "Abstract Expressionism," on the basis of work he'd done decades before. This side of beef, for instance, no longer reminded critics of Rembrandt, says Norm Kleeblatt, but of Jackson Pollack.
NORMAN KLEEBLATT: It's large in scale, so that appealed to the abstract expressionists, who were just in the late 40's beginning to enlarge the scale of their pictures, and also the way he kept the beef alive visually, in which he brought a bucket of blood up to his studio and would run over to the carcass to paint some blood on the meat to refreshen the meat, at the same time running back to his own canvas and trying to capture the image. So if there was a notion of action painting, this was certainly it.
PAUL SOLMAN: Even accidents, when paint splattered, for example, were left in. So, Soutine was now considered a bona fide action painter. Moreover, he was a universally tragic one, whose work reflected the tragedy of world war, which, in turn, inspired many American artists to try to paint in a universal style, an abstract style, that would transcend cultural barriers and nationalist boundaries.
KEN SILVER: The term "Abstract Expressionism," if we put the focus both on abstract and expressive, in a way Soutine fills the bill perfectly. He's an artist who at moments, as in the Ceret landscape, is almost an abstract artist and expressive in the extreme. He seemed to be the right man for the moment, a powerful precedent for a certain kind of visceral, painterly, and at the same time abstract and tragic style of painting, kind of painting.
PAUL SOLMAN: When Soutine died, in occupied France in 1943, his status as tragic symbol was so pervasive even the non-art press connected him to the Holocaust.
NORMAN KLEEBLATT: Of course, that wasn't true. He died of a perforated ulcer and the inability to get quickly to some kind of medical assistance.
PAUL SOLMAN: But he still stands for this-
NORMAN KLEEBLATT: He became the symbol. He absolutely became the symbol, and if we look at the exhibition in terms of Soutine, the Jew, which is the way Soutine is always characterized, we have Soutine, the outsider, Soutine, the unassimilable, then Soutine the most highly assimilated Jew, and then the Soutine who becomes the symbol of tragedy and the Holocaust.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, in fairness to critics out there, not all of them buy the Jewish Museum's three-phase approach to presenting Soutine's work. The New Yorker's Simon Schama wrote that "distributing paintings in various galleries, not chronologically but theoretically, so that each gallery can make a point, turns the exhibition into an obtrusively academic symposium." On the other hand, Schama did buy the museum's main thesis, if not its presentation, which, you must admit is pretty provocative and certainly a good excuse for looking long and languorously at a provocative and influential 20th century artist, whom this show is trying to restore to the pantheon from which some would say he's fallen.