On the glass entrance to the Jewish Museum’s main ground floor gallery, this exhibition’s title, ‘Flesh’, appears stencilled in an approximation of a butcher’s shop sign. Indeed, hanging on the walls inside, one finds cuts of meat and fish, sides of ox and splayed chickens. By turns sumptuous and melancholy, this presentation of 32 paintings by Chaïm Soutine (1893–1943) focusses on a motif that recurred through the artist’s career, from his early efforts in Paris up through his exile from German-occupied France in the 1940s. That titular motif took its form in the many oxen, hares, ducks, skate and other sundry carcasses which the painter rendered up close in his Montparnasse studio, most often modelled from life (or more precisely, death). One of the exhibition’s upshots, however, is the elasticity of ‘flesh’ in Soutine’s imagery; even the most solid of surfaces and planes quiver with an almost sentient carnality. For all their calm interiority, it is impossible not to see these works framed by the violence unfurling outside their painter’s studio. Completed mostly between the terrors of the first World War and the unspeakable horrors of the next, the animals’ lifeless bodies take on a pathos both tender and troubling.
Born and raised on a small shtetlin the Lithuanian part of western Russia (what is now Belarus), Soutine studied for a few years at the artist’s academy in nearby Vilnius before moving – like so many artists of his generation – to Paris. Soutine painted alongside numerous fellow émigrés in the avant-garde and international neighbourhood of Montparnasse, many of them also of Jewish descent – most notably Amedeo Modigliani, with whom he maintained a close friendship. As the exhibition makes plain, however, Soutine spent just as much time studying historical works at the Louvre. Opening the show, Still Life with Rayfish (1924) updates Chardin’s The Ray (1728) with an even closer examination of the strange fish, which Soutine purchased and set up in his studio, its red entrails spilling into a cluster of tomatoes beneath. The unnaturally elongated white jar at right appears echoed in various works from the late 1910s, when Soutine began honing a signature, stylized awkwardness of form. Fish, Peppers, Onions (1919) renders its objects with relative intelligibility. Yet even the table top on which they sit appears to deliquesce. By contrast, Still Life with Artichoke (1916) separates its components into solid shapes, as does the even more geometrically simple Still Life with Herring (1916). These are the closest approximations of Soutine’s imagery to the Cubist orbit; the vertiginous pitch of the paintings’ tables and rough brushwork owe a debt to Paul Cézanne and André Derain.
It was, however, the demonstrative warping of form which came to occupy Soutine’s brush most obsessively, exacerbated by the autonomous plasticity of his thick impasto. The strokes of Still Life with Fish (1921) intermittently detach themselves from their object, taking on a life of their own. An entire room of Soutine’s fowl affords a look at how these birds’ bodies become the site of painterly agitation and roiling surface effects, sizzling and sputtering wisps of paint. A splayed and gaping Turkey (1925) is rejoined by lacy trails of blue scumbling, which become a subject unto themselves. For the larger-scaled ‘Ox’paintings, Soutine turned again to art history and the butcher’s shop alike. Flayed Ox (1925) plays upon Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting of the same subject in the Louvre. Yet the real carcass which Soutine used as a model was regularly doused with animal blood to keep it fresh as it hung in his studio. The flayed corpse appears blurred, almost nacreous in some areas, while the nearby Side of Beef and Calf’s Head (1923) appears more matte and dry. Bright orange and red paint seem almost divorced from the surface of the hanging flesh here.
One wall text interpreted Soutine’s images as revealing ‘a haunting sense of the animals’ suffering.’ Yet this surely projects on the artist a sentiment of which we cannot be sure (and one suspiciously moralizing). It is hard not to view the violence of Soutine’s animals as eerily prophetic. They were also, however, commemorative, coming on the heels of a childhood marked by widespread pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe. The final, small paintings which Soutine completed of individual animals – a donkey, a bull, a sheep behind a fence – bear a gentle dignity. Lecturing in the gallery, the contemporary painter Louise Fishman noted that Soutine’s Jewishness appears ‘implicit’ in his works – as fair an assessment as any.
Chaïm Soutine, ‘Flesh’, runs at the Jewish Museum, New York, until 16 September.
Main image: Chaïm Soutine, Still Life with Rayfish, c. 1924, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photograph: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Art Resource, New York