Advertisement

Chaïm Soutine

The Courtauld Gallery, London, UK

When Chaïm Soutine, a penniless Jewish painter from the Russian Empire, arrived in Paris in 1913, he discovered a belle époque city glittering with impossible wealth. An outsider who identified with the underdog, Soutine’s eye sympathetically drifted to the underclass beneath this moneyed illusion: the anonymous service staff who floated like ghosts through the kitchens and lobbies of Left Bank hotels.

‘Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys’ at the Courtauld Gallery is the first time in 35 years that the artist’s work has been the subject of a major UK exhibition, and reveals a profoundly compassionate and humane eye.
 

soutines-portraits-cooks-waiters-bellboys_2.jpg

Chaïm Soutine, The Young Pastry Chef, 1927, oil on canvas. Courtesy: © The Courtauld Gallery, London

Chaïm Soutine, The Young Pastry Chef, 1927, oil on canvas, 76 x 69 cm. Courtesy: The Lewis Collection

In The Young Pastry Cook (1927–28), the sitter seems to be drowning in his starched uniform, like a small boy posing in his father’s clothes. His nervously clasped hands and wobbling mouth convey the anxiety of entering the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a hotel kitchen. Even the brushstrokes – fluid, nimble – suggest he could flicker out at any moment: a blue flame in the darkness. The painting’s tight, narrow frame further heightens the boy’s glum containment.

This claustrophobia starkly contrasts with another of Soutine’s favourite subjects: hotel bellboys. These dapper emissaries turned the foyers of Paris’ most ritzy hotels into a kind of deferential ballet. Bellboy (1925) is a study in self-conscious swagger. In his scarlet livery, gleaming gold buttons trailing down to spread legs, this worker puckishly flouts formality. His heavy-lidded stare is almost an exercise in defiance: who will turn away first?

page-boy-at-maxims.jpg

Chaïm Soutine, Page Boy at Maxim’s, c.1925, oil on canvas, 130 x 66 cm. Courtesy: Albright-Knox Gallery, New York

Chaïm Soutine, Page Boy at Maxim’s, c.1925, oil on canvas, 130 x 66 cm. Courtesy: Albright-Knox Gallery, New York



But not all Soutine’s hoteliers share this wily self-assurance. Page Boy at Maxim’s (c.1927) depicts a chasseur at one of the city’s most fashionable eateries. This gaunt-faced man, eyes hollowed into twin eclipses, looks as if he’s served here for centuries – his employers snatching their pound of flesh and leaving the bones. His outstretched palm is almost Christ-like. Is he demanding a tip – or hoping someone will rescue him from this drudgery? Either way, he’s a dyspeptic figure in this world of caviar-guzzling bons vivants.

Soutine returns again and again to the viscid colour scheme of arterial scarlets and bloody carmines; his palette is a butcher’s block. Butcher Boy (c.1919–20) is as lividly pink as freshly served steak tartare. His features are barely discernible amid the violent swirls of colour, suggesting a kind of primitive aggression beneath the professional veneer. For Soutine, meat is definitely murder, and anticipates his famous later paintings of animal carcasses. (He apparently hung the long red curtains used by butchers to keep flies away in his own studio. They can be seen as the backdrop of 1921’s Little Pastry Cook.)

soutine-cook-with-blue-apron.jpg

Chaïm Soutine, Cook With Blue Apron, c.1930. Courtesy: © The Courtauld Gallery, London

Chaïm Soutine, Cook with Blue Apron, c.1930, oil on canvas, 128 x 51 cm. Courtesy: Kunstmuseum Basel

Female staff are boldly brought to life, too. Cook with Blue Apron (c.1930) is a study in dour servitude. The cook, with droopily mournful bassett hound eyes, seems pinned down by her formal attire, her hands humbly crossed. She has echoes of Amedeo Modigliani’s famous models: all long limbs and jolie laide angularity. The same sitter is portrayed in The Chambermaid (c.1930), her mouth as downturned as a bed sheet. Soutine is adept at transforming dreary domesticity into expressionistic agony.

He was also fond of painting the same sitter repeatedly: excavating deeper beyond the surface each time, catching further shades of his subjects’ inner lives. Room Service Waiter (1928) exemplifies the infamous hauteur of Parisian waiters. Hands imperiously on hips, scowling, the waiter is distorted and pulled askew, with his crooked schnoz and jug ears. You can almost feel the steam coming off him, mirroring Soutine’s own volatility. (Under the paint, the canvas bears slash marks from one of his knife-wielding piques.)

Manipulating his subjects to reveal their character, Soutine lends them dignity – and redeems the richness of these otherwise forgotten lives.

Chaïm Soutine, Pastry Cook of Cagnes (detail), 1922, oil on canvas, 65 x 50 cm. Courtesy: Private Collection

Daniel Culpan is a writer based in London. He won the 2016 Frieze Writer’s Prize.

Issue 193

First published in Issue 193

March 2018
Advertisement

Most Read

Criticism of the show at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest comes alongside a nationalist reshaping of the...
A retrospective at Munich's Museum Brandhorst charts the artist's career from the 1980s to the present, from 'fem-trash...
At the National Theatre of Wales, a performance alive with wild, tactile descriptions compels comparison between the...
There are perils in deploying bigotry to score political points, but meanings also shift from West to East
‘It’s ridiculous. It’s Picasso’: social media platform to review nudity policy after blocking Montreal Museum of Fine...
Poland’s feminist ‘Bison Ladies’ storm the Japanese artist’s Warsaw exhibition in solidarity with longtime model Kaori’...
An art historian and leading Leonardo expert has cast doubt on the painting’s attribution
How will the Black Panther writer, known for his landmark critical assessments of race, take on the quintessential...
The dissident artist has posted a series of videos on Instagram documenting diggers demolishing his studio in the...
In further news: artists for Planned Parenthood; US court rules on Nazi-looted Cranachs; Munich’s Haus der Kunst...
A mother’s death, a father’s disinterest: Jean Frémon’s semi-factual biography of the artist captures a life beyond...
Jostling with its loud festival neighbours, the UK’s best attended annual visual art festival conducts a polyphonic...
It’s not clear who destroyed the project – part of the Liverpool Biennial – which names those who have died trying to...
Dating from 1949 to the early 1960s, the works which grace the stately home feel comfortable in the ostentatious pomp...
The disconnect between public museum programming and private hire couldn’t be starker – it’s time for the arts to...
In further news: Angela Gulbenkian sued over Kusama pumpkin; and Pussy Riot re-arrested immediately after release from...
With Art Week in town, a guide to the best exhibitions to see, from sonic surveillance to Ronnie van Hout’s showdown...
Moving between figuration and abstraction, the New York-based painter and teacher made work about in-between spaces and...
Trump’s State Department is more than 3 months late in announcing its national pavilion – testament to the chaos...
The continued dominance of UK-US writers makes a mockery of the Man Booker’s ‘global outlook’
The fashion photographer has been accused on Twitter of ripping off another artist – with both represented by the same...
Katharina Cibulka has stitched ‘As long as the art market is a boys’ club, I will be a feminist,’ across her alma mater...
The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018