Installation view of Chaim Soutine: Flesh, May 4–September 16, 2018, the Jewish Museum, New York. Left: Chaim Soutine, “Fish, Peppers, Onions” (c. 1919), oil on canvas. Barnes Foundation, Merion and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Right: Chaim Soutine, “Carcass of Beef” (c. 1925), oil on canvas. (Collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Room of Contemporary Art Fund, 1939 Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo by Jason Mandella)

The literature generated on an artist may narrate, reiterate, and reconstruct the artist’s biography. What is most astonishing for the up-to-80-year-old texts on Chaim Soutine (who is currently featured in Chaim Soutine: Flesh at the Jewish Museum) and his work is not how frequently his biography has been retold over the decades, but rather how often it has been changed or transformed in the process. Although this revised narrative can reflect the natural evolution of the knowledge about any individual artist, there is something peculiar, even disturbing, about Soutine’s biography, for which so little documentation exists.

For the 1998 retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York, which I co-curated with Kenneth E. Silver, the parameters of our research were focused not so much on the artist’s biography, but on the history of his reception in Paris and in New York. Yet questions about how Soutine’s life has been written kept intruding. Given the sometimes contradictory information that was proffered in literature on him, the larger question of how much of Soutine’s biography could be believed — and, by extension, how much of any artist’s life is secure information — became, for me, a critical issue. The many chroniclers of the Parisian expressionist speak in a variety of voices, some dramatic or poetic, and reveal stunning conjectures, sometimes even blatant contradictions. Ultimately, I realize that even my own presentation offers yet another retelling of some Soutine stories.

If there is a single point of agreement in the posthumous literature on Chaim Soutine, it is that the Lithuanian-born Jewish artist is surrounded by legend. Indeed, the term legend, like its counterpart myth, is repeated frequently in the writings on the artist. In “Expositions Orangerie des Tuileries: Soutine,” a review of the 1973 Soutine exhibition at the Orangerie in Paris, Dominique Bozo and Isabelle Monod-Fontaine explain that the image of Soutine as an “accursed painter,” peintre maudit, developed and was embellished over the years. Marcellin Castaing, one of Soutine’s major patrons and a frequent host to the painter at his home in Lèves, outside Chartres, observes in a volume co-edited with Jean Leymarie, “Soutine was already a legend in his lifetime, but the mystery that surrounds him still remains intact.” However, Castaing cautions that “it is [even] difficult to find the man behind the artist.” Taking her husband’s observations one step further, Madeleine Castaing, a frequent chronicler of the artist until her death at age 98 in 1992, bluntly claimed in a television miniseries, Montparnasse Revisited, that Soutine has all but “disappeared under the weight of legend and literature.”

Stories about Soutine abound. Characteristic of legend, they are generally neither historical nor easily verifiable. They have been handed down from person to person, repeated, and changed. Different versions are sometimes contradictory. Yet they have become accepted as historical fact. For example, Soutine’s friend, the sculptor Chana Orloff, remarks that the painter rarely spoke about himself (reprinted in 1951 in “Mon Ami Soutine” in Evidences). On the other hand, the painter Marevna, another friend, tells us that “Soutine liked to talk about his childhood.” Marevna also relates that Soutine was attracted to the radical politics of Gustave Courbet (Soutine, Life with the Painters at La Ruche, 1979). Andrée Collié, in contrast, claims in a 1944 article (“Souvenirs sur Soutine”) that he read right-wing publications such as L’Action Française. Ironically, even his early posthumous biographer, Emile Szyttia, maintained in 1956 that “the biography of Soutine will never be written with certainty” (“Soutine le Solitaire,” Les Lettres Françaises). We are reminded time and again of the sparseness of records about the artist. It is a fact: few exist. There are no drawings to speak of, a few brief letters, and virtually no documents about the artist, except for a small group of photographs. As a result, his life story is distinctly prone to exaggeration and inconsistency. This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the artist himself is portrayed as a conflicted, incongruous character. (See, for example, Arbit Blatas, “Soutine and his Circle in Paris,” Hirschl and Adler Galleries, June 1958.)

Soutine at Chatel-Guyon in central France (Puy-de- Dome) (1928) (image provided by the Kluver/Martin Archive)

The mythologizing of artists’ biographies has a long and venerable tradition, even in cases in which there is ample historical documentation. This phenomenon has been brilliantly observed and analyzed by Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz in their classic text Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist of 1934. Although already evident in the writings of early Greek authors, typical configurations of artists’ careers are indebted to the famous series of late Renaissance biographies, Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, first published in 1550 and still in print. Because of the serial nature of this text, Vasari standardized his approach. In effect, what has been passed down to us is a continuation of his practice: a method of narration with an emphasis on the quixotic and heroic and, not least, a tendency toward invention, exaggeration, and dramatization. Most artist biographers since Vasari agree that distinctive traits and personality types are endemic to the creative temperament. In her 1997 book, The Absolute Artist, Catherine M. Soussloff has actually diagrammed the typical pattern for artists’ lives. Three types of storytelling are generally present in artists’ biographies and reflected in Soutine’s, in particular. First are the stories that have a specific location in the Soutine chronology: his birth and upbringing in the shtetl of Smilovitchi; his early training in Minsk, Vilna, and Paris; his life at the artist colony at La Ruche in Montparnasse; his discovery by the legendary collector Albert Barnes; the support and friendship of his patrons Marcellin and Madeleine Castaing; his life at Villa Seurat; the time with his female companions, Greta Groth and Marie-Berthe Aurenche; his hiding in the French countryside during World War II; and his premature death from perforated ulcers in German-occupied France.

A second type is more general: a collateral narrative, used to support the facts of his life, has become routine to the Soutine biography and reappears throughout the chronology. Such information may relate to aspects of his personality or experiences that are deemed to have influenced his character. These stories tend to dramatize his eccentricity, his torment, and his obsessive devotion to the act of painting. Time and again, they reiterate the influence of both his early poverty and his Jewishness.

Anecdotes constitute a third category, and some of them become highly important: for instance, Soutine’s re-use of 19th century paintings found at flea markets as the canvas supports for his pictures; his search for appropriate models, whether dead fowl or real human beings; and the artist’s frequent destruction of his own earlier works. Some anecdotes are quirky, even bizarre, such as those relating to his hygiene and sartorial preferences, or tales that revolve around insects — including one about a fly caught in the artist’s ear or another about Soutine and his good friend Modigliani, who were said to have slept on the floor surrounded by pans of water to keep the cockroaches at bay.

Chaim Soutine, “Carcass of Beef” (c. 1925), oil on canvas (collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, Room of Contemporary Art Fund, 1939, artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Throughout these narratives, Soutine is either made heroic or defamed. Ultimately, he is transformed from a figure of simple legend into one of superhuman myth. One such story — which I have dubbed the “Carcass and the Canvas” narrative — along with its numerous interpretations, has sustained much attention through the years. I would like to convey the drama and power of this legend — its eccentricity, even the implicit humor — and, not least, how it has evolved and been reinterpreted over time.

Before delving into Soutine stories, however, we should keep in mind this art-historical assumption: sometimes, biographical information is used to interpret the work of art itself. Other art historians focus entirely on the object. This object-artist binary, as it has been called, remains necessary to most serious art-historical analysis. With regard to Soutine, few discount the impact of the life lived on the art created. Such fusion of aesthetic and biographical motifs is strongly reflected in the comments made in the 1960s by the painter and critic, Andrew Forge, who attempts to bring Soutine to life, to resurrect the person in the process of our observation of his pictures: “[Soutine’s] life is supremely personal. He seems to be painting as we look. His pictures seem to be saturated with his presence, to reek of him.” No Soutine story is more resonant, more prone to interpretation, to retelling, and to dramatization than the famous one about the creation of his series of pictures of flayed beef. In addition to the many accounts of the story that already exist, here is one I wrote for the catalogue of the 1998 retrospective:

Soutine purchased a beef carcass, hauled it up the stairs to his studio, and hung it from the ceiling. Eager to capture the variations of color in the raw flesh, he began painting, focused on his obsessive and direct observation of nature. The carcass began to dry and to lose the details of its color and texture. Undaunted, Soutine went back to the neighboring slaughterhouses for a pail of blood, which he brushed on the meat to revive its color.When the rotting meat began to smell, the neighbors complained, and, by some accounts, the police were called. In most versions of this tale, Soutine was able to convince the police that his artistic project was infinitely more important than the sensibilities of his neighbors.

Oblivious to both the smell and the army of flies that began to plague the decaying flesh, the artist raced between canvas and carcass, brushing fresh blood on the beef as he sought to capture its details in paint. During all this frenetic activity, his assistant Paulette Jourdain fanned the flies away from the hulking mass of putrid flesh. In this excited, nearly ecstatic, state of the creative process, Soutine was caught between the reality of the transient object and the creation of its image on canvas.

In some versions of this story, the meat is ultimately injected with formaldehyde to arrest its odor and decay (Esti Dunow, 1981). In others, Soutine finishes his series and leaves both the studio and the rotting flesh for days, even months (Maurice Sachs, 1932). More than 50 years after the actual events, the artist Marevna reports in “Soutine: Life with the Painters of La Ruche” that when the police arrived, Soutine “sprayed the gendarmes with saliva, stamping his feet, almost weeping,” and that the artist himself was “permeated from head to foot with the revolting smell […]. [P]eople shied away from him, and children pointed and jeered,” calling him a “carrion eater.”

Chaim Soutine, “Side of Beef with a Calf’s Head” (c. 1923), oil on canvas (Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, Collection of Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume. Artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; image provided by RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York; photograph by Herve Lewandowski)

In his 1960 book, theatrically entitled Outlaws of Art, Pierre Cabanne (who has also produced a biography of Picasso and is prone to no small measure of exaggeration) has the blood drip through the badly fitting ceiling joists into the studio below. Cabanne’s appears to be the only beef-carcass narrative in which Soutine’s downstairs neighbor screams, “Murder, murder. Someone is killing Soutine!” (Chana Orloff does indicate that the neighbor might have thought Soutine was murdered because of the smell emanating from the studio above.) He elaborates in purple prose, describing the neighbors running upstairs and finding the artist “paddling in pools of blood, painting frenziedly at a grandiose nightmare canvas, in which reds and blues dripped pus-like on the soft warm nakedness of the flesh. Silver iridescence gleamed amid purple streaks; it was the famous “Flayed Ox” of Soutine.”

Cabanne’s characterization of the picture as a gruesome, viscous riot of the senses harks back to one of the earliest (1929), and most poetic, writings on Soutine’s work. Elie Faure’s description is ravishing:

Here the mystery of the greatest painting blazes forth, flesh more like flesh than flesh, nerves more like nerves than nerves, even if they are painted with rivers of rubies, burning sulfur, droplets of turquoise, lakes of crushed emeralds and sapphires, streaks of purple and pearl, a palpitation of silver that rustles and shimmers, an uncommon flame that wrings matter to its depths after having smelted all the jewels of its mines. That splayed ox you see gleams like the treasures of Golconda, so that insects and glittering birds … flow here in torrents […]

This metaphorical perception of the beef paintings has obviously colored Cabanne’s way of seeing — and writing about — Soutine’s brilliant canvas. Faure’s image is transcendent. He transforms the actual carnage into an image of byzantine splendor, gleaming and palpable, nearly alive. Cabanne, on the other hand, concentrates on the gory decay, invoking associations with disease and transgression. Faure’s dazzling descriptions, his images of jewels and precious metals, are transformed in Cabanne’s text into bodily excretions. Faure’s analysis is purely aesthetic; his romantic imagery, his allusions to flora, fauna, jewels, and gleaming metal, reveal how much the text of this important art historian, working in France in the late 1920s, is indebted to the prose of the Symbolist critics, who wrote more than two decades earlier. His descriptions recall, for example, Albert Aurier’s celebrated writings about van Gogh in the last years of the 19th century.

Faure makes use of basic elements of Soutine’s biography in his analysis of the works. Later in his text, he recounts Soutine’s shtetl years for a synthetic reading of how the artist’s background influenced the pictures he painted. Yet the author is so cautious about the place of biography in his art criticism that he actually apologizes for slipping into Soutine’s life. Rather patronizingly, he fears that “it [might] wound [Soutine’s] pride.” Generally focused on the pictures, he examines them not individually, but in groups. This manner of looking at sets of Soutine’s paintings, be they the beef or fowl or the Céret landscapes, is peculiar to the literature on the artist: too infrequently is there extended discussion of any specific painting, except perhaps the 1918 self-portrait.

Faure’s short book on Soutine is still influential and invaluable in any examination of the artist. Even a scholar as even-handed as Monroe Wheeler, the curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s historic 1950 Soutine retrospective, falls prey to the seduction of Faure’s lush, Symbolist description. Wheeler appropriates Faure’s orientalized vision of the paintings, with its many allusions to exotic colors, precious stones, and glistening metals, almost as if the MoMA curator had invented the metaphors.

Yet Faure himself falls prey, perhaps unwittingly, to certain “orientalizing” stereotypes of Jews. Despite his extravagant praise, his lavish description of the pictures was meant to exoticize the painter, to validate his fundamental alienation from French culture. In contemporary terminology, Faure clearly delineates Soutine’s “otherness.” Indeed, the author goes on to describe Soutine as cet oriental d’Europe, this European oriental, an amalgam of Jew, Slav, and Kalmuk. Although he promises not to dwell too much on biographical details or on what he calls, condescendingly, “the ugly life in the ghetto,” he does, in fact, emphasize cultural and material deprivations of Soutine’s early life in the shtetl of Smilovitchi and what he suggests is its tragic influence on the artist — notions that have littered Soutine literature from the start. Faure invokes the potential available to those liberated from the shtetl’s tenacious grip. By extension, Paris becomes the locus of that liberation. These references, however, may be surrogates for yet another shtetl, one much closer to home — the crowded, impoverished Jewish immigrant quarter of Paris at the time, the Pletzl in the Marais. We certainly know that anti-Semitic, chauvinistic journalism of the period portrayed Jews as paragons of the threatening and repulsive immigrant, their quarter rife with dirt, poverty, and disease, their bodies weak and malformed, and their culture supposedly alien to the Western potential for creative expression. (This is explored in, for instance, Paula Hyman’s From Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry 1906-1939, 1979.)

Chaim Soutine, “Hanging Turkey” (c. 1925), oil on millboard (the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on long term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey, artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; image provided by The Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection / Art Resource, New York; photograph by Bruce M. White)

In addition to his typecast views of the Jewish ghetto, Faure also succumbs to certain stereotypes of artistic genius. Certainly, the transformation of the image of the dead ox into something that the writer observes as so real, so mysterious, and so enchanting harks back to ancient beliefs in the magical powers ascribed to the image-making of “great” artists. His exhortation that insects and birds “feast” on the glorious image of the flayed beef exemplifies the standard trope (advanced, in part, by Ernst Gombrich) about the persuasive wizardry of the artist and the power of his images. Early metaphors of the artist breathing life into his creations include Pliny’s description of birds attempting to eat the grapes painted by Zeuxis and Titian’s depiction of the lamb carried by Saint John the Baptist. So real was Titian’s animal that it is claimed to have produced a joyful bleating from a mother ewe.

Given the general prejudices against naturalism linked to most schools of modern art, Soutine would need to accomplish more “magic” than the static, hackneyed, and by now dissipated traditions of trompe l’oeil verismo. In fact, Elie Faure begins his book with a modernist caveat about confusing the paint material with its surface. Alluding to Soutine’s carcasses of beef and his dead fowl, Faure characterizes Soutine’s genius through the artist’s remarkable ability to breathe life into the medium — the matière, in his words — of the paint itself. In the author’s mind, the artist could transform paint with “spontaneous alchemy [from] the embodiment of the bloody organism” into a collective ideal that can “radiate unto the limits of spiritual space, possessing the spark of God.” Because of Soutine’s uncanny ability to change the palpable, decaying flesh he observes into living poetry, he becomes one of the rare “religious” painters, his matière “the most sensual that painting ever expressed.”

Faure fuses ancient, magical associations about the artist’s craft with the central tenet of modern art, the autonomous power of the medium. While he accepts traditional notions about the artist’s transformative powers, he assures the crucially independent nature of the medium for modernist practice. In updating the traditional assumption of the artist’s genius and virtuosity, he has raised the stakes, so to speak, in ascribing to Soutine religious and spiritual powers that seem to transcend earlier beliefs of pagan magic, notions that would be regarded as absurd within the still positivist interwar worldview. As reiterated so often in the compelling annals of modern art — most recently with T.J. Clark’s Heaven on Earth — Faure has elevated art to the status of religion.

Closely related to the beef canvases and their interpretations are Soutine’s images of fowl. The artist depicts two distinct types of poultry. There are the birds that are suspended pendulously, such as the “Hanging Turkey,” formerly in the Richard S. Zeisler collection. These birds seem beyond death, buckling under their own weight, implicitly vulnerable, succumbing to their impending decay. Then there are fowl that appear to be in their death throes — feathers splayed, generally hanging from their feet, whirling wildly. “Hanging Fowl,” from the collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, includes the additional, anecdotal motif of the knife, which appears to be in the process of falling to the ground after it has performed its fatal task.

The Soutine literature continually reminds us of the painter’s obsessive observation of the data directly in front of him. Thus, I interpreted the strokes of red paint at the lower left of Minneapolis’s “Carcass of Beef” as representing the artist’s observation of his own process. He was daubing blood from the buckets of the once-live liquid he had brought from the nearby slaughterhouses onto the carcass hanging in front of him. Soutine seems to have raced so hurriedly between freshening the decaying beef and capturing the image on the nearby canvas that the blood in the bucket seemed still to be in motion in front of him. What, then, is the meaning of his depiction of the knife that seems to be either falling to the ground or suspended in mid air? Could its presence indicate that the artist himself was complicit in killing the fowl, or that he was present during the actual act of slaughter?

There is an evident connection here between the falling knife in “Hanging Fowl” and the knife Abraham has dropped in Rembrandt’s famous 1645 “Sacrifice of Isaac” in Saint Petersburg. Given the metaphorical meanings that continue to be ascribed to Soutine’s pictures of dead beef and dying fowl, with their meditations on death and sacrifice, he might well have recalled the example by his most beloved master as a source of inspiration for this depiction. Rembrandt has typically chosen a moment rife with tension, the dramatic climax of the story, when the angel seems to have knocked the knife out of Abraham’s hand at the very instant that the biblical patriarch is set to sacrifice his son. How, then, can we read the knife in Soutine’s painting, with its specific narrative associations? Ultimately, we do not know what point in the action he has depicted: Is the turkey convulsing in its final death throes, the slaughter having been effected? Or, suspended above the instrument of its own death, is the turkey struggling to free itself? Does the knife belong to Soutine? At whose hand will the bird die?

Critics offer various interpretations of Soutine’s obsession with food and death, as well as the specific motifs of slaughtered fowl or beef. Faure claims that the artist finds sensual joy in the flesh of the recently killed animals, and then sees them in a Christian context (and, for the contemporary reader, as liminally anti-Semitic) as “liturgical crucifixions” that could only be realized through “the instinctive virulence of the Jew.” At the same time, the author agrees with Waldemar George’s earlier valorization of Soutine, confirming — through these tragic paeans to decaying flesh — the artist as “a saint of painting.” The artist’s early interpreters, Faure and George among them, frequently associate his seduction by terror and repulsion — the death and sacrifice inherent in his slaughtered beef and fowl — with a dark character rooted in the poverty and deprivation of his upbringing.

Yet it was not until 1964 that a biographical interpretation focusing on Soutine’s shtetl life came to be seen as the direct source for these remarkable images. Jean Leymarie noted that Soutine had actually watched the ritual slaughterer in his village perform his sacred and deadly work, which he observed with a “mixture of attraction and horror.” The author further insists that this visual recollection resulted in “a shattering series of plucked or half-plucked poultry which runs parallel to the carcasses of beef.”

Leymarie seems to have been the first writer to make use of a story recounted in Emile Szyttia’s 1955 Soutine biography. Where he got the information is uncertain, but Szyttia tells a most remarkable, dulcet tale, one that seems more evocative of the Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem than of a postwar Parisian. He regales us with what he claims as Soutine’s bittersweet description: “Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood from it. I wanted to cry out, but [the butcher’s] joyful expression caught the sound in my throat.” Szyttia tells us that Soutine patted his throat and continued: “This cry, I always feel it there […] When I painted the beef carcass it was again this cry that I wanted to free.”

Chaim Soutine, “Dead Fowl” (1926), oil on canvas (Art Institute of Chicago, Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1937.167., artwork © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, image provided by the Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, New York)

Since Soutine wrote virtually nothing and there are so few direct quotations from him, it is interesting to ponder how true this purported comment is to the language and personality of the artist himself. Although to me, Szyttia’s narration seems highly romanticized, it has provided a number of art historians with ammunition for their analyses of Soutine’s work.

Thirteen years after the publication of Syzttia’s biography, Maurice Tuchman, former curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and organizer of the museum’s 1968 Soutine retrospective, would use Szyttia’s charming narrative to expand his interpretation of the paintings of dead and dying fowl. In addition, Tuchman also was indebted to a magisterial anthropological study from 1952 of Eastern European Jewish culture, Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog’s highly popular and influential Life Is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl. In fact, Szyttia’s tale of Soutine must have sounded a lot like Zborowski and Herzog’s ethnographic narratives. Tuchman’s account is a creative synthesis. He focuses on a shtetl custom presumably known to Soutine, which could have inspired the artist’s obsession with dead and dying fowl. Here is how Tuchman described the ritual of kappores in the catalogue of the 1968 LACMA retrospective:

On the morning of the eve of Yom Kippur — the Jewish Day of Atonement — there occurred in the shtetl a ritual of absolution. In the words of Zborowski and Herzog, the shtetl would have been busy beating the scapegoat. Actually, beating the scapegoat might more accurately be called the whirling of the fowl.… The shtetl rationale has transformed the [ancient tradition of the scapegoat] from a quadruped into a fowl […]. The fowl … is whirled about the head of the penitent, with an appropriate prayer. It is tempting to speculate that … Soutine’s “whirling fowl” is a psychological scapegoat.

Based primarily on interviews with shtetl-born immigrants who recently arrived in postwar New York, as well as novels, memoirs, histories, and film, Life Is with People aimed to study “culture at a distance”; the research team created a model of the “core shtetl society,” which they assumed could be reconstructed from the memories of immigrants who had lived in such communities.

We must reread these innovative interpretations today with historical hindsight. In her preface to the 1995 edition of Life Is With People, ethnographer and cultural critic Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett cautions us about the book’s assumptions and its pitfalls. For Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, this study is at once an idealization of the myth of the timeless, “unacculturated” shtetl and a testament to the demise of an authentic and distinctive ethos and way of life, vanished in the wake of World War II. She demonstrates that this book was one of the first postwar works of Holocaust memory, a text intended to document and commemorate a world that was tragically lost instead of focusing on the enormity of the tragic loss and devastation.

Read in retrospect, Tuchman’s interpretive use of this source becomes tinged with Zborowski and Herzog’s romanticized vision and the postwar tendency to commemorate and spiritualize loss and recovery — to examine, as Kirschenblatt-Gimblett writes, “the life of the spirit” in the wake of the culture’s destruction. Soutine’s earliest critics, many of whom were Christian, had exoticized the indelible imprint of shtetl culture. In the post-Holocaust United States, the artist could now serve the psychic needs of assimilated American Jews. Both the French prewar and American postwar readings thus interpret Soutine as a product of the “primitive” nature of the shtetl. In remarkably contrasting ways, critics’ presentation of him as an emblem of the backward shtetl establishes their superior position, in terms of sophistication and affluence, as well as the tolerance of the democratic Western countries in which they lived. Such interpretations of his art aestheticized, and distanced, the tragic, if sentimentalized, connotations of the shtetl. In the 1920s, Soutine’s art had come to symbolize the difficult, pathetic, poverty-stricken, culturally backward, or “primitive” shtetl origins, and the possibility that Western art and culture offered a way to transcend the insularity of the shtetl. Remarkably, as I relay in my article “An Expressionist in New York,” the Jewish critic Clement Greenberg faulted Soutine’s infatuation with traditional European painting as an antiquated reaction of an insecure Jew from the East. Yet, while the artist’s works and the shtetl became symbols for the loss of an entire culture and the death and devastation of a people, they also showed the openness and possibilities offered by American society. Because his pictures have proved so prone to tragic, quasi-religious interpretations, which aspects of tragedy are privileged at any given time is just a matter of nuance and historical situation.

While Maurice Tuchman interprets Soutine’s dying fowl as “psychological scapegoats,” aesthetic reminders of a shtetl tradition stemming from the artist’s youth, his analysis of the beef pictures is quite different. His obsessive observation of rotting meat as well as his use of fresh blood, both prohibited within Jewish dietary laws, leads Tuchman to interpret them as Soutine’s transgression against these laws, and, by extension, against the religion of his birth. The author claims that “the power of Soutine’s art rests upon this driving necessity to see the forbidden thing and to paint it.” Tuchman’s different interpretations of the beef and chicken pictures are surprisingly contradictory: The former are seen as examples of the artist’s religious transgressions, while the latter are metaphors, even sentimental reminders, of an ancient rite.

In the catalogue for the aforementioned exhibition that Kenneth Silver and I co-curated, Silver has convincingly offered a contemporary, more nuanced, hybrid reading of Soutine’s still lifes of dead foodstuff. Silver sees Soutine caught in the contradictory impulses and traditions between French and Jewish food cultures — between voluptuary French notions of gastronomy and the proscriptive traditions of Jewish dietary laws. Both, he reminds us, are highly ritualized and obsessive. The strength of the art, he adds, is synthetic because it combines the austere power of the traditional Jewish culture of the artist’s childhood and the sensuous cultivation of the France of his maturity. In the following passage, Silver eloquently analyzes the clash of cultures where Jewish dietary laws confront the “gustatory protocols of French cuisine”:

Whereas kosher laws preclude the hunting of game, French gastronomy has brought the hunt and its bounty to the level of art; whereas kosher meat is drained of blood, the French almost all eat their meat rose or saignant …; while kosher laws carefully specify which parts of an animal may be consumed, discarding the rest, the French, wasting nothing, have methodically contrived ways of preparing nearly every edible part of the animal into the “pleasures of the table.” If one diet is first and foremost sacred, its “wastefulness” a form of discipline, the other is first and foremost epicurean, its refusal to waste a sacred tenet. Did not the luxury of French gustation have an especially brilliant, if troubling, allure [for Soutine, especially] when reflected in the mirror of Jewish dietary restriction and the poverty of Soutine’s family?

What is clear, nevertheless, is that Soutine’s carcasses and fowl continue to be read as abject images, the product of a tortured personality whose traumatic early childhood experiences have shaped the way he engaged the world. In this light, one might imagine a psychoanalytic reading of the artist and his work. For example, I wonder how Julia Kristeva, the noted theorist who has written on abjection, might characterize Soutine and his images of decaying beef and fowl. Her interest in abjection’s disruption of subjectivity and order and her observations about exclusion and taboo, especially as they relate to biblical proscriptions in Jewish law, would seem highly relevant. Particularly applicable is Kristeva’s notion, from her 1982 study The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, of the struggle that “each subject must wage during the entire length of his personal history in order to become separate, that is to say, to become the speaking subject.” By extension, Soutine’s conflict in separating himself — and the image he was creating — from the motif that he insisted remain physically in front of him, might be read as representing the very core of the challenge to artistic identity and his personal struggle toward visual “speech.” Such visual literacy was neither taught nor privileged in ghetto culture. In more metaphorical terms — and in the face of the Abstract Expressionists who revered his work — it may also have demonstrated his lack of courage to liberate himself from the actual motif, therefore enabling him to move to a next aesthetic level of abstraction and modernity. Such a personal challenge would have the artist replace the tangible motif with psychic, internal, and universal imagery.

Soutine with a chicken, hanging in front of a broken brick wall, Le Blanc, western France (Indre) (1927)(image provided by the Kluver/Martin Archive)

Recorded in memoirs and interviews with Soutine’s artist friends, companions, collectors, and dealers, stories about the artist form a stirring set of texts. Contradictory, dramatic, and often sensational, they seem to cry out for a cinematic treatment. But how would one go about choosing the actor to play Soutine? Would one look at his 1918 self-portrait as a model — the intense, self-deprecating image of contorted features, a tortured, hungry soul whose hands, the painter’s vehicle for creation, seem purposely inaccessible to the viewer’s gaze? Or would one seek the cheerful painter, the bon vivant, camping before the camera, ironically showing off the dead bird he is about to paint? This Soutine seems oblivious to the seriousness of the themes of life and death, defilement, and tragedy that have been central to most interpretations of his powerful still-lifes. The boy from the shtetl, the Parisian master, the dirtiest and most disheveled artist in Paris, the lover of fine haberdashery — Soutine’s life has evolved into a narrative of disparity. Like Kenneth Silver’s French/Jewish mirror, future interpretations of themes such as attraction and repulsion, sacrifice and redemption, must take to heart the contradictions and dichotomies in the artist’s biography.

This essay was originally published in the catalogue for the exhibition Chaim Soutine: An Expressionist in Paris edited by Tobias G. Natter for the Jewish Museum in Vienna in 2000. This is the first time it appears in English.

Chaim Soutine: Flesh continues at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 16.

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Norman Kleeblatt

Former Chief Curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, Kleeblatt organized numerous exhibitons including the 2008 Action/Abstraction: Pollock, De Kooning, and American Art and the 2014 Mel Bochneer:...

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