The Magazine


Chaim Soutine on Display in New York

Jul 20, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 43 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Any man who has the capacity to make art also has the capacity to destroy it, and Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) was a master-artist of destruction. Successful artists are usually high-pressure, steam-driven personalities. When such people get angry at their work, they hit hard. Thus Michelangelo smashing his sublime Florence Pieta with a hammer, Cezanne slashing canvases with a knife, Giacometti burning drawings by the fistful and slamming clay figures to the ground.

But Soutine is the extraordinary, puzzling artist who seems to destroy his canvases in the act of making them. He was a champion annihilator of his own paintings (he burnt, slashed, and over-painted them); the ones that survive bear the scars of a knock-down brawl with their creator. It is not surprising that he wanted to be a boxer if he couldn't be an artist.

His paintings range from vehement to wild. Large heavily loaded brushes hit the canvas like crash-landing airplanes and go plowing, skidding forward at top speed. (Sometimes he would toss a brush aside after one stroke. His studio floor was littered with discards.) His images look as if they had been bashed by a wrecking ball or warped by an enormous magnet.

In his striking Red Stairway at Cagnes (c. 1923), a stairway running upward and spiraling inward pulls the adjacent houses and trees towards it; at the top, a house and chimneys bend like palms in a hurricane before a force so powerful, it twists the sky out of shape. The colors -- vermilion surrounded by ochres and browns, yellow-greens and green-blues -- are not harmonious but form a memorably dissonant chord. Looking at this painting is like staring into a tornado. It is a piece of organized violence.

Now playing at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan is the first big Soutine retrospective in America since the late 1960s. It opened on April 26 and will remain in New York through August 16, after which it travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Cincinnati Art Museum.

The show isn't easy to look at or figure out. Three paintings struck me as first-class masterpieces, and a dozen or so others are thoroughly extraordinary. But the only way Soutine knew how to paint was at the top of his lungs, and the unmodulated fortissimo gets on a person's nerves. The other several dozen paintings in the show are partial successes at best.

They are never trivial or conventional, but very few people would give such pictures a second glance if they were not by Soutine.

His masterpieces, however, rank among the century's memorable images, so original and violent they are stunning and sometimes shocking: Hill at Ceret (c. 1921), for example, where a hill, house, and sky are built out of twisting, writhing brush-strokes and every molecule screams simultaneously. The idea of building static objects out of swarms of electrified brushstrokes suggests van Gogh, but Soutine operates at a completely different pitch of hysteria. The emotional tone is darker than anything in van Gogh, dark as Kafka; the picture is possessed. Soutine's pictures of animal carcasses are famous, and the subject suits him down to the ground: For a man whose pictures seem to be caught in the act of self-destructing, a decaying carcass is the perfect model. But Head and Carcass of a Horse (c. 1923), the finest of the series, is startling because it is gorgeous -- a storm of red and golden swirls like the surface of a seething star, with no hint of blood or gore or death.

There are other extraordinary images here too: Chartres cathedral, for example, caught in a 1934 painting as if by strobe-camera just as it is about to leave the ground.

The failed pictures are mostly a matter of the artist caroming out of control. In a painting like Les Gorges du Loup sur Vence (c. 1920), the lines are messy and indistinct and the colors muddy, with no grace and no force. Soutine's tendency to be out-of-focus extends into many areas. To convert the bloody mess of a carcass into a beautifully colored tour de force requires an odd sort of detachment, a failure (in this case turned to advantage) to connect emotionally with the subject. But the same disconnectedness can be disastrous. The portrait of Emile Lejeune, for example, is typical of Soutine's worst portraits: The sitter looks -- not to put too fine a point on it -- dopey.