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.
Soutine the artist is the test-driver who takes every curve too fast and spins out three-quarters of the time. Most of his paintings fail. But when he succeeds, the result is a memorably exhilarating ride. His paintings seem like the results of a remarkable experiment: What if an artist were to strip himself of all technical expertise? To put aside everything we have ever learned about line, color, and composition, and approach his subject on the basis of sheer will? Soutine paints with less guile and grace than the average child, but with a colossal, adult-sized will. I don't know how he managed it, but it is an amazing feat.
Of course, technical competence, while it allows painters to win artistic battles and make good images, also in a sense hems them in. Stripped of all armor and weaponry a warrior is defenseless, but free and unencumbered as well -- free, if he has it in him, to put on a spectacular show of will power and go down in stunning style.
Soutine was a Lithuanian Jew who settled in Paris at age eighteen in 1911. When the Nazis took the city in 1940, he fled to the countryside, moving from town to town to avoid detection. His stomach ulcers got worse, but he was afraid to seek treatment; when he went at last to a Paris hospital in August 1943, it was too late. He died that same month, murdered indirectly by the Nazis.
It is thus inevitable that talk about Soutine confronts the grand old questions of Jewish art: whether it exists, and, if it does, what it is. These are important issues, especially today, when intellectuals tend to see groups instead of individuals -- and to understand groups only in terms of the worst disasters they have suffered or inflicted. This is a bad approach, as some of the essays in the Jewish Museum's catalogue for the Soutine show demonstrate.
Art historians have long worried about whether the Jews' "relatively modest visual art tradition" (as Kenneth Silver puts it in his catalogue essay) is an obstacle to Jewish artistic accomplishment. The question has even been raised, at times, by Jewish artists themselves -- but it is outlandish all the same. The evidence has been clear for the last century: Hard as it may be for moderns to accept, family and region of birth count vastly more than group memberships, even for Jews. Modigliani, for example, was a Jew from Italy, Cezanne a Christian from southern France. Cezanne inherited the richer "visual art tradition." But Modigliani's education was supervised by his highly cultivated mother, and he studied art in Florence and Venice. Cezanne grew up in the rural backwater of Aix-en-Provence, and devoted himself as a young man to making "excruciatingly faithful copies" (as John Rewald puts it) of hackwork paintings by Dubufe and Frillie. Who had the "artistically richer" upbringing?
In Soutine's time, Cezanne was regarded as quintessentially French; such artists as Soutine were advised to learn "moderation" from Cezanne. But Cezanne's artistic evolution was shaped in part, in the crucial early years of the 1870s, by a Jew -- Camille Pissarro. "We are perhaps all derived from Pissarro," Cezanne once said. Cezanne in turn shaped twentieth-century art to a greater extent than any other of its forebears. Does that put "Jewish art" at the inner core of modern painting?
Jewishness is an important topic of study, but the study has to be done carefully because the facts are complicated. Donald Kuspit demonstrates in his catalogue essay how to take a wrong turn and crack up. Kuspit's theory is that Soutine's paintings express "a spontaneous, massive shudder at the folly of his Jewish existence and Jewish existence as such"; "Soutine's shudder is a sublimation of the trauma of being born a lowly shtetl Jew and becoming an absurd Jew -- not a real Jew -- by becoming a painter." (Kuspit is referring to the fact that Orthodox Jews -- unlike, say, Ohio Presbyterians? -- disapprove of art as a career.)
It is a nice question whether Kuspit's theory rises to the level of nonsense. After all, people "shudder" (with revulsion or disgust or nausea) when they are overcome by a thing's unpleasantness. But it is one of Soutine's most striking traits not to shudder when a normal man would. Who else could have been inspired to make a lyrically beautiful picture by a butchered horse? One day, when a dead cow he was painting started to dry out and lose color, Soutine sent his assistant to a slaughterhouse for a bucket of blood to splash on the carcass -- which perked right up like a potted geranium. Soutine was bizarrely resistant to shuddering. Nor is "shuddering" any kind of Jewish characteristic. Nor does Kuspit present any evidence that it is.
A visitor to the Jewish Museum's show is left, nonetheless, with the nagging feeling that there is something Jewish about Soutine's art. I have a theory that fits the facts better than Kuspit's, but is just as speculative. Although Jews have no special propensity to "shudder," they do have a long tradition of fighting with God. The word "Israel" is said to mean "struggler with God," and fights between God and man are profoundly important in the Bible and Talmud -- far more so than most modern readers understand. For Soutine, roughly speaking, art was god.
The show on balance is a first-rate accomplishment. There are good essays in the catalogue -- Ellen Pratt's technical study of the paintings, for example, and Romy Golan's discussion of Soutine's posthumous reputation in France -- as well as silly ones. Most important, these pictures deserve to be seen, and the Jewish Museum is a good place to see them. They help illuminate the remarkable Jewish achievement of modern times, which constitutes in turn a kind of public service.
Jews will never come to grips with their bad accomplishments until they have a better grasp of their good ones -- and it is important that they grapple with both. Jews and Jewish ideas are intimately entwined with the creation of the modern world in all its splendor and tawdriness. We will never understand the paradoxical essence of culture today until we understand how Jews and the Jewish experience shaped it. Despite all the words about Jews that get cranked out annually, this understanding remains largely beyond us. Wrestling with Soutine's art is refreshing, illuminating, and good training for the big bout to come.
David Gelernter is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.