By Thomas McManus, Associate Professor, Fashion Institute of Technology
In 1922, Albert Barnes, a Philadelphia doctor who made his fortune marketing a drug named Argyrol, decided to go on an art-buying spree in Paris. During a visit to Paul Guillaume’s gallery, he noticed a small painting. It depicted a pastry chef by an unknown artist. He immediately bought the work. In the next couple days, he purchased another 52 works by the same artist. The artist’s name was Chaim Soutine.
The Jewish Museum show, Chaim Soutine Flesh, presents an exhibition of 32 paintings of slaughtered animals. Inspired by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s still lifes, Soutine painted hunted rabbits, birds, and fish. Although the subject matter of his work couldn’t be more traditional, his paint handling heralded a radical new way for artists to express themselves. By using a palette knife, his paint glides on as he mixes his colors not on the palette but on his canvas. Instead of painting lines, he applies the end of his paintbrush to scrape them in. He even uses his hands to blend paint. Varnished, the work feels like painted enamel.
In the museum’s entrance, the painting “Still Life with Rayfish” greets you with blazing reds, pinks, and yellows. Instead of the short choppy strokes of Van Gogh or Cezanne, Soutine paints with long syrupy swirls. The ray’s underbelly and bowels offer an opportunity to use abstraction within the confines of representation. His handling of the jug, fruit, and tablecloth merge with the ray creating a flat, jumbled, and painterly paroxysm. The work appears spontaneous, violent, and crazy. It acts as a precursor to Soutine’s most ambitious painting located in the middle gallery.
In 1925, Soutine rented a studio on the rue du Saint-Gothard. Soon neighbors complained of a terrible smell emanating from his workplace and alerted the police. Subsequently, a health team was summoned to disinfect his squalid studio.
The artist would often visit the Louvre to study Rembrandt’s “Le Boeuf écorché” (The Flayed Beef), a picture of a slaughtered cow. Soutine would spend hours in front of the work and confessed to a friend, “This is so beautiful it drives me mad.” Following the inspiration of Chardin’s still lifes of smaller animals, he decided to take on Rembrandt’s beastly motif. After securing his new larger studio, and at his request, his dealer had a beef carcass delivered.
“Carcass of Beef,” the painting that instigated the smells that led to his neighbor’s complaints, is the show’s centerpiece. Unlike the Rembrandt that inspired this work, the skinned animal floats in front of an abstract background. Soutine gives loose rein to reds, yellows, and blues. A complementary color scheme enhances the brilliance and saturation of the carcass. Large swaths of crimson drip and splatter as the painting appears to bleed. An infestation of diagonals accentuates the turmoil. Moreover, the entrails give rise to convulsive brushwork. This piece, at the peak of Soutine’s career, inspired the painterly abstraction of the New York School.
“Carcass of Beef”
Willem de Kooning said, “I’ve always been crazy about Soutine—all of his paintings. Maybe it’s the lushness of the paint. He builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There’s a kind of transfiguration.”
Soutine, the shy, contemplative, and unkempt Russian immigrant finally received the ultimate compliment an artist can get. He became a painter’s painter.