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Looking at Soutine: A Poke in the Eye with a Sharp Brush

Added on 20 November 2018

Rather like the reason a pearl grows in an oyster shell isn't it strange how a first experience attaches itself so vividly to the memory, never to be experienced in quite the same way again.

As I remember it the ground floor galleries of the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris are filled with Monet's enormous water lily series, his memorial to the French who died in the First World War. Images of stillness, sadness and regret which soothe and calm the tired eye.

For the unwary visitor like me the visual assault hits as soon as you reach the top of the stairs on the first floor. Arranged along the balcony wall are a group of the most urgently engaging paintings you are likely to encounter in one place and at the same time. This is what it felt like for me encountering the work of Chaime Soutine face to face for the first time.

I don't think it is easy to 'get' (understand) Soutine until you stand in front of one of his painting's. They are not large, 25"x39" is fairly small compared with today's museum size works. What I found really powerful about Soutine's paintings is the sense of explosive energy confined within the canvas, rather like the atmosphere in a boxing ring. Stories about Soutine's obsessively private working methods and extreme poverty until he was 'discovered' by the influential American collector Albert Barnes, his subsequent eccentric behaviour when he found fame and fortune are the stuff of legend which later admirers like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Koning and Francis Bacon strove to follow.

To Pollock and De Koning Soutine was the original action painter. Whether he painted a portrait, still life or landscape his approach was always the same. From the few reliable accounts we have of his working methods Soutine painted in concentrated bursts of energy. He stood in front of his motif, making few preparatory marks on the canvas, preferring instead to paint directly on to his support. Soutine had a large collection of brushes of all sizes which he kept scrupulously clean. Once he decided on a course of action Soutine painted very quickly, throwing dirty brushes on to the floor to be replaced by clean ones, working in a frenzy until exhausted he was satisfied with the end results.

When an artist paints in such an intensely concentrated way in the course of a single session the end result is a record of spontaneous visual decisions which when improvised together can either work spectacularly well or fail miserably.  Perhaps this is why Soutine chose to retun to the same sitter or motif time and time again.  In many ways listening to live jazz is a similar experience to looking at a Soutine.

When everything works as it should in a Soutine painting the results are sublime.

Look carefully at his paint surface and what you will see are paint strokes which slap, slip, slash, slide and scrape their way over the canvas. Colours pulsate and resonate as Soutine tries to record and orchestrate what he sees before him before the exhilaration of his vision is gone.  In this sense Soutine is not interested in recording the appropriateness of scale or proportion of a head, hand or building. What is more important to Soutine is portraying the emotional truth of what he sees.

Looking at Soutine is never a passive experience, looking at great art seldom is, but the reward for those who are willing to immerse themselves in the claustrophobic, hallucinogenic vision of Chaim Soutine will come away, possibly bruised, but uplifted by what they will experience. If you would like to see a Soutine in a public collection in Scotland then I strongly recommend the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh which has one of Soutine's finest brooding early masterpieces from his Céret series, 'Les Gorges de Loup sur Vence' /  'Le Mas Passe-Temps' Céret. Or if in London then you can view 'The Storm' at The Tate, another volcanic Céret vision from the early 1920's.

Online, for example:

Footnote: The painting titled 'Les Gorges du Loup' has recently been proven to depict a landscape near the village of Céret in the Pyrenees where Soutine moved in 1919.


(c)Alan Watson, 12:00 on 10 June 2015

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