The most well-known story about Chaim Soutine has him alarming his Montparnasse neighbors by bringing in fresh sides of beef to paint, and dousing the carcasses, as he turned out one gory, ecstatic still life after another, with blood to keep them fresh.
Born outside Minsk, in what is now Belarus, Soutine (1893-1943) arrived in Paris in 1913. There he endured almost a decade of struggle before finding a few patrons, most notably Albert C. Barnes, the great Philadelphia collector, who catapulted Soutine to fame and fortune when he bought every canvas in the painter’s studio in 1922.
The blood story, dating to the mid-1920s, may or may not be true. Hardworking but unworldly, Soutine made things difficult for historians by destroying his own paintings when he didn’t like them, leaving others unsigned and never keeping a diary. But the anecdote captures an essential truth about Soutine’s interest in his most famous subject matter: It wasn’t about accuracy of colors, or whatever stories he himself told about the kosher butchers of his childhood, or a fixation on death. It was about using his brush as a scalpel to reveal the immaterial force of the material world.
The centerpiece of “Chaim Soutine: Flesh,” a new exhibition of more than 30 paintings at the Jewish Museum, is a stupendous example, his “Carcass of Beef” (circa 1925), borrowed from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. But to lead to it, the curator Stephen Brown, in consultation with the Soutine scholars Esti Dunow and Maurice Tuchman, has assembled a well-paced procession of other still lifes that demonstrate the peculiarities of Soutine’s style: naked fowl; silver herring; a giant ray fish, inspired by Chardin; and explosive bursts of popeyed sardines.
“Still Life With Artichoke” (circa 1916) shows a simple, if oddly asymmetrical, place setting in which all the objects seem alive. The fork bends gently, like a wrist; two lemons press impatiently against the lip of a plate; the long-stemmed artichoke lies like an exhausted lover.
The painting is also an unusually easy-to-read example of Soutine’s distinctive perspectival wobble. In later paintings, lines seem so far askew that if you stand too close, as most people do, you may think you’re looking at a world deranged. But here, the distortion is gentler. Even from inches away, you can see how it ties the whole scene into a single, expressive gesture, giving it almost as much motion and continuity as a glimpse of real life.
In other paintings, a few partially plucked, not necessarily dead chickens exemplify Soutine’s talent for finding action in stillness and wringing spiritual meaning out of physical facts: Ruffs of black feathers, swinging sideways on their yellow necks, stand in for the sudden, annihilating strokes of a butcher’s ax. Two turkeys, one a stormy froth of yellow and orange, the other a feathery spattering of dashes and drips, anticipate Abstract Expressionism. And in “Side of Beef With a Calf’s Head” (circa 1923), broad, patchwork strokes of red, white and green give an abstracted but vivid sense of the complicated harmony of a living body.
Then you get to the mountaintop and meet “Carcass of Beef.” Here, a glistening scarlet carcass, streaked with orange fat and sliced open to reveal a skeletal Jacob’s ladder of parallel lines, seems to tumble out of the canvas, one thigh cocked as if it were kicking itself up into a headstand. An abstract blue background, speckled with white and marked, on the right side, by a framework of thick strokes that echoes the body’s exposed rib cage, does more than throw the figure forward by contrast. By evoking a starry sky, it makes the tumbling body — sacrificed, you might say, to art — look as if it were straddling the cosmos.
Along with an oil-on-panel fish, modeled on a Courbet, and a plucked goose whose broken neck allows its head to lie gracefully beside it, the exhibition’s final room contains a couple of barnyard animals Soutine made while in hiding in the French countryside after the Nazi invasion of Paris in 1940.
The best of them is “Sheep Behind a Fence.” A patchwork of creamy off-whites and off-browns, it also contains scattered daubs of maroon, the color of dried blood, as if the artist could see right through the animal’s body to the action within. The sheep leans into a fence that angles out with its body, and pulls back its lips to expose a few sad teeth. Behind it the emerald-green pasture rises to two dramatic crests that look like waves, but they’re rolling with streaky, bluish-white sky instead of ocean foam. It’s not clear if the creature is singing or trying to escape.
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