It’s a Crime!

Peter Campbell

Destroying his Céret paintings became an actual diversion, strangely entertaining to him, enjoyable like the savagery of the wrestling matches he regularly attended. He would install his mistress in a café, go in search of a Céret picture he had heard some dealer owned, exchange with him a new picture for the old one, and ritually, happily, destroy it.

There is no very clear correlation between what artists think of their work and what other people think – except that artists who are really pleased with everything they do seldom really please everyone else – but Soutine’s attitude to the early landscapes painted at Céret obviously sustains an account of the painter which emphasises the emotional and irrational. Esti Dunow writes here that ‘much criticism, from early on ... has engendered and perpetuated certain misconceptions.’ There is, she says, ‘a tendency to see Soutine as an undisciplined, almost crazed artist, outside history, whose growing reverence for and study of the past diminished his natural gifts’. Not true, she says. He was, rather, ‘a focused, deliberate artist whose passion was channelled into formal structure’.

The truth of these alternative views cannot be tested against biographical sources. Fuller accounts would not necessarily make us lean one way or the other. The comparatively meagre records we have are at odds about such fundamentals as the way he went about making a painting, some emphasising his manic attacks on the canvas, others his careful procedures and planning. There are no manifestos, no long interviews, he wasn’t part of a group endeavour, a school, a theory of painting. Soutine did not advance over ground cleared by heavy critical artillery; he was a collector’s painter. His are physical pictures: physical in their emphasis on the quality of paint as a coagulating, smeared substance; physical in their emphasis on the flesh of animals, on human faces and on landscapes which are blown about like trees in the wind – all things animated. Soutine’s intentions, the way the work of other painters may have influenced him, can only suggest ways of looking. In the most important matters the paintings must speak for themselves. What is at issue is not what Soutine felt and thought as he thrashed or stroked a canvas but how we feel and think as we look at the results.

It is clear, however, that there are elements of his personality – in particular an awareness of the danger and mystery which attaches to the making of images – which came from the life he knew in Smilovitchi, the Lithuanian village near Minsk where he was born to a Jewish clothes-mender and his wife in 1893. In what he overcame to become a painter he demonstrated a stubborn passion for picture-making.

As a child he would draw on any scrap of paper, or with charcoal on the wall. He was mocked for this. His father wished him to become a cobbler or a tailor. His brothers taunted him, saying: ‘A Jew must not paint.’ He once ran away and hid in the woods. When hunger drove him back home he found milk and warm black bread, which he loved, waiting for him on the table. But when he crept into the kitchen he was beaten again by his brothers. Once, when he was about sixteen, he asked a pious Jew to pose for a portrait. The next day the man’s sons and his friends beat Soutine up and left him for dead. He brought a complaint – it was a week before he could walk again – and did, in the end, get compensation: 25 roubles. Using this money, Soutine and a friend, Michel Kikoïne, set off for Minsk to become artists. Later he went to the School of Fine Arts at Vilna. He was shy. In his private work, always done from nature, he chose sad subjects. He hid his work and (even then) angrily destroyed pieces which he did not like.

In the course of his three years in Vilna he saved enough money for a train ticket to Paris. He arrived there in 1913. For the next six years he lived in abject poverty. In 1919 the dealer Zborowski gave him a few hundred francs and he went to live in Céret in the Pyrenees. In the Céret landscapes violent surfaces and convoluted space reach a peak of expressiveness which it is hard not to read as fury. He both deprecated his own work and thought it better than that of his contemporaries: he was ‘better than Modigliani, Chagall and Krémègne. Some day I will destroy my canvases but they are too cowardly to do it.’

In 1923 the American collector, Albert Barnes, bought scores of his paintings (between fifty and a hundred canvases). One story has it that he was visiting Zborowski, and by chance saw one of Soutine’s paintings in a corner. Barnes’s patronage established a demand for his work; now that he was successful Soutine avoided old stamping grounds and dropped old acquaintances. In the Thirties he painted less and spent more time looking for the right subject. Living as a Jew in France during the Occupation, and threatened with discovery, he was forced to move from place to place. The stomach ulcer he suffered from got worse. In August 1943 he had a severe rupture and died during an operation which had been delayed by the difficulty of getting him to a Paris clinic.

In the latter part of his life he was much supported by Madeleine Castaing and her husband. Her ‘Memories of Soutine’ in the catalogue of the 1982 Arts Council exhibition only runs to a couple of pages, but the picture they give of the genius as spoilt and adored child is worth a footnote in the psychopathology of art. ‘The unpredictable was our routine: our hope? – to see the urge to paint come over him. Then we would get busy to make everything easy for him – but without seeming to put ourselves out. He was contrariness itself – everything had to disappear, children, gardeners, ourselves.’ Once when the Castaings returned from a trip they noticed a smell of paint in the house: the painting was discovered in the attic under the billiard table; Soutine came back to the house, and later that night was heard creeping upstairs; armed with knife and petrol he was about to destroy the painting. ‘ “Soutine, it’s a masterpiece! It’s a crime!” “Why did you look at it, you should have waited for me.” “Yes you’re right but we were so thrilled to know you’d been working. Let’s look at it together.” And so we spent part of the night all together in a state of high excitement.’ Mme Castaing also helped find canvases for him: ‘he would use only 17th-century paintings on their original stretcher, which gave just the painting surface he required.’ He was thus guaranteeing that at least one painting would be destroyed every time he put brush to canvas.

While biography can usually only dramatise the performance of making the paintings, not explain them, there is one story which sheds real light on Soutine’s long affair with dead animals. The memories he brought from the shtetl were not Chagall-like fairytales. He once spoke of watching the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it. ‘I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat.’ At this point in the story, it is reported, he patted his throat. ‘This cry, I always felt it there. When as a child I drew a crude portrait of my professor, I tried to rid myself of this cry, but in vain. When I painted the beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate. I have still not succeeded.’

The catalogue reproduces all the paintings in colour, arranged by theme and date. Soutine did not paint many kinds of picture. Mere listing of subjects obscures this; there are, after all, landscapes (usually hilly, often dominated by trees or buildings); portraits (often of boys or men in uniform – waiters, cooks, choirboys). There are pictures of women (often identifiable as servants); still-lifes (mostly including dead animals, or of dead animals alone) and some flower pieces. This seems a rich enough repertory, but there is much repetition – he painted the same subjects over and over – and the disposition of the figures in the portraits, predominantly three-quarter lengths, is repetitious. All are more or less the same, moderate size: the smaller dimension usually between 12 and 24 inches, the larger between two, and a little over three, feet. There is one other point all accounts of his way of working emphasise: everything was painted from life. When he repeated the composition of a Chardin still-life with skate, or Rembrandt’s woman bathing, he set up the scene again, he did not copy the painting.

His later work is less distorted: the early portraits, if not exactly caricatures, do use caricature-like distortions. As the images move closer to the representational norm the paint gets less sticky, and colours become paler. But early works and late have so much in common that it is easy to claim that he was always trying to do the same thing – render appearances – and outside influences (Rembrandt, Cézanne, Chardin, Van Gogh, Cubism) do not so much change the direction of his endeavours as bring him back to the central problem: how to make paintings in which surface and subject keep their autonomy and at the same time work together. The more the surface of the picture is encouraged to have a life of its own, the greater the distortion of form which takes place.

A brush stroke is a mark; it is also the action which makes the mark. The marks are the painting – its physical substance. The sequence of actions is its history. This curious feature of painting – that it is capable of carrying the history of its making – is sometimes seen as important, sometimes ignored. Emphasis on the expressive qualities of the picture surface was doubtless encouraged by the invention of photography, but long predates it. Rubens was putting his own rhythm into the rhythm of the seen world, giving it a swing, as if setting it to music, in a way which can as properly be described as action painting as Jackson Pollock’s swinging drips.

The common notion is that post-photographic painting, relieved of the responsibility of representing appearances, escaped into new modes of picture-making. This ignores continuities. The kind of distortions Soutine made have a history which stretches back to Mannerism and beyond; to appreciate what he was doing, distortions have to be distinguished from other kinds of manipulation.

The ‘true map’ of the photograph, the projection of what is seen onto a plane surface, can be transformed by the addition of texture: a division of the surface into patches in which the continuously changing values of the picture surface are given single values, or values which emphasise their relation to other patches. Thus outlines, brush strokes and the mechanical dots of colour reproduction. Colour values are adjusted (warmer, cooler, purple shadows, orange skies). Changing the relation of the picture plane to the viewer results in apparent distortions. For example, the objects seen in wide angle and telephoto views, when the photographs are printed the same size and seen from the same distance, seem in the former case unnaturally spread out and in the latter crowded together. Topological transformation turns things seen in distorting mirrors into stretched, squeezed and skewed versions of a ‘true projection’. These distortions have their own syntax. The etiolated version is sad, elegant, emotionally serious. The squat version is funny, cheerful or grotesque. So figures in fashion plates tend to be pulled out, caricatures and cartoon characters to be squashed up.

There are of course other kinds of transformation and representation. The mixture of elements of different elevations – profile and full face – in some of Picasso’s paintings cannot be achieved by a distorting mirror. But something very like these can be achieved with scissors and paste, as Hockney has shown in his photographic collages. More purely schematic moves, like the children’s drawings which represent what is there, not what is seen (ignoring scale, time, relative position and so on), merge with technical drawings and diagrams which show plans, sections and elevations. Ways of showing change over time and of expressing formal relationships (animations, flow charts and so on) take one to the border of the realm of two-dimensional representation. In Soutine’s paintings transformations are of the ‘rubbery’, not the ‘cut and paste’, kind.

As caricature proves, this kind of distortion can be carried to extremes without destroying likeness: indeed, by emphasising the size of a nose or droop of an eyelid a caricature may be more ‘like’, in the sense of more recognisable, than a photograph. In the Céret landscapes distortion is taken to the point where the eye almost abandons the search for likeness: you see trees, houses, roads and so forth but have little sense of place. In his portraits, on the other hand, particularly his portraits of women, you feel you know, or would recognise, the sitter. A photo of the model who sat for the Farm Girl of 1921 set beside the painting shows that in this case at least the likeness was remarkable.

A catalogue raisonné sets a test few painters pass: to make you want, alter the 100th image, to go on to the 101st. It is not the subject itself that becomes boring – Morandi’s regroupings of bottles sustain one longer than Snyders’s loaded tables and garlands of game. It is either that the painter seems to be working on autopilot, making the same kind of pictures but no longer making you feel there is an active intelligence at work, or that the genre itself fails both maker and viewer. In Soutine’s case some falling off does seem to have taken place. It is possible that the emotional energy which went into his picture-making was harder to find; what was social transgression in his youth now won respect and money. But I think it is more likely that, despite his habit of painting from the subject, he never had that engagement with the changing appearance of the visual world which was Impressionism’s particular gift to 20th-century painting, nor the appetite for invention, construction and analysis which was Cézanne’s. His later canvases are still beautifully painted, his colour is still alive, but something is missing. All the evidence suggests that painting was always an obsession, but it is not clear that it was ever, for him, a happy activity. The worst suspicion is that we are implicated in this – that what we want from the paintings is, in part, evidence of his unhappiness, as a final proof of his sincerity. In the end yon tire of his company. You do not wish to stay in his world, as you wish to stay in Bonnard’s. With admiration for his talent undiminished you slip away.