Fairytales and carcasses

Paintings of Chaim Soutine
By Ellie Lerman

Chaim Soutine, a Jewish Russian emigre living in Paris in the 20th century used his expressionistic technique, rebellious mindset, and ferocious persistence to produce an oeuvre of countless influential landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. Soutine’s acclaimed ‘Carcass of Beef’, inspired by Rembrandt, exposes his preoccupation with death and violence. It is rumoured that he let his carcasses rot and would acquire fresh blood to pour over the meat to produce a vivid colour. Soutine’s methods of tackling violence in his work are both traumatic and therapeutic, possibly responding to the abuse, poverty, and punishment he endured as a young boy for fighting against the strict Talmudic law in the Shtetl. The hardship he underwent eventually led Soutine to migrate to Paris to pursue his painting.

Soutine was as a social outcast, branded as part of the ‘Ecole de Paris’, which described Jewish artists who lived and worked in Paris, but were decidedly not French. It is this exclusion that drives the unembarrassed, undeniably Jewish naiveté and spontaneity in his work; creating a melancholy that is the foundation to his devastated and distorted landscapes. This can be seen in the claustrophobic landscape Hill at Céret (1921) composed of swirling, franticly painted forms that reach a climax at the top of the canvas, causing the viewer’s eye to shoot up the piece in one short, anxious leap. The town appears ravaged, as if it had been violently ripped apart and carelessly put back together again, evoking a juxtaposing sense of anger and terror. A lone house precariously balances on the apex of the hill, a respite tantalisingly out of the viewer’s reach.

Soutine’s landscape genres can be sectioned into two periods- the Cagnes and the Céret period, in which he resided and painted in areas of Southern France. The stylistic shift from Cagnes to Céret can be seen in Houses of Cagnes/ View of Cagnes (1924-5) which demonstrates reduced abstraction, greater structural resolution, cool separate colours and plenty of breathing room allowed for the sky. The space in this picture opens out, allowing for distance and perspective of the calm town pictured. The blue, green and ochre palette evokes a serene atmosphere; and the stacked, condensed forms of the buildings appear comfortably nestled in their coastal surroundings.

While the bulging houses of the town remain main focus of the picture, they do not greedily fill the space as a Céret landscape would have done. Disposed of is the dark, dynamic mood of the Cérets, replaced instead with curvilinear rhythms that open the picture plane, and create a delicate ‘fairy-tale extravagance’. As seen in the shift from the eruptive, vertiginous Cérets to the calm, delicately composed Cagnes works Soutine’s identity growth can be mapped alongside his stylistic explorations; and his use of the Landscape is essential in expressing his individuality.

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© Helicon Magazine 2019

University of Bristol