Dervish: On Chaïm Soutine

PARIS. The Occupation. Eighty-three Jewish painters are deported to camps by the Germans and murdered. Soutine goes into hiding in the nearby countryside. For several years he has had an intestinal ulcer. Cancer? A sudden deterioration. Rushed to the Junot clinic in Montmartre, operated on too late, he dies on August 9, 1943, exactly sixteen years ago. He is forty-nine. “Give me a shave, I don’t want to enter the other world with a shaggy beard,” he is said to have yelled before he died.

Soutine’s first big exhibition in France (119 canvases from America, France, Switzerland, England) was undertaken by the Galerie Charpentier, not by an official institution, not one of the museums, which—apart from the Petit Palais and the museum in Grenoble—do not own a single painting of his.

In one of the glass cases at the exhibition a few pages are laid out—his letters: J’ai décidé de rentrer à Chartres, je suis trop triste. . . . Je décidais de ne pas aller à l’invitation de la femme écrivain, elle est trop embêtante.1 A very slanting hand, uncertain, and those strings of letters of uneven size, always sloping downward. Why do I have the impression from merely looking at these letters (I am not a graphologist) that it is the handwriting of a flayed man?

This exhibition was a revelation to me. I write that word with full consciousness of its weight. Soutine’s canvases have fascinated me for thirty years: his meats, the Boeuf écorché, the choirboys, the red groom at Chez Maxime. I discovered Goya after Soutine and perhaps thanks to Soutine. But today for the first time, looking at Soutine’s paintings, I had the impression that a good dozen painters of the first order, his contemporaries and mine, have now disappeared or rather receded to a level of lesser importance: Picasso, the royal tiger of our artistic circus; Braque, a precious poet, a connoisseur of form and color; even the art of the great Rouault, perhaps closest to Soutine, doesn’t always have the same quality of color. In comparison with those of Soutine, some of Rouault’s canvases seem impoverished, less anchored in a vision, more detached; they sometimes seem made with a cookie cutter.

We look at Soutine’s paintings cowedly, so exposed is he here: the hunger, the mud, the Jewish lice and fleas of Smilavichy, from where he had to flee, beaten by the sons of the rabbi because he had made a portrait of their father—a crime: “Thou shalt make unto thee no graven image . . .”—Soutine’s studios in Paris, dirty, with dark, putrefying, foul-smelling pieces of meat, which he sprinkles with blood to “revive” them—portraits of people as if on a rack, children with innocent eyes, eviscerated geese, turkeys, ducks hung from hooks—“I saw a butcher cut the throat of a goose and bloody it . . . I wanted to cry out, but the butcher’s gleeful look forced the cry back into my throat.” Soutine felt his throat—“I feel that cry here always”—Soutine’s studio, the studio of his inspiration or possession, up to the intestinal injury from which he dies; all the fears and obsessions of a powerless medium.


At this exhibition it seemed to me for the first time that here was a contemporary artist who could be spoken of next to Rembrandt and Goya. It never, ever occurred to me to put an equal sign between those two and any contemporary painter. I feel suspicious of myself: Am I letting myself be carried away by enthusiasm; will I read this in a few years with embarrassment, with the awareness that I let myself succumb to a transient mood? After Cézanne, after Van Gogh, whom do I see as Soutine’s equal? Only one, and he is at the opposite end of the spectrum—Bonnard.


It so happens that in Paris we simultaneously have an exhibition of Soutine, born near Minsk, and of Chagall, from Vitebsk. These two eastern European Jews, who came from the poorest ghettos, now celebrate their triumph in Paris; more than that, they have had a profound influence on art in Paris and worldwide. No one nowadays questions their stature, but Chagall is alive—this year he made the decorations for a ballet performed in Paris, he gives interviews; and this man, who is said to be charming, is esteemed more highly by the press and critics than Soutine, although to put the two artists side by side is a misunderstanding. In his first period Chagall gave us the poetry of Russian villages and neighborhoods, peasant huts, Jewish houses, Jewish festivals, holy menorahs, tender memories of love, family, the moon, cows and goats. Chagall expressed all this in an enchanting lyrical form, in a rich, strongly valorized and unexpected range of color, but as he absorbed Paris and left Vitebsk behind, it was as if Chagall’s poetic magic faded away, in his use of color he falls into affectation, his colors are sometimes meaningless and quite facile. Let us imagine a Chagall painting from the last period of Soutine’s wild, elemental canvases, or next to Bonnard’s canvases, where every canvas is a happy new surprise. Chagall’s naked women in raspberry-colored clouds, floating across the sky, and in the same canvas, sharp ultramarines and bigger and bigger crosses with Christ with the Torah. An attempt at a kind of naive religious syncretism, where everything is mixed in together: the Torah and Christ and the cult of sex. Rozanov died, torn apart by this problem. Chagall dissolves it all into jam and calico colors, achieving world renown and the appearance of profundity.

If I speak of Chagall here it is because his exhibition and Soutine’s are in Paris at the same time, because the Vitebsk ghetto was near the ghetto of Śmilowicz and because this background furnished the one with poetry, the other with obsessions. I want only to say that in putting these two names together, we should not lose a sense of a hierarchy of artistic values. Chagall is a poet, an authentic and uneven painter—Soutine is a genius.


What connects such diametrically opposed worlds as Soutine’s madness and Bonnard’s harmony, the most French of French worlds? They are connected by what is most important, their artistic level, their excellence. Bonnard’s painting was and remains for me a “lost paradise,” the last link of the great French school. In the work of Soutine—the greatest painter of the École de Paris, so intimately bound to the French tradition but differing from it, in Soutine’s case in the elemental quality, the expressiveness, the cry—I see the opposite of paradise, the expression of a human life at the end of its tether, an insensate rending apart, joined mysteriously to a wondrous love of life, sanctifying the depths of existence.

The adoring article on Soutine (Figaro Littéraire, June 27, 1959) by Claude Roger-Marx,2 his praise given as if under duress, through a gag, was almost insulting in my view. An indulgent teacher admits a pupil to an exam despite his poor grades: “Malgré ces tares, despite these blots, despite his vices, unevenness, lack of balance, or variation (deséquilibre), Soutine at certain moments rose to the highest summits,” writes Roger-Marx. I would say not “despite,” but “because of.” To think about Soutine’s art in terms of mens sana in corpere sano seems to me empty prattle.

Writing about Soutine, Claude Roger-Marx remarks that it would be interesting to write a whole study on malice in painting (méchanceté). But surely only Roger-Marx could see Soutine’s painting as malicious; he carries into his artistic world such a burden of horror and suffering that the word méchanceté in Roger-Marx sounds, once again, opaque and offensive. Only Goya comes to mind here, the deaf Goya in the last period of his life.

Szittya rightly says in his book on Soutine3 that the French admit only reluctantly that the creators of the École de Paris were mostly foreigners. I won’t even speak of Mauclair’s views,4 which are a model of how not to write about art (he would have liked to shoot the barbarians who disregard pure harmonies and French moderation), but we also see it in criticism like Roger-Marx’s, sensitive to his own French tradition, a good expert on nineteenth-century art. It is a natural reaction: this is not just about France, but about a certain kind of grand tradition, of classical moderation and integrity, to which violence and exhibitionism, the manifestation of brutal elements, are alien.

Ingres already thought that Delacroix painted with a “drunken brush.” Ingres would have died if he had been shown a painting by Soutine and told that a painting like that would be appreciated in his France in a hundred years.

I look at Soutine’s paintings and, thinking in Roger-Marx’s terms, say to myself, “This isn’t French painting.” Truly, it is difficult to imagine an art further removed from what is usually called le génie français, from Poussin to Corot, Bonnard or Vuillard, but Soutine would not have existed without France (nor in all likelihood would Van Gogh). Waldemar George is right5 when he writes that Soutine owes to France not only a culture of art but also an artistic language in which he could express himself. I’ve been told how before the war he was fascinated by seventeenth-century French painters. When he had become famous, he dreamed of buying, if not a canvas, then a drawing of Fragonard. This man, who lived in profound melancholy, in frustration and dull indolence, longed for harmony, for the “refined” style of the eighteenth century. And even the silliest salon, if it was in Paris, impressed him. In Szittya’s book there is a photograph of Soutine with Olga Sacharoff and Hana Orloff in evening gowns.6 Soutine, dressed in an elegant black suit, sits in an armchair at a low table in the “modern style,” at a lamp also “modern,” a banal sofa, on the walls paintings in fancy frames. A model of a salon in a third-rate Paris hotel. Both the ladies expressed the wish to be photographed with Soutine in his studio. Soutine agreed on the condition that his studio be transformed into a salon and that the ladies be in full regalia! This anecdote about Soutine and thousands like it do not seem amusing to me at all. This was a man whose sense of self was not at the level of his genius and his fate.


Van Gogh, who on the surface has so much in common with Soutine (Roger-Marx calls him the grandfather, and Soutine the father, of French expressionism), Van Gogh who lived through periods of indigence, suffered hunger, lived for days and days on black coffee and was completely unrecognized up to his death by suicide, seems to me a figure not only less tragic and by far more balanced but almost —happy. The key to Van Gogh’s world, next to his paintings, are his letters: how much reflection, lucidity, devoted, obedient passion for work, an unshakable sense of the hierarchy of values, the same that once drove him as a young preacher to the poorest miners in the Borinage. This suicide with the soul of a dove lived in absolute terms of good and evil, sacrifice, love, and acceptance of his cruel fate. “I would like to die like that peasant, with a calm shrug of the shoulders.”

Of Soutine even his friends speak badly and reluctantly. The legend of Soutine is no doubt trimmed with prejudice and imprecision. It is time to examine it more closely, separating the tales told for effect from the truth, but it seems to be true that this Jew from Śmilowicz, who suddenly attained fame and wealth, broke off contact with friends who spoke Yiddish, didn’t want to see old acquaintances, and ran from elegant openings to fashion shows in his patent leather shoes. The same Soutine bought up his own canvases from art dealers at stiff prices in order to destroy them, not at all because he thought they were bad but because they were too revealing. He feared them like a man with a mania discovering his own tortured, miserable, ridiculous, or frightening face in the mirror, a face that he hated, because he found in it only the contrary of the harmony he sought and longed for. But what kind of harmony could Soutine long for, he who knew Rembrandt and Goya, if not for an angelic harmony, and how could he be nourished by the silly “harmony” of Paris salons or even the harmony of Fragonard?

The scintillation of his canvases, which in his followers, the sub-Soutines of the world, is often mere negligence and accident full of falsity, in Soutine is unerring; he makes use of every accident, he arranges, orchestrates color without a trace of pretentiousness or effect-seeking. In the exhibition at Charpentier there is a little landscape with a red spot on green (an accident?) that is not motivated by anything but which plays like a ruby and seems necessary in the landscape. This value seems to grow with the covering of paint with paint (Soutine was always forced to paint on old, already painted canvases), with corrections that he makes no effort to erase (the arm of an old Jew covered with a bright yellow). His paints seem to burst from the object, forming a sonorous and unbroken tissue.

At the same time it was as if Soutine always knew what Delacroix said was the most difficult thing for an artist; he knew when to stop painting, when inspiration wanes, when the vision of the object we are painting is lost in our knowledge of the object (even if it is the most painterly knowledge) and when everything can be destroyed by an attitude that is more “thought through” than felt.

I won’t even speak of the worst threat to the artist—the desire to underline, to make the work more readable with a thought of the spectator, the moment when an artist spoils everything.

What also characterizes Soutine’s inspiration is that, like Cézanne, he always works “after nature.” Soutine must see, it isn’t enough for him to remember. Biographers speak of his extreme difficulties in finding the right model, the landscape that would set him alight. The search often took months. In a letter to the art patron Zborowski in 1923,* Soutine complains that he can’t paint in Cagnes, where Zborowski sent him, because he loathes Cagnes. Cap Martin, which he also tried, is just as hateful. Soutine can’t paint with partial results, he has to flee from a landscape, from people he doesn’t know how to see.7


We know what an impression Rembrandt and his Boeuf écorché in the Louvre made on Soutine. He traveled to Holland four times to see Rembrandt there. If we sense Rembrandt’s patronage in Soutine’s colors, let us not forget the more essential differences between them, if only the fact that Rembrandt, besides genius, had a great and “cold” command of craft. It is sufficient to trace the slow maturing of Rembrandt’s hand, in the course of years and years, what a path he traveled to the commissioned portraits, objective studies, where the glow of experience is connected, intertwined, with a cold, sharp objectifying attention and knowledge. The young Rembrandt’s portraits, like Goya’s great portraits (in the latter there is even at times, as there never is in Rembrandt, an irritating surfeit of virtuosity; I remember a portrait of a cardinal with shining fingernails), those astonishing portraits never burn like the Boeuf écorché or the Prodigal Son, or Goya’s witch scenes in the Prado, or Soutine’s pictures.

It is hard to believe that a little landscape painted just outside Paris, supposedly by Soutine in 1917, and hung in a hallway at Charpentier, is not a bad forgery; it is the only one that could serve as evidence that Soutine too tried painting without inspiration. But it is probably Soutine’s own very poor kitsch, the exception proving the rule, and proof of how incapable Soutine was of that kind of work. For Soutine it is as if there were no “cold” work, no science of craft, no digging, no sawing. He could never have said, as did Degas, “It would not be so amusing if it weren’t so boring”; when Soutine’s inspiration passed he fell into a dull indolence, a paresse incoercible, in the words of Castaing,8 with whom Soutine lived near Chartres. The same Castaing remembers his bursts of genius, rooted in instinct alone, and quotes Baudelaire: “The more an artist of genius is in touch with his unmediated instinct, the greater he is.”


From the time of Freud on, everyone has been talking about sexual repression, sexual insatiability, about frightening, pathological disorders, which produce this insatiability. Would it occur to any of Soutine’s biographers that in this man, who was in the position to spend as much time as he liked in brothels (about which his biographers write eagerly), but who had more profound erotic and emotional experiences, there could exist other insatiabilities than the erotic, other repressions that tortured him? This man, to be a painter, had to cut himself off from a religious world in which his community had lived for centuries. He tore himself away not only from his father, who beat him and wanted to make a shoemaker out of him, but also from prayer, from Shabbat. The public houses, elegant salons, and openings, the expensive felt hats and gleaming leather boots he wore, how could they satisfy the hunger in him, unwitnessed and tormenting, a hunger for an absolute? The son of a people whose God, jealous in his love, for thousands of years strictly forbade the representation of anything—thou shall not make unto thee any graven image—having torn himself from the trunk of his religion and customs, discovered in Paris a magnificent art tradition and the miserable, pitiful ideal of a wealthy bourgeois, the ideal of “high company” and the salon. Under the skin, unconsciously hungry for another harmony. “If I were a Catholic, I would go to churches all the time”—those are his words. He dreamed for years of painting nuns (was it only the shape of their coif that attracted him?), but didn’t have the nerve to approach them and talk to them. He had a cult of El Greco, whom he barely knew. Soutine, who his whole life painted canvases like bloody and golden tatters, a man raised in a religious ghetto community, allegedly an atheist, who died at a time that was apocalyptic for the Jewish people, this man who was supposedly so weak and idle, why did he paint as he did? The inspiration of the prophets? Kafkaesque visionary states or the mad states of dervishes moving in ecstasy, Africans in the trance of macumba? What fatal power drove Soutine?

Hitler, the annihilation of the Jews—Szittya claims that Soutine was indifferent to all this, that he thought only of himself. Was it really that? The same Szittya also describes his “heroic burst,” when Soutine wanted to volunteer for the French Army in 1939 and that the fact of not being accepted hurt him deeply. Szittya also describes what risks Soutine took writing love letters and sending money to a friend, a German Jewish woman deported to the camps.

Was it indifference, or panic, the refusal to read a newspaper from 1940 to 1943?

“We are hiding behind corpses, why do we play this hide-and-seek, we are worn by fear and so the ogre will devour us anyway.”

Everything I’ve read or heard so far about Soutine’s inner world is so trivial, so uncertain in comparison with his canvases—the confessions of a deaf-mute, canvases he painted with passion and fury and that he could suddenly hate so much that he cut them to dozens of pieces with a kitchen knife and threw them onto the garbage heap. “None of them would be able to destroy their canvases like that”—he said with a child’s happy laugh.

Soutine—a dervish and a genius.

September 1959

*“Szittya writes viciously of Zborowski and unjustly makes of that sick poet and art dealer—who was perhaps unreliable at times, but always felt solidarity with poor painters against the ‘bourgeois’—a cold speculator and a snob, pretending to be an homme du monde. It took more than a snob and a speculator to be a friend to Modigliani, Derain, Kisling, Soutine, to be their dealer when no one was yet interested in them. I read Waldemar George with gratitude in the introduction to the Soutine exhibition catalog: ‘Soutine’s first dealer, Zborowski, defended him fiercely and passionately. No one will ever state with sufficient force the services to art done by that merchant, who died in poverty.’” [J. C.]

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