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It is rare that an exhibition pushes curatorial conventions, particularly in a monographic show which is so dependent on the stylistic development of an artist. The exhibition An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine held at the Jewish Museum (1998), however, bypassed standard organizational principles of chronology or thematic genres and concentrated, instead, on the history of Soutine’s critical reception. The unorthodox groupings allowed us to look at Soutine, as well as the apparatus of art criticism, anew. To be sure, as the first retrospective of the artist’s work to be organized in thirty years, our eyes were bound to be opened, but the exhibition was conceptualized in such a way as to work to Soutine’s benefit.
Soutine is an uneven artist and his canvases run the gamut from the unconvincingly overwrought to the brilliantly unresolved. His famous garçons with their quivering line and greasy facture are right up there with Edith Piaf and a croque monsieur as clichés of Frenchness. At the other extreme are the extraordinary landscapes of Ceret, which push the limits of pictorial coherence and the oil medium. Although it is risky to hang a show according to words rather than images, in this installation visual intensity was not diminished. To the contrary, the strong balanced the weak, unexpected links were made with art historical traditions and Soutine’s contemporaries, and the true depth of his work emerged.
The excellent catalogue elucidates the structure of the exhibition, setting forth what the curators have discerned as the three dominant interpretations of Soutine and his art: Soutine as inspired primitive, as the messiah of a painterly French art, and as a prophet of Abstract Expressionism. The latter actually incorporated a fourth context: that of Soutine’s art as the embodiment of the tragic consciousness of modern man. The first two views took hold in his lifetime in the 1920s and 1930s; the third in postwar America and in the wake of the Holocaust. The publication is a model of research and scholarly writing (even the translated essays read smoothly). It not only covers the historiographic territory mapped out in the introduction, but also provides fascinating information on collecting and conservation (although a nice footnote to the history of Soutine’s market would have been Roald Dahl’s essay “Skin” of 1953). The illustrated biography by Billy Kluver and Julie Martin helps to alleviate the paucity of documentation on Soutine and, in doing so, qualifies some of the more speculative discussion of his personal life and Jewish identity. The core of the catalogue, however, are the essays by Silver, Kleeblatt, and Romy Golan: they deftly analyze the shifts in Soutine’s critical reputation and their relationship to such factors as French national identity, the art market, the Holocaust and the rise of formalist criticism. Silver and Golan are on familiar ground here, having documented the effects of the “return to order” and anti-Semitism on the critical fortunes of artists between the wars. Nevertheless, most of the material is fresh and the focus on Soutine, exemplary for its intertextual analysis.
Silver recounts how Soutine’s “Jewish spirit” became the leitmotif of interpretations before World War II, by Jewish and non-Jewish writers alike, and even when the artist was seen as a French primitive or “French Expressionist.” Indeed, as he argues, it was precisely Soutine’s status as “outsider,” that allowed him to be positioned as the savior of the French tradition, the emotive deformation of his work being heralded by critics as a needed antidote to the arid conceptualizations of the native “avant-garde.” Silver then goes beyond historiography to address the issue of Jewish identity in an oeuvre decidedly lacking in religious subject matter. Focusing on the vivid and carnal array of foodstuffs, he observes that Soutine’s still lifes are emphatically non-kosher: they represent a system of preparation and consumption—French, Christian, and abundant— at odds with the dietary restrictions of his orthodox and shtetl upbringing. Though speculative, and in part owing to the Soutine scholar Maurice Tuchman, Silver’s interpretation is nonetheless dazzling: “Did not the luxury of French gustation have an especially brilliant, if troubling, allure? It is the combined power of the Jewish ghetto of his childhood and the France of his maturity that gives these works their austere power, where the Jewish laws of kashruth come against the gustatory protocols of French cuisine.” France was for Soutine what Soutine was for France: mirror images, and their reflection is located in these images of culinary habits. Impressive not only for the quality of writing, Silver’s excursus confirms how identity is often more revealingly inscribed in depictions of the “other” rather than the “self.”
Though Kleeblatt discusses the degree to which the “Jewish spirit” continued to play a role in the postwar American criticism on Soutine, it seems that on the whole, the issue was somewhat downplayed (and/or sublimated) by comparison to the French. This may be due to the relative heterogeneity of New York, to post-Holocaust sensitivity or the ascendance of formalist criticism with its emphasis on the autonomy of pictorial values. Soutine emerges retrospectively as a precursor of the bohemian “wildman,” of explosive action painting, and of a timeless tragic quality—all key characteristics of the New York School. Indeed, the writings on Soutine (especially the essay by Jack Tworkov) reveal more about the values of contemporary painting—"arrogant and cocksure"—than about the artist’s work itself. Kleeblatt’s essay ends with a fascinating reading of Clement Greenberg’s take on Soutine: significantly, the chief Rabbi of formalist criticism rejected Soutine’s painting for its recourse to the old masters, literary qualities, and lack of structure. But as Kleeblatt argues, Soutine was ultimately “not Greenberg’s kind of Jew.” Having recently reconfigured his Jewish identity towards cosmopolitanism and assimilation Greenberg could not tolerate the anxious immigrant or shtetl culture seemingly so redolent in Soutine’s art.
The critical largesse afforded Soutine in postwar America begs the question of his status in postwar France: while given token retrospectives and included in postwar surveys, Soutine was not at all positioned as a precursor to contemporary Art Brut and the Informel, but rather elegantly sidelined as an Old Master. This is all the more surprising when we consider, as Golan points out in her essay, how qualities of homelessness and anxiety applied regularly to Jewish artists in the 20s and 30s were now used to describe the postwar existentialist worldview. Taking the model of what recent historical studies term the “Vichy Syndrome,” Golan exposes the compensatory discourse of postwar art criticism, emerging out of collective guilt, denial, and historical amnesia. As a Jew and victim, Soutine, could neither serve the role of defiant “degenerate” artist, nor of heroic resistor/witness. Rather, as she puts it, his painting of the tragic condition was a sight too close for comfort—the site of French complicity in the Holocaust.
It is the thesis of the show and catalogue that Soutine was an “Expressionist with a difference.” He painted in what was historically a “Germanic” style, yet one apart from his fellow ‘French Expressionists" and naïfs, who were also fluent with impasto and distortion. He is therefore dubbed a “liminal” figure, “one at the edges of critical discourse,” though curiously enough the curators do not acknowledge that by assigning him to the pale, they inadvertently reinforce the stereotype of the Jewish artist. This is likely due to the fact that they themselves wanted to avoid the overdetermined use of religion and ethnicity that has so characterized the literature under their review. As Silver and Kleeblatt write in the introduction: "If to understate the case for the relevance of Soutine’s Jewishness to his art would be to evade our responsibilities as historians, to overstate it would be to perpetuate the process of stereotyping evident in so much of the criticism." Yet as the “key historiographic signifier,” Soutine’s Jewishness seems inescapable (and since persecution under Vichy hastened Soutine’s death from an untreated stomach ulcer, it was clearly inescapable). Aside from the meta-narratives, which they explicate; the catalogue texts are of particular value for the ways in which the authors themselves evince tension and contradiction in their evaluation of the Jewishness of Soutine’s art. They reveal the limits of interpretations—in particular how the problem of the stereotype, being based upon binary opposition of otherness, can fold back upon the interpreter in question.
Before going on, what proof do we have of Soutine’s self-identification as a Jew, let alone as a Jewish painter? Very little. Here we have to reconcile the complete lack of words, writing and pertinent images by the artist himself, with the critical reception that dwells overwhelmingly on Soutine would have been aware of how his Jewishness was being used to advance his art (and to attack it). Yet we have no indication that he resented this: if anything, the fact that favorable critics close to him took this line, suggested his indifference, if not tacit approval. We learn in his biography that Soutine ate pork, that he had hoped to marry Elie Faure’s daughter, that he became an intimate of the haute bourgeois Castaings and their milieu, and that his last companion was a devout Catholic. Clearly he was not bound by the proscriptions of his orthodox upbringing; he rejected much of them in fact, even as his ethnicity and immigrant status loomed large. Only Kleeblatt’s essay acknowledges how relentless is the myth of Soutine’s impoverishment and exile, despite the fact that his commercial and social successes represented the “flip side of tragedy.”
Given the lack of statements by the artist and religious subject matter then, critics have inevitably fallen back upon style as the index of Soutine’s Jewishness. It is longstanding in the art historical tradition to speak of Expressionism as a style of rootlessness, despair, and anxiety (although it is important to note that these symptoms are applied to German as well as Jewish artists). Whereas Silver managed to circumvent this reading through his novel analysis of Soutine’ subject matter, Donald Kuspit digs in his heels. Taking his argument from Adorno’s notion of shudder—essentially the subject’s spontaneous, ur-response to the all-oppressive forces of the outside world—Kuspit’s argument is the same old Soutine as stereotype of the angst-ridden-Jew—though with a vengeance. Soutine’s paintings are “pure shudder,” in particular, the “Jewish shudder,” a “miserable sign of outcast Jewishness.” Kuspit claims that Soutine “struggled to maintain his sense of aliveness” against both the “retaliatory reactiveness” of the shtetl milieu and the Christian “world spirit,” but really the latter becomes the target here. He labels Werner Haftmann and Maurice Raynal’s criticism on Soutine “anti-Semitic,” and similarly indicts other “Christian art historians” who use the term peintre maudit, which is nothing more than “a condescending lie and evasion.” For Soutine’s painting is depressive, according to Kuspit, and “is beautiful only to Christians, who want to deny their responsibility for it.” Much, though not all, of the criticism on Soutine is explicitly or implicitly anti-Semitic, as Golan has shown elsewhere. But Kuspit does not accuse the Jewish critics who similarly described Soutine’s art in the “anti-Semitic” terms of melancholy and suffering, and one is left questioning the authority of his statements.
But back to the issue of Soutine as a liminal figure. To criticize a show for something it did not set out to do is unfair, and this show covered its ground superbly: an Expressionist in Paris. Yet the positioning of Soutine “between categories” without a glance to German Expressionist predecessors or contemporaries is somewhat wanting. (Significantly Van Gogh is always cited as a predecessor—being Dutch, the comparison is acceptable). Of course, the very lack of reference to German examples in the context of 1920s and 30s France is significant: Germany was still perceived as enemy and cultural rival, so it was natural for French critics to write her out. Silver alludes to this when he briefly accounts for the invented phenomenon of “French Expressionism” between the wars. But more is needed on the period’s refusal to compare Soutine to the German Expressionists, on the absence of a discourse that continues in the present catalogue. (Was there, by the way, any writing on Soutine by German critics of the 1920s and 30s before the Nazis came to power?) Quoting Esti Dunow, another Soutine specialist, Silver dismisses the influence of Germanic Expressionists, claiming a difference between Soutine’s rootedness in nature and the Germans’ cerebral overtones. Aside from the inaccuracy of such generalizations, they overlook the debates within Germany itself over the content and aims of the movement. While completely individual, Soutine’s work does in fact bear comparison with aspects of that by Kirchner, Kokoschka, and Nolde. More to the point, his unflattering Self-Portrait and the squished, exploding, and teetering landscapes distinctly recall those by Ludwig Meidner: what is the connection here, with a Jewish German Expressionist? The inability to reconcile Jewish and German in the case of Soutine points to a critical impasse, a taboo, and by default, a still unwritten historiography.
Associate Professor, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, C.U.N.Y.