Bogus Theories No Match for Chaïm Soutine’s Art

Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943), whose paintings are currently the subject of a very oddly conceived exhibition at the Jewish Museum, was one of those rare modern artists who left virtually no paper trail. He didn’t theorize about his art, he didn’t give interviews about his life, he drafted no manifestos, and the few letters that survive tell us little about the only reason we have to be interested in Soutine: his paintings. Yet the paintings, though they may strike us-particularly on our initial encounter-as maelstroms of personal emotion, are curiously vacant of autobiographical revelation. The only thing they finally tell us about Soutine is that he was a very remarkable painter.

You might think that such a paucity of documentation would discourage attempts to embellish the record with the usual intellectual fancywork, but that would be expecting too much. Like nature, the art world, too, abhors a vacuum, and so in the absence of reliable documentation-in Soutine’s case, there isn’t even a corpus of drawings to consult-there are always critics and curators eager to supply some factitious inventions of their own. I would be tempted to call this variety of art-world historiography the Van Gogh’s Ear school of art writing, but Soutine’s life offers no comparable episode of self-mutilation. The damage that has been inflicted upon the artist’s reputation is largely the work of writers for whom the paintings are not sufficient in themselves to explain Soutine’s importance.

Given that the current exhibition at the Jewish Museum is the first to be devoted to Soutine in a New York museum in half a century-the last was the show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950-it would have been a considerable mercy if it had been made the occasion for a fresh look at the artist’s work. But that, too, apparently, would be expecting too much in the current climate of the art world. So what we are given in the exhibition that Norman Kleeblatt and Kenneth Silver have mounted at the Jewish Museum under the title An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaïm Soutine , is not a fresh “reading” of Soutine’s art but a recapitulation and extension of the readings and misreadings that have attached themselves to the artist’s oeuvre in the recent past. What we are presented with in An Expressionist in Paris is, in other words, a “postmodern” look at a very modern master.

Foremost among the consequences of this postmodern approach to Soutine is the abandonment of even a rudimentary attempt to establish a chronological account of the artist’s development. For partisans of postmodernist theory, chronology is now regarded as an unacceptably “linear” approach to an artist’s oeuvre . For one thing, it doesn’t allow the critic or curator sufficient opportunity to be “creative” in presenting an artist’s work. And for another, it doesn’t afford sufficient attention to all the extra-artistic interests that are now the fashion in academic art circles. So chronology must be jumbled at every turn to make the oeuvre conform to whatever scenario the organizers of the exhibition deem to be acceptable to current academic interests.

In the catalogue for the current show at the Jewish Museum, Messrs. Kleeblatt and Silver are nothing if not explicit in delineating the scenario that their exhibition is designed to illustrate. Rejecting what they characterize as “a positive linear progression from early to late (a retrospective, in other words),” it is their belief that “Soutine would best be served by presenting three distinct and convincing readings of his work, which had been offered during three different periods.” (It is worth noting that no claim is made for the accuracy of these “convincing” readings.) Thus, the only chronology that is observed in An Expressionist in Paris is, as they acknowledge, “the chronology of Soutine’s critical reception.” This effectively shifts the focus of the exhibition away from what Soutine was actually accomplishing in his painting in order to concentrate on a sociology of taste and interpretation-than which, alas, nothing could be more damaging to an understanding of the artist’s creative powers.

And it isn’t as if Messrs. Kleeblatt and Silver can always be relied upon to give us an entirely accurate account of what some of these “convincing” readings amounted to. About the central role played by Albert Barnes in establishing Soutine’s place in the canon of modern painting-and not only in this country but in France as well-they give us a shamefully confused and inadequate account. While on the one hand acknowledging that Barnes, who was the single greatest collector of Soutine’s paintings, saw the artist “as inheritor of Cézanne’s artistic legacy,” they muddle the whole issue by suggesting that he also considered Soutine a representative of what is now called “outsider” art, presumably because Barnes also collected the work of Horace Pippin. This is a grotesque distortion of the many clear and intelligent observations Barnes has left us in his writings about Soutine.

What is really going on in this attempt to downgrade Barnes’ importance as an authoritative reader of Soutine’s esthetic is the campaign among academic art historians to discredit so-called “formalist” criticism in order to establish the priority of postmodernist methodologies, which are fundamentally inimical to the study of pictorial form. As for what the geniuses of postmodernist criticism are offering as an alternative to this despised formalism, how about this tidbit from the text of Messrs. Kleeblatt and Silver: “Couldn’t Soutine’s eruptive, vertiginous landscapes be construed as recollections of a ravaged Europe, or even as the foreshadowing of an apocalyptic post-atomic future?” Poor Soutine! He wanted nothing more from life than to take his place among the greatest masters of the art of painting, and now he is stuck with the rap of prophesying “an apocalyptic post-atomic future.” It would be laughable if it wasn’t so contemptible.

Never mind. Despite the muddle that has been imposed upon it by its organizers, An Expressionist in Paris is an exhibition that everyone with a serious interest in the art of painting will want to see-and preferably more than once. Indeed, the best way to see this exhibition is to go through it the first time in order to figure out the order in which the paintings themselves suggest that they be seen. On a second visit, one can thus avoid some of the recurrent irritations caused by the blind “eye” with which the organizers have installed the show.

As for what to look for in Soutine’s paintings, newcomers to his art might benefit from acquainting themselves with some of the despised Albert Barnes’ analyses of the artist’s work. Here, for example, are a couple of paragraphs from The Art of Cézanne , which Barnes published in 1939.

“Soutine’s paintings, although they seem so individual, even so bizarre, owe much of their very originality and bizarreness to his use of basic features in Cézanne’s form. He emphasizes, by means of a pattern of broad color-areas, the location, direction and shape of the main plane occupied by each of the units together with their intersection at contrasting angles. This emphasis involves, as in Cézanne, simplification of representative detail, positiveness of shapes, flattening of rounded surfaces by means of facets or planes, pronounced linear contour of color, accentuation of linear perspective, and surface-pattern of technique.

“A more direct and specific derivation from Cézanne appears in Soutine’s grouping of parallel or crisscross brushstrokes into series of angular patches, which, by their relationships of color, light-and-dark, and shape, establish sequences of contrasting small units throughout the surface of the canvas. This produces an all-over compositional color-pattern of patches or planes placed in definitely contrasting directions.” And so on.

Does that reference to “an all-over compositional color-pattern of patches or planes placed in definitely contrasting directions” ring a bell? Well, yes. That’s pretty much the way some of the painters of the Abstract Expressionist generation in New York came to see Soutine in the 1940’s and 50’s. Barnes’ prose is admittedly not as sexy as all that talk about the “post-atomic future,” but it does have the humble virtue of alerting us to the essential character and quality of Soutine’s pictorial accomplishment.

An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaïm Soutine remains on view at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, through Aug. 16, and it should be noted that the museum is closed on Fridays and Saturdays.

Bogus Theories No Match for Chaïm Soutine’s Art