Happy Birthday Chaim Soutine (1893-1943)!
by Samuel D. Gruber
It was only recently that I learned that I shared a birthday (January 13) with Chaim Soutine, one of my favorite painters. (Actually, though it is accepted that Soutine was born in 1893, the actual date is uncertain, but January 13th is frequently cited).
Soutine's colorful, messy, exuberant, thickly-laid, sometimes tortured, and wildly convulsed canvases are among the most purely painterly art works of the 20th century. Where Picasso was cool, Soutine was hot. Where Modigliani (Soutine's best friend) was dispassionate, Soutine was emotional. Where Chagall used narrative and symbols, Soutine's works tended toward the iconic: a face, a side of beef, a row of tilting houses. His energetic, sometimes manic brushwork jumps from the canvas, often entirely independent of the subject, and for this he is often considered the forerunner of Abstract Expressionism. Certainly Soutine always used subject - even if he did not need it. Though he looked back Rembrandt, there could not be De Kooning or Krassner if there had not been Soutine, and not Francis Bacon, either.
"When you live in a dirty hole like Smilovichi, you cannot imagine that cities like Paris exist," Soutine is reported to have told a friend (Meisler, p. 9). Unlike Chagall, for whom his early life amid Jewish rituals, customs and language provided an endless source of nostalgia and interpretation, Soutine took his inspiration from artists of the past, what he saw with his own eyes, and his emotional state. Still, most of Soutine closest friends were other Jewish artists, especially in his early years in Paris. Soutine didn't speak or write about his art, and much of what we know of his life is anecdotal and told years after the events. So unlike interpretation of the work of many of his contemporaries, almost all analysis of Soutine's oeuvre must, the end, be personal, subjective and mostly ahistoric.
Soutine died in 1943. He escaped Nazi round-ups and lived on the run in France until his he died at age 50 after an emergency operation.
Any time is a good time to reacquaint oneself with the art of Chaim Soutine. So, Happy Birthday!