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Art Review

Soutine Reaps the Benefits of Time

September 23, 1998|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Who would have guessed, just a year ago, that in 1998 Chaim Soutine would be one of the most talked-about Modern painters in America?

The Lithuanian-born Parisian, who died prematurely at the age of 50 in 1943, has been the subject of eight large exhibitions internationally in the last half-century, and not one but two catalogs raisonnes have been published to chronicle his output. Yet, it's safe to say that Soutine's vigorously painted Expressionist pictures of plucked poultry, bloody beef carcasses, earnest members of the working class and the hilly landscape around the village of Ceret in the French Pyrenees are more politely respected than enthusiastically embraced.

For a very long time, Soutine has been seen as a somewhat eccentric Modern classic, lingering off in the culture's peripheral vision.

Until now. In April, New York's Jewish Museum opened "An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine," an exhibition that immediately ignited excited word-of-mouth and garnered mostly ecstatic reviews. It was as if a long-lost master had been rediscovered.

In a way he had. The engrossing exhibition, which arrived Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, strikes a most unusual chord.

Today, at a moment when the fate of contemporary painting is on many minds again, Soutine steps forward from the shadows as an artist also out of sync with his own immediate milieu. Unabashedly in love with the sheer plasticity of paint--and with the seemingly insurmountable problem of making it sing--Soutine was a remarkably original and inventive artist who was based in a city notably hostile to Expressionist painting.

The four dozen paintings in the exhibition have been assembled in an interesting way. Ranging from about 1916 to about 1939 (few of Soutine's pictures are precisely dated), they are not installed chronologically. Unlike the most recent American retrospective of his work, organized at LACMA 30 years ago, this show doesn't chart the course the artist took.

Instead, it charts the course his audience took. Jewish Museum curator Norman L. Kleeblatt and New York University professor Kenneth E. Silver have looked at Soutine's art through the lens of reception theory--the idea that artistic meaning is elastic and malleable, and that the needs of the audience, which change over time, play a dynamic role in establishing what that meaning is.

The show is thus loosely divided into three overlapping groups. Each reflects a different interpretation with which Soutine's work was received by successive audiences.

First, in the 1920s, comes Soutine the primitive. Although trained academically, both in Eastern Europe and in France, he painted in a rough, direct (he didn't make drawings), even aggressive manner, one literally unseen before his work began to draw attention.

The ferocity of Soutine's dazzling brushwork is in fact unprecedented for its time. In the great Ceret landscapes, the earth even seems to heave from the sheer force of the artist's brush, loaded as it is with a dense and indescribable array of pigments.

Also amazing is the degree to which he deformed his images. In several portraits the face seems to melt, as if from the heat of Soutine's intense color, or to bend like a reed in the wind from the onslaught of his brushwork. And the great pileups of rocks, trees, houses, dirt and acid-colored sky in his most exciting landscapes create an intense sense of temporal pressure.

The rough and startling uniqueness of this work merged with Soutine's outsider status in Paris, both as a foreigner and a Jew. Thus the idea of Soutine as an earthy primitive was created, building another variation on such already well-established precedents as Henri Rousseau and Cubist-era Picasso.

From Primitive to Modern to Prophet

As his critical and commercial success as an artist grew, though, a new frame of reference began to emerge. The show's second section looks at Soutine as a Modern exemplar of a long, masterful tradition of French painterliness. Expressionism is typically associated with Germanic culture--especially milieus in Munich or Berlin--but an emphasis on Soutine's dramatic color and flickering brushwork allowed his absorption into the decidedly un-Expressionistic School of Paris.

So did Soutine's unwavering adoration of certain Old Master painters, who are well represented on the walls of the Louvre Museum, where he spent countless productive hours. Rembrandt, Chardin, Oudry--Soutine's intentional visual echoes of these artists' work (and sometimes even the direct quotation of specific paintings) is in part a delirious homage to the grandeur of the Louvre, an homage that expresses a yearning ache to be included among their number.

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