Stewart Cliff on Soutine’s Portraits exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery

An urgent, restless group of portraits by Chaïm Soutine comprises the show entitled Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys. Painted in what seems like a flurry of activity, the paint still feels fresh: Soutine paints quickly wet into wet. Against the grain of conventional portraits, Soutine’s sitters were largely unknown, the make-shift titles were added by academics or dealers for practicality. Soutine doesn’t look to preserve a collective impression of a sitter, suggesting they are a vehicle for something more intangible. It is easy to set the scene, models in their uniform would sit for Soutine after their day’s work, brooding with a sense of resignation that is echoed in the way they are melded to the surface by the furious brushwork. Often their shoulders are bowed as the background encroaches, blurring where the paint meets the figure, and giving an overall sense of flatness. With the space collapsing, the weight of brushwork on the drapery and uniforms lends a further sense of claustrophobia, it is hard to imagine the sitters being able to breathe under the weight of their clothing.

Yet, despite the foreboding, the colours and nervous energy of the brushwork give a real sense of life to the portraits. Flesh tones feel tenderly observed and there is a sense of fidelity to the colours Soutine picks out of the surroundings: the yellows and turquoises coming from the whites of the chefs’ uniforms add a uniqueness to the vision. For something painted in such a blurry hurry these paintings are incredibly seductive to look at, we are constantly shifting our gaze from one passage to another; a splash of thinned paint forms some fidgety hands before moving up the furrows of a well-worn smock, and then a jab of the brush forms three opalescent teeth in a mouth, until eventually we are able to take in the painting in as a whole again.

Soutine, Chaim (1894-1943). The Little Pastry Cook; Le petit patissier. c.1927. Christie’s Images.

Surveying the exhibition, I think less about the painters who were Soutine’s contemporaries and instead more of the photographers of his time, especially August Sander, the German documentary photographer who would have worked at around the same time as Soutine. In his series, People of the 20th Century, Sander photographed the working population of the country, from bricklayers to musicians and estate agents all with great faithfulness. Sander often photographed his subjects with the accouterments of their trade, much the same way as Soutine depicts his subjects in their uniform. It is also striking how Soutine uses quite conventional poses such as the full-length portrait in The Little Pastry Cook: with his hands planted firmly on his hips, the subject feels peculiarly photographic. But there is also something more psychologically puncturing about Soutine’s paintings that directs me to think of August Sanders photography, Roland Barthes wrote in his book camera lucida “What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred.” With his subjects posing resolutely with the tools of their trade, Sander seems to take such a specific slice of time it is almost as if he is pointing out that this might be how things are now but they will change. With a different medium and means, Soutine achieves a feeling very similar. Perhaps when we look at a painting, especially a portrait, we should get an impression of studious monumentality, it was traditionally the way monarchs would publicise their image to a nation. Yet, in Soutine’s portraits, faces often feel crestfallen and expressions are indistinct at best, the very antithesis of monumental. It is as if they are sliding off the canvas or slipping back to the anonymity of the city. All we are left with is the knowledge that the sitter sat for the artist at some point, but is now long lost to the past.

Soutine, Chaim (1894-1943). The Little Pastry Cook from Cagnes; Le patissier de Cagnes. c.1922-1923. Christie’s Images.

Pertinently, many of the surrounding paintings in the Courtauld are made by Soutine’s peers and contemporaries who were active in Europe at that time. They envisaged a world emboldened by clean graphic sensibilities, synthesised colour, and sometimes wild abandon. The modernity Soutine presents is one of squalid torment and rather than Europe it would be America that would hail Soutine. Alfred J. Barnes, an American collector, would purchase 60 paintings in one go liberating Soutine from the grinding poverty he had been captured in for much of his life.

In his seminal book, Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas writes of the grand European modernist Le Corbusier’s disgust at visiting New York, where the skyscrapers are too small, there is not enough light streaming into the buildings, and the roads aren’t wide enough. But Koolhaas’ proposition of modernism doesn’t have to be the rational utopian dream Le Corbusier desired, it could be the perverse, decadent vision of Salvador Dalí as well. Perhaps there is something Dali-esque in Soutine’s paintings; a wilful vision in which we are submitted to the artist’s innermost visions and feelings. America would be the heralding of Soutine, and you can largely see his legacy through American art from De Kooning and the abstract expressionists to Philip Guston and later painters such as Alice Neel and Cy Twombly.

– Stewart Cliff

Soutine, Chaim(1894-1943). Head Waiter. c.1927. Private Collection, Berlin.