SOUTINE Chaim
( 1894-1943). Russian painter; born at Smilovich, near Minsk; died in Paris. He was the tenth of a family of eleven children. At the age of four, he stole one of his mother's kitchen utensils to buy a colored pencil; he was nearly driven out of the village because he draws the portrait of his school teacher, since Jewish law prohibited drawing the human face. Although hailed as a master while still very young, Soutine remained all his life isolated and almost ignored, most of his work buried in collections. In 1923, for example, Doctor Barnes bought one hundred of his Céret canvases in a lot. Soutine steadily refused to exhibit, not out of false modesty but because of an insuperable restlessness that made him take up again, and often destroy, all the old works within his reach. Except for his participation in the large exhibition of Independent Art in Paris in 1937, one had to wait virtually until the last few years to see important shows devoted to him. And in the meantime he had died. So it is only now possible -- thanks also to the accounts published by those who knew him well -- to appraise the secret and sensitive personality of this painter. Chaim Soutine was the tenth in a family of eleven children. His father was a poor tailor. To escape the poverty of the ghetto, Soutine went as a boy to Minsk and then to Vilno, where he enrolled in the School of Fine Arts while working as a photographer's assistant. A doctor impressed by his gifts gave him the chance to go to France. Arriving in Paris in 1911 to enrol at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Soutine was still almost a child. Besides, he kept for a long time the closed face, with eyes that seemed turned inward, that his friend Modigliani rendered in an unforgettable portrait ( 1917). He carried awkwardly in front of him the beautiful small, pale hands mentioned by Élie Faure, who also described his frightened ingenuousness and the way he seemed to be fleeing under a shower of rain. He was all gentleness, his friend Henri Serouya adds, recalling his candid child's smile, which showed his big white teeth. He lived in Le Ruche, the famous phalanstery of the Rue de Dantzig near the Vaugirard slaughterhouses, where Chagall, Lipchitz, Cendrars and Kremégne were already installed. He went through these trying years with the same certainty that had made him thrust his incomprehensible urge to paint upon his family and his scandalized village. His formation was entirely inner, tenacious and obstinate, consisting as much in desultory reading of novelists, poets and philosophers, as in contemplating the works of masters, from Rembrandt to Courbet and Cézanne. He so distrusted his first attempts, which were always secret, that hardly anything is left of them. They constituted much less a technical apprenticeship than the attainment of a state of grace, a moral preparation, a novitiate of which he remained always proud. He needed a chance: he liked the word and believed in what it meant, as do all those who have been miserable. The collector and patron of arts Zborowski, whom he met through Modigliani, gave him this chance in 1919 by sending him to paint in Céret, in the Pyrénées-Orientales. He stayed there for almost three years. During this first respite, at the contact of the dazzling light of the South, the long-awaited transformation was achieved almost at once. Soutine's colours livened little by little, lost their opacity and their resistance as inert material. He succeeded in amalgamating them into his emotions and passions. It seemed that he wanted to charge them with animal or vegetable substances. To discover these, he raked furiously through living tissue; he broke the lines and reliefs of landscapes as if to extract their essence.
The secret of Soutine was probably that of immense love. He could not bear the incommunicability of beings, which made him suffer cruelly, or the immobility and vacuity of death. When he interrogated inert faces, he did not hesitate to breathe his own life into them. If he examined rotten flesh, a skinned ox, dead poultry, it was to discover the germs of new growth and resurrection in them. Awareness of his imperfection and his own misery created in him the perpetual dissatisfaction that made him resume the same theme unceasingly and destroy pitilessly all that was not up to his standards. But, in the search for the impossible fusion, never achieved in painting, of the life of the world and the inertia of the materials employed, Soutine perhaps came closer to a solution than anyone else. His painting was charged with substances, fermentations, and movements. He worked under a terrible nervous strain: to begin, to prepare to receive the shock and respond to it, he had first to wake up from a sort of somnolence in which he no doubt collected his forces. He frequently experienced periods of complete sterility, and then suddenly he threw himself into action, literally killed himself on the canvas, and could accomplish an enormous amount of work. From his stay in Céret he brought back two hundred canvases. This manner of working explains why he considered all preparation not only useless but even harmful, because it involved the risk of dispersing and shattering his inspiration. He never drew, in the traditional sense of the word; he simply roughed in his elements swiftly with charcoal, making the framework and not the delineation of the work to come. These preparatory notes had meaning only for him. This was what he had already done on the walls of his native village, to the horror of his playnates. He could fill in a form, inflect a contour, give it warmth and life only with paint itself. He ground his colours furiously, mixing pastes that he poured out by whole tubes. However, Anne Collie, who knew him well, assures us that he never lost sight of his aim, never put a stroke on canvas without having considered it in relation to the preceding one, in a tension of his whole being that exhausted him. After Céret, he stayed in 1925 at Cagnes, where his intense probing of his figures reached a state of paroxysm.
He did numerous portraits and painted the series of Choirboys in 1927. In 1299, at Chatel-Guyon, he met M. and Mme Castaing and at last found a home at their Château of Lèves, near Chartres. He made long stays there, frequenting Montparnasse less and less and refusing to take part in any public shows. In 1940 the German occupation brought him, painful trials. He took refuge in a small village in Touraine, Champignysur-Veude, where he continued to paint admirable landscapes, despite the threats that weighed upon him. At the beginning of August 1943 an intestinal perforation made it urgently necessary that he be moved to Paris. Operated upon too late, he died on the morning of August 9th. The Salon d'Automne in 1944 held a restrospective exhibition of his work; the Galerie de France exhibited in January 1945 forty of his canvases; the Maison de la Pensée Française held an important retrospective exhibition of his work in 1956 as did the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
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