Introduction to Chaim Soutine

A leading figure of the Ecole de Paris, and student of the Vilnius School of Drawing, Chaim Soutine (1893–1943) canvases reveal an intimate, spontaneous drama — the sublimation of repressed instincts and a rebellion against various personal humiliations. He painfully experienced loneliness, humiliation, alienation, and the tragedy of his existence, and these feelings suffused with melancholy, often even in masochist form, overflowed into his canvases.

When Soutine — with his aura of mystery, his intense dramatic colors (unseen in the history of Western art), and his image filled with a sense of tragedy — burst forth into the Olympus of modern art, many of France’s most eminent connoisseurs and critics wrote about his work, and they did so even more after his death. Soon, like his close friend Modigliani, Soutine became a cult figure in the Parisian Boheme and in the Ecole de Paris — one that symbolized the outstanding achievements of modern art.

Although Soutine had achieved recognition and glory by 1923, in Paris he exhibited his work at only a few major shows. After his death, major exhibitions were organized at various prestigious galleries in the United States, France, and Great Britain. In this way, Soutine’s special place was immediately established in the history of modern art.

Soutine was a unique introvert who was wholeheartedly devoted to his art and who felt that his creative goals were not in harmony with the time in which he lived. After arriving at the center of Western art — Paris — and even after living here for three decades, he could not free himself from the negative childhood experiences that oppressed him, moreover, even in his new homeland he felt like a stranger, and outsider. Here, too, he was unable to flee from a tragic sense of split consciousness. Hence follow the tragic worldview characteristic of modernism, the tendency toward extreme dramatization and toward and exaggeration of painful everyday experiences, and the effort to break out of the bounds of classical, beauty-centered aesthetics.

It should be emphasized that the pantragism and dramatic nature of Soutine’s work are so distinctive that it is difficult to squeeze him into the framework of a specific movement in modern art.

Unlike many of Soutine’s French contemporaries, who preferred rationality, order, and discipline in their work (something that we sometimes see even in eccentric fauvist and expressionist art), this Litvak believed in spontaneity and improvisation. In art-historical texts, Soutine is usually assessed as an impulsive representative of expressionism in the broad sense of this world — one whose work strangely intertwines the plastic quest of French modern art with the worldview of Jewish immigrants from the cultural space of the GDL. The intertwining of these and many other conflicting tendencies gave birth to the unique phenomenon of the Ecole de Paris and promoted the spread in Western modern art of new, tragic motifs and images filled with a poetry of their own.

Without exaggeration, Soutine can be compared to Ciurlionis, Modigliani, Pascin, and Utrillo not only as a representative of tragic modernism but also as a peintre maudit, i.e. a painter cursed by fate. Indeed, these artists similar in the maximalism of their creative goals, in their tragic worldview, and in the extraordinary authenticity of their work. All of them with the exception of Ciurlionis, abused alcohol and became its victims. These artists were outsiders: they lived in isolation on the fringe of society with their intense inner lives overflowing in paintings marked by a powerful subjectivity and sense of drama. It is difficult to tie these ill-fated artists to a specific tradition, movement, or school because the distinctive world of images that they created transcends the classification of movements in modern art.

His Youth and Study at the Vilnius School of Drawing

Soutine did not like to talk about his painful childhood memories or his family. Soutine was born in 1893 in the town of Smilavicy near Minsk in large family not of a tailor (as is usually claimed), but of a craftsman who occupied the bottom rung in the Jewish community. In 1900, the small town of Smilavicy, which was on the fringe of the Vilnius guberniya, had a population of 2095. It had been ethnically diverse since the 16th century — with a Jewish majority as well as Belarusians, Lithuanians, Tartars, Russians, and Poles. According to Soutine’s countryman Sam Zarfin, who was a graduate of the Vilnius School of Drawing and who belonged to the Ecole de Paris, Smilavicy was a typical, nondescript, impoverished, largely Jewish town, one in which many of the inhabitants had Russian and Yiddish books in their home. Although the Jews lost the privilege granted them by the rulers of the GDL, in Lita their large communities were still permitted to freely practice their religion, which — surrounded by other people and confronted with growing discrimination by the Russian czars — became highly conservative. With anti-Semitism the internal policy of the Russian Empire and the Jews experiencing many restrictions on where they could live and on the kinds of work they could do, their communities became inward-looking, bound by the strict demands of Judaism. Poverty, of course, was an inseparable part of the lives of many large Jewish families.

In Soutine’s case, his father earned little for his work and had difficulty supporting a huge family of eleven children. The father of this future artist has a despotic personality. His behavior was rough, even tyrannical, and he beat his children whenever they did something wrong. The one to suffer the most from him was the unsubmissive, rebellious Chaim, who burned with a sinful passion for art in violation of the second commandment. At the age of ten, he began to draw passionately, and he drew with whatever he could and wherever he could. Eventually, the sinful, sacrilegious passion for drawing that had possessed this son made his Orthodox father increasingly angry. Thus, Chaim’s heretical passion for painting became a cause of constant conflict with his father, who dreamt that this talented and quick-witted child would become a rabbi or a respectable craftsman, i.e. would help support a family that could barely make ends meet. After conflicts with his father and Orthodox older brothers, Chaim used to run away from home. At the age of thirteen, Chaim began working in Minsk as a photographer’s retoucher, and together with his friend Michel Kikoine he attended a local art school, where he was taught by a graduate of the Vilnius School of Drawing — Yakov Kruger (1869–1940). At the age of sixteen, as attested by the friends of his youth, Kikoine and Zarfin, Chaim asked an old Jew to pose for him and drew his picture. The next day, when the powerfully built sons of this model found out what had happened, they viciously beat up this future artist for violating the Orthodox Jewish prohibition against depicting living creatures (something that is solely God’s prerogative) and left him lying on the ground barely alive. For this violent attack Soutine soon collected damages (a large sum of rubles in those days), and against his father’s wishes he severed his ties with his shtetl for all time. Together with Kikoine, he left to continue his study of art in the old capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, which the Jews called the Jerusalem of the North, and where there was a famous art school.

Running away to Vilnius in 1910 and enrolling in the Vilnius School of Drawing were Chaim’s demonstrative way of severing his tied with his despotic father and his family. For Soutine, Vilnius was the first important city in which the rich and diverse world of culture and art opened up for him. Vilnius was, for Soutine, a happier place than his native Smilavicy or Minsk not only because he could pursue his vocation here but also because, here, for the first time, he felt free from the repressive environment of his childhood. Finally, he had liberated himself from the restrictions imposed by social and religious conventions and could live in the only world that mattered for him — that of art. Soutine’s talent was noticed not only at the school of drawing but also by local intellectuals, who collected the money to buy him a cheap ticket to Paris. Once he boarded the train, he left Vilnius for all time. He had one clear goal — to devote himself to his sinful passion for painting.

Not knowing French, Soutine had difficulty integrating into this new environment. He lived in poverty and joined the ranks of the Jewish artists from Lita who had settled at La Ruche and most of whom communicated at first only in Yiddish, Russian, or sometimes Polish. For a long time, Soutine spoke a mixture of French, Yiddish, and Russian that the French found difficult to understand.

Paris was a warm and friendly city for those who had money and could freely enjoy her pleasures and carefree life but was cold and harsh toward those without money. Soutine belonged to the latter group: during his first ten years here, he experienced all the hardships of poverty — inadequate diet and being forced to move about. Even under these conditions, however, he was bursting with vital energy and painted with abandon, forgetting both meals and rest. Thus he rapidly improved, and the more keen-sighted residents of the colony saw and appreciated this fact.

At first this artist felt uncomfortable in Paris. Seeking refuge in a colorful metropolis filled with contrasts, he settled in a familiar and spiritually close linguistic environment. In this way, he became part of the community of Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe and associated mainly with artists from Lita: Pinchus Kremegne, Michel Kikoine, Leon Indenbaum, Oscar Miestchaninoff, and many others. Later, he associated with Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Robert Delaunay, and Marie Laurencin, the sculptors Ossip Zadkine, Alexander Archipenko, and Chana Orloff, the poets Blaise Cendrars and Max Jacob, and the composer Erik Satie, but he did not join any modernist movement. When Modigliani first saw Soutine painting passionately at the Hive he was enthralled by his shy smile. Modigliani immediately sensed the exceptional talent of this clumsy, gangly 19-year-old youth. Soutine’s acquaintance with Modigliani was to become one of the most important events of his life, for in him he found the close friend and spiritual brother of his dreams.

excerpted from Litvak Art in the Context of the Ecole de Paris by Andrijauskas, Antanas