Desperately Seeking Soutine

Leah Ollman is a regular art contributor to Calendar

Will the real Chaim Soutine please stand up?

The Lithuanian-born artist, who died more than 50 years ago, is the subject of a provocative exhibition opening Sept. 20 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. According to the show's curators, Norman Kleeblatt and Kenneth Silver, there is no single definitive Soutine, at least not in the conventional sense of an artist who emerges and matures along a single continuum. When the curators met several years ago to begin organizing the show for the Jewish Museum in New York, their research delivered an unexpected challenge.

"There were probably six Soutines on the table that first meeting," Kleeblatt recalled in a telephone conversation from his office at the Jewish Museum, where he serves as the Susan and Elihu Rose curator of fine arts. "We were doing a retrospective, but because of his complexity and the way his art was interpreted, it seemed that we would do Soutine the greatest service by showing that he was not received one-dimensionally."

The exhibition, "An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine," opened at the Jewish Museum in April and caused quite a stir--not only because the artist's lush landscapes, disarming portraits and viscerally wrenching studies of dead animals had not been shown in large numbers for decades, but also because of the unconventional structure of the show, the way it embraces art history's loose ends, instead of succumbing to its deceptively neat, wrapped packages.

Soutine (1893-1943) once occupied a key position in what Kleeblatt calls "the classic trajectory of Modernist art," but his name has since fallen off the radar screen. His last museum exhibition was held in 1968--at LACMA, coincidentally. Because he hadn't been seriously considered in a while, Kleeblatt and Silver--who teaches art history at New York University--felt a need to position Soutine for the current viewer, but they came up with more than one place to put him.

Soutine left no drawings and few personal records, the conventional building blocks art historians use as documentary evidence to flesh out an artist's identity, so Kleeblatt and Silver had to take a different route. They worked instead from secondhand material, collectors' records and, especially, published criticism about Soutine.

"Right, wrong or misguided, it was there," says Kleeblatt. "It falls prey to all the idiosyncrasies and prejudices of the time it was written in." As such, it reveals multiple, overlapping truths about Soutine and provides a shifting prism through which to understand the artist. The curators settled upon three different definitions of Soutine that prevailed during and just after his lifetime, and divided the exhibition into three parts to reflect the different critical interpretations of his work.

The first section of the show presents Soutine as "the primitive," an outsider whose vibrant, pulsating canvases were the spirited offspring of his impoverished upbringing in the Jewish shtetl of Smilovitchi. Though he studied in Vilna (dubbed Jerusalem of the East for its sophisticated Jewish cultural life at the time) and in Paris after he moved there in 1913, Soutine had an edgy, vertiginous style that French critics described as untutored, raw and intuitive. He was their "Necessary Wild Man," as Simon Schama put it in a New Yorker review of the exhibition, an innocent loosely aligned with the likes of Modigliani, Utrillo and Chagall. In 1922, Philadelphia-based collector Albert Barnes saw Soutine's work on a trip to Paris and instantly bought 52 paintings, legitimizing the artist's reputation in France and the U.S.

By the late 1920s, when Soutine had his first solo show in Paris, his identity had begun to be reshaped. Cubism and other cerebral strains of abstraction were gaining a firm foothold in Europe, too firm for defenders of traditional painting, who seized upon Soutine's work as an example of classic French art. In their eyes, Soutine's landscapes, portraits and still lifes demonstrated the continuing vitality of representational painting, an art born of passion rather than the intellect.

Part 2 of the exhibition makes a case for Soutine "the master," heir to Chardin and Rembrandt. Soutine's extraordinary paintings of hanging chickens, dead fish and slabs of beef from the mid-1920s derive directly from the earlier artists and are Soutine at his sensational, palpable, visceral best.

With the outbreak of war, Soutine's movement became restricted, and to avoid deportation, he and his mistress went into hiding in the countryside. The third phase of his identity continued to evolve even after his death of complications from a perforated ulcer. Soutine "the prophet" paved the way for Abstract Expressionism with his vigorous, gestural handling of paint and his extreme emotional intensity. The New York School was highly receptive to the tragic aura that surrounded Soutine, especially after the Holocaust, and recognized in him a kindred regard for the importance of painting as process, rooted in primitive, unconscious impulses.

A retrospective of Soutine's work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1950 consummated the bond between the prewar figure and the postwar generation of painters. Artist Jack Tworkov, reviewing the MOMA show for ARTnews magazine, praised Soutine in terms that say as much about Abstract Expressionist concerns of the day as they do about Soutine. His work, Tworkov wrote, "expresses his tragic anxiety, his constant brooding over being and not-being, over bloom and decay, over life and death."

Kleeblatt and Silver's tripartite take on Soutine was hailed by the Sunday Times of London as "one of the most intensely pleasurable exhibitions of the decade." Peter Schjeldahl, writing for the Village Voice, called the show of some 55 paintings "revelatory, must-see." Other critics have mildly rebuked it for being chronologically impaired, but, the curators agree, shaking up the conventional form of the retrospective was bound to ruffle feathers.

"If what you're looking for is the reassurance of biography, this isn't the show where you're going to get it," Silver says. "Chronology is an obvious organizational principle. We all get born, we live and we die. The logic of it is undeniable." As art history goes, chronological treatment is habit, Silver notes, but not one that necessarily makes the experience of art more vivid.

Just as in other exhibitions, the art itself is the flesh and blood of the Soutine show. But "An Expressionist in Paris" goes further than any other show the curators can recall to put its own skeletal structure on display as well, the organizing principle that usually remains invisible, implicit.

"As a curator, you have this remarkable power," Kleeblatt explains. "Everything you do once you move the art out of the artist's studio is really a distortion of the experience of the work of art. We were cognizant of these issues, and of that sometimes awkward, frightening, heady power of the curator. Whichever way we present the work, there's going to be a distortion. What do we want to get across? What do we want to learn from this? We were also trying to think, what does the material tell you you should do with it?"

While art history as a discipline has broadened in the last 20 years to make room for contextual analysis in addition to traditional connoisseurship, Kleeblatt and Silver's approach to Soutine feels even more open-ended. It asks as many questions as it answers and has all the tell-tale self-reflexivity and indeterminacy of current Postmodern theory. But just as there isn't only one Soutine to point to, there never has been only one way to construct an artist's history.

"At first I thought this was a Postmodern idea," Kleeblatt recalls. "But I remember in graduate school that one of my professors, one of the generation of German-born art historians to teach here, talked about something called Rezeptionsgeschichte, reception history. So our new way was really a very old way of talking about art." *

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* "An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine," L.A. County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Opens Sept. 20. Regular hours: Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, noon-8 p.m.; Fridays, noon-9 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Ends Jan. 4. Admission: adults, $7; students 18 and over with ID and seniors citizens 62 and over, $5; children, $1; ages 5 and under, free.

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