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Painting a tussle

For the first time in London, 21 of Chaïm Soutine’s paintings are collected, curated and displayed at the Courtauld Gallery

Painting a tussle
Bellboy (L), Le Petit Pâtissier.

But when I came to man’s

With hey, ho, the wind and the

’Gainst knaves and thieves
men shut their gate,

For the rain it raineth every

— William Shakespeare


The Courtauld Gallery is not for souls in disarray. Not even on a distorted rainy day. The exhibition is being held in Rooms 14 and 15 of the Second Floor. For the first time in London, 21 of Chaïm Soutine’s paintings are collected, curated and displayed under the title Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys. The exhibition began on Oct 19, 2017 and will go on till Jan 21, 2018.

Soutine painted ‘insignificant’ men and women who worked in Paris’s famous places of leisure and, in doing so, etched out characters that could not be contained by their office. Ironically, these portraits are titled ‘Bellboy’, ‘The Little Pastry Cook’, ‘The Chambermaid’, and others of certain such positions. Most of the titles were added by buyers and collectors later, which explains the conflicting titles depicting portraits of repeated models. I stare. Blink. Turn around and stare again. Soutine painted the same models twice — once as a bellboy, the second time as a head waiter. Once as a pastry chef and the second time as a valet. While the uniforms keep changing, the characters manage to suavely reserve their personality. With every stroke of his brush, Soutine peopled his portraits. As viewers, we begin to recognise them.

Soutine paints the tussle of his age, with himself on the side of the workers in the lower rungs of society, with his own reflection in each of his portraits.

Willem De Kooning, one among the painters influenced by Soutine, seems to have hit the proverbial nail — ‘Soutine distorted the pictures’, he said, ‘but not the people’. Though Chaïm Soutine is often labelled as an Expressionist, his work went on to influence and be reincarnated in the styles of fierce Abstract Expressionists like De Kooning, Francis Bacon and Jackson Pollock.

Born in an Orthodox Jewish family in Smilavichy, a part of the then Russian Empire, Soutine moved to Paris in 1913 to study art and become a painter. He closely observed the works of Rembrandt, Chardin and Courbet. Living in intimacy with poverty, he was highly inspired by his friend and supporter Modigliani. The collection at the Courtauld Gallery is witness to this direct influence.

His is the story of the poor artist turning rich overnight, when the art collector A C Barnes laid eyes on these portraits and bought many of these at once. Perhaps these portraits are so striking because one can read a certain sympathy and love that the artist had for his subjects, well translated in his art. Soutine was at home with the people he painted. Despite turning rich overnight, he continued to observe and paint workers while he visited these places of high culture.

The portraits are of figures encaged in their uniforms, some struggling with these while a few growing in them. These stark portraits of hotel and restaurant workers almost emerge out of their clumsy, blurred backdrops. The striking colours, the holding gaze and the folded hands attempt to form a uniform(ed) race of fraught people and yet, these very aspects give each portrait their pronounced freedom and identity of character. The hands and eyes of his people become windows to their souls. The bold albeit blurred background and stark figures reflect the swinging flow of modernity, where every individual is promised his own chance. Soutine mocks, teases and subverts this promise as he gives us the depth of each person beneath their bright, distorted portraits.

Le Garçon Boucher Metzgergeselle

Le Garçon Boucher Metzgergeselle (L), Le Valet de Chambre.

The cover image of the bellboy in crimson uniform is one such example where his posture, with legs spangled and hands converging at his waist, seems to show him in a seemingly more free state than when he poses for another portrait, where he stands with one of his palms stretched out, the expression in his drooping eyes capable of engulfing the sorrow of a river. The female life-size portraits, majorly of chamber maids, standing straight with hands folded in front of them, seem to carry the burden of dignity in this silent clutch.

Soutine painted full length portraits in very narrow, tall frames to pronounce the conflict between the character and the stifling background. One is moved enough to wish one could rescue the figure trapped in the frame. The butcher’s crimson curtain behind his standing figure is the palpable, bloody frame of his existence. The smug attitude of the head valet is rendered in the hold of his waist in his hands. Modernity, as life, for Soutine’s people as for him is a gamble.

Soutine paints the tussle of his age, with himself on the side of the workers in the lower rungs of society, with his own reflection in each of his portraits. A fugitive in life, he sought to find the fleeting character in every worker who ran the temples of high-life in Paris. This exhibition is both perfectly timed as well as timeless with the ever increasing suppression of the rights and voices of workers and immigrants all over the world. They reveal to us the very real and urgent pain that is superimposed by the cacophony of social extremism.

Perhaps Soutine saw the world through the distortion of human cruelty, as capricious and consequential as rainfall. He once recounted: “Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it. I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat … This cry, I always feel it there.” It is this cry that echoes in the white noise of the “roaring twenties”.

One cannot escape this deafening cry as one finds oneself surrounded by these silent, struggling portraits, through whose gazes Soutine composes the pang of the artist, cowering down upon the viewer.

Farha Noor

The author is a PhD scholar at the South Asia Institute at University of Heidelberg. She is also a research candidate for the German Research Foundation.

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