LIFE IN DEATH
ST I L L L I F ES A N D SEL E C T M A ST ERWOR K S
CH AIM SOU TIN E curated by EST I DU NOW & M AU R ICE T UCH M A N
LIFE IN DEATH: THE STILL LIFES OF CHAIM SOUTINE ES T I DU N OW & M AU R ICE T UCH M A N
It is this ability to take objects and relationships in life and freeze them to conform to the artist’s vision that accounts for the term “still life.” In French, the term is nature morte, or “dead nature,” “dead life.”
Still life was particularly well suited to an artist like Chaim Soutine who needed to have what he was painting there before him. His process and experience were rooted in observation and the recording of sensations. In landscape, he was immersed in the elements around him—the light, the space, the weather. Portraits afforded more control and focus—the choice and positioning of the model —but were subject to the personal and psychological dynamics of face-to-face contact with a human subject.
CHAIM SOUTINE, Hanging Turkey, c. 1925. Oil on canvas, 36 x 28 1/2 inches / 91.4 x 72.4 cm. Private collection. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
“From [the Dutch] stilleven, the German stilleben and the English ‘still life’ came into use, but their allusion to still or unmoving nature has never done full justice to the allegorical themes that underpin these works and, ultimately, lend them their gravitas. It would be left to the French, some one hundred years later, to coin the name most suggestive of the layered symbolism of the genre and its poignant reminders of the transience of life and the ever-present threat of death: the still life became known as the nature morte, literally ‘dead nature.’”
For someone who depended so completely on direct observation from nature, still life allowed the opportunity to consciously choose and control the situation in nature before painting it. Still life offered the greatest control and freedom to the artist; the ability to set up and determine the subject; to control the relationships between objects; to create a distance between object and artist; and to allow the subject to offer itself up to inspection.
(Michael Petry, Nature Morte, New York, Thames & Hudson, 2013, p. 6)
That latter term, “dead life,” as oxymoronic as it sounds, in many ways defines Soutine’s paintings of dead, dying, and slaughtered animals. What distinguishes Soutine’s still lifes/nature mortes is the very quality of life that animates these images of death, the energy and fluidity of paint and stroke that make these images pulsate with vitality and movement.
dunow & tuchman
Meyer Schapiro, in talking of Cézanne, defines still life:
REMBRANDT VAN RIJN, The Slaughtered Ox, 1655. Oil on wood, 37 x 17 1/8 inches / 94 x 69 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
was paying greater and greater attention, were partially responsible for the more spatially realized images and the more stabilized groupings of the 1920s still lifes, landscapes and portraits. He often turned to works of earlier artists, especially Rembrandt and the seventeenth century Dutch painters, and also Chardin. His expanded pantheon included Fouquet, El Greco, Titian, Goya, as well as Courbet. Nowhere is this tribute to the old masters in the Louvre more apparent than in the still lifes.
“The still life comes to stand for a sober objectivity, and an artist who struggles to attain that posture after having renounced a habitual impulsiveness or fantasy, can adopt the still life as a calming or redemptive modest task, a means of selfdiscipline and concentration; it signifies to him the commitment to the given, the simple and dispassionate … the impersonal universe of matter.”
He sought out images in other artists’ paintings which he then physically recreated and reenacted in his studio, setting up a carcass of beef after Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef, 1665; a rayfish to reconstruct the Chardin Still Life with Rayfish, c. 1728; various dead fowl and rabbits to emulate so many of the Dutch masters. He didn’t paint or “copy” before the earlier painting, but went out, set up the animals and objects in his studio and made the images his own.
(Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art, Selected Papers, George Braziller, New York, 1978, pp. 19-20; originally published as “The Apples of Cézanne: An Essay on the Meaning of Still Life,” Art News Annual. XXXIV, 1968.)
It is in the great series of beef carcasses in the mid1920s that the supremacy of the isolated motif, both pictorially and emotionally, is realized. Soutine eliminated Rembrandt’s interior setting, or any suggestion of environment, and focused on the meat itself. The image is isolated, centralized, given the spotlight. The meat is presented to us close up. There is no distraction. It is heroic and imposing as well as a helpless victim of our intense inspection. It looks as if it has been flattened and then stretched across the surface, as though it were the canvas itself. (This stretching of a large flat shape over the surface recalls not only the rayfish paintings, but certain Céret landscapes as well.) The identification between flesh and pigment is here maximized. Form, object, subject, content and meaning all coincide in this image that is both an intense perception of quivering, decaying flesh and an abstract surface of matter, stroke and color. The realism of observation works hand in hand with the energy of the paint fabric to communicate a reality that is at once so physical and so much more than physical.
In many ways this profile fits Soutine. The still life emerges as the dominant genre in Soutine’s work in the 1920s, soon after the seemingly unbridled landscapes of the Céret years, and serves as a way for Soutine to harness and focus his passionate and impulsive energies, coinciding with more overt efforts at structuring his work. Accompanying this control was Soutine’s reverence for the great painting of the past, all of which he studied at the Louvre. The old master paintings to which he
JEAN-BAPTISTE-SIMÉON CHARDIN, The Ray, 1728.Oil on canvas, 44 7/8 x 57 1/2 inches / 114 x 146 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
CHAIM SOUTINE, Still Life with Rayfish, c. 1924. Oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 39 1/4 inches / 81 x 100 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls Collection, 1997. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
From 1925-1927 Soutine was preoccupied with painting dead animals, particularly fowl and rabbits. They were most likely sparked by his museum visits, during which he saw so many images, particularly sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch paintings of dead
“This struggle on the part of the artist to capture the sequence of ephemeral experience is not only the heart of Soutine’s method, but also expresses his tragic anxiety, his constant brooding over being and not-being, over bloom and decay, over life and death … It requires the unity of instantaneous perceiving and doing—a headlong rush which cannot be retarded for the elaboration of detail.” JACK T WOR KOV
“ T H E WA N D E R I N G S O U T I N E , ” A R T N E W S , V O L . 4 9 , N O . 7 , PA R T I , N O V E M B E R 1 9 5 0 , P P. 3 1 - 3 3 , 6 2
Hare with Forks, c. 1924. Oil on canvas, 26 x 25 3/8 inches / 66 x 64.5 cm. Private collection. 50
“We do not see the landscape, we see the paint: the paint conveys what we would know and would not know if we were in the landscape, blind. The paint does not refer to an experience; the experience is precipitated in the paint.” D AV I D S Y L V E S T E R
E X H I BI T ION C ATA L O GU E , CH AIM SOU TINE, 1893-1943 , L O N D O N , TAT E G A L L E RY A N D E D I N B U R G H A R T S F E S T I VA L , 1 9 6 3 , P. 1 0
The Rainbow, Céret, c. 1920. Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 51 1/4 inches / 54 x 130.2 cm. Private collection. 72