The meaty essence of humanity – Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys review
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2017-10-18 Size:
The Butcher Boy looks like a killer who has bathed in blood.……

‘Energy stuffed into a servile suit’: Chaim Soutine’s Bellboy at The Courtauld Gallery.

The Butcher Boy looks like a killer who has bathed in blood. His black eyes are full of trouble. One of them is a horrible round hole in the pink, red and white hunk of flesh that is his face. The same crimson gore that streaks it saturates his once-white smock. Behind him there is more blood, a sea of red. He is a man of meat, a glaring golem of animated flesh.

Chaim Soutine painted this meat monster in Paris in about 1919-20. The first world war had left the French art world exhausted. Soutine’s Butcher Boy might be an image of the war’s psychological effects – perhaps this brutalised youth has come back from the front full of violence – yet for art dealers craving the latest new thing, Soutine’s directness was also a commercial godsend. For in 1919 the latest new thing was that old thing, unpretentious figurative painting, free from the taint of the avant-garde. The dealer Paul Guillaume cashed in on this conservative mood when he found a market for Soutine’s “traditional” portraits.

‘A glaring golem of animated flesh’: Butcher Boy, c.1919-1920, Chaim Soutine.

Ever since, the place of Soutine in modern art’s history has been interestingly ambiguous. Visit museums in Paris and he is always there, slightly in the background, a curiosity of the École de Paris who moved to the city of light from Russia in 1913 and scrimped an existence before making it in the 20s. Yet for some he is a lot more important: a hero of artistic humanism, a missing link between Rembrandt and Frank Auerbach, who preserved the profundity of the old masters in the brittle age of Salvador Dalí.

The Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition of Soutine’s portraits of restaurant and hotel staff in 1920s France doesn’t so much resolve the question of his ultimate significance as leave it ringing in your ears like a hot jazz tune that is both brilliant and cliched. The best paintings here – including that formidable, blood-soaked young butcher – had me coming back to look repeatedly, awed by the visceral life of them. Yet the curators’ claim that his portraits are richly individualistic doesn’t convince at all. I’m not sure if Soutine was really interested in anything outside his own emotions. He emerges here as a true expressionist, painting not the outer world but his own reaction to it. These people are meat for his artistic vision.

He did love a man in uniform. The handful of women here are wretched figures, painted with pity. The men are something else. They cut dashing, colourful shapes, flamboyantly filling intensely hued costumes. The same red-haired man in the same suit with a vibrant red waistcoat and white dress-like apron appears in four paintings, displaying his broken nose in a variety of forbidding expressions as he sticks out his elbows proudly or puts his arms uncertainly at his sides. Owners of these paintings have identified the man as a waiter, a valet, a hotel manager. Soutine himself gave his portraits no titles, kept no record of the models’ names.

The Little Pastry Cook by Chaim Soutine c.1927.

Are they even real waiters? No doubt, but Soutine is playing a game. Uniform is a potent device in portraiture, from Renaissance paintings of patricians in regulation black silk to Lucian Freud’s pathos-laden portrait of Andrew Parker Bowles in officer’s dress. Uniform focuses attention on the parts of the body not covered by conformist garb. Here, we study the faces, thin and fat, ugly and handsome, poking out of their tight collars. Uniform also draws attention to the body beneath the cloth. In Bellboy (about 1925), one of the most brilliant paintings here, there is an acute sense of the youth’s bony form within his red uniform, as he sticks out his arms and legs to show the energy stuffed into that servile suit.

Soutine is not interested in the identity of the people in these paintings. If he had been, he might have remembered their names. Instead, he is interested in the human condition. Crushed into uniforms, forced to play one part or another on the social stage, the vulnerable, meaty essence of humanity keeps spilling out. Painting between two European wars that reduced people first to cattle then to ash, Soutine celebrates the rawness of our shared predicament. This simple truth raises the paintings here from stylish caricatures to mighty acts of witness.

At The Courtauld Gallery, London, 19 October until 21 January.

[Editor] 张艳