May 10th 2018

In the Flesh: Chaim Soutine at the Jewish Museum

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.

 

The Jewish Museum in New York City is currently presenting the work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), featuring just over thirty paintings by one of the most distinctive and significant artists of the early twentieth century. Focusing on still life paintings, of which he was a master, "Chaim Soutine: Flesh" includes his vigorous depictions of various slaughtered animals - of beef carcasses, hanging fowl, and game. These are dynamic works of great boldness and intensity, and taken together they constitute a sustained and profoundly sensuous interrogation of the flesh, of carnality - of blood, skin and sinew.

Soutine was a Russian-French Jew, born in Smilavichy (in present day Belarus), the tenth child of an extremely religious tailor who wanted his son to become a shoemaker. Routinely beaten, Soutine grew up in poverty amidst virulent anti-Semitism. By 1913, he arrived in Paris where he would train at the École des Beaux-Arts under Fernand Cormon, chiefly known for his images of the macabre. It was not long before Soutine established his individual style and technique, which dispensed with preliminary drawing, and was marked by a striking use of color and an enlivened, animated brush. In 1923, a collector purchased almost all of his work: Soutine went from being a literally starving artist to a celebrity almost overnight.

The exhibition commences with Still Life with Rayfish (1924) – on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art – a painting which is characteristically Soutine: at once rather unsettling and at the same time utterly transfixing. The motif of the rayfish can be traced back to Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin's masterpiece, The Ray (1728). Soutine is often engaged with the old masters, whose works he discovered at the Louvre – but rather than copying or working directly from their paintings he would stage their subjects for himself within his studio, revealing an acute sensitivity towards the real fleshly being before him. The ray's mouth is agape and seems to be locked in a silent yet ceaseless cry. The painting is an excellent introduction to this artist, who was virtually obsessed with the fundamental mystery of embodiment, and the way humans and animals echo one another.

Not only dead creatures, but also even inanimate objects are quickened and enlivened by the touch of Soutine's brush. Forks, for example, are subtly anthropomorphized: they become grasping hands, emaciated arms. Soutine himself was no stranger to hunger and he suffered from a severe gastro-intestinal condition that precluded him from eating the very meats he painted with such diligence.

The Fish (1933) is looking back to Gustave Courbet's Trout (1872) even as it breaks away with its expressionistic use of impasto (thick globs of paint) – an approach to texture that is startling in its boldness and beauty. Soutine does not simply depict the surface of the creature: we see the skin as skin -- as an organ that is lived and living, that suffers and is suffered. Soutine's quivering fish reminds us that the epidermis of the skin is "like a pond surface or forest soil; not a shell so much as a delicate inter-penetration."

A number of the artist's living animals are included in the show. They are haunting paintings, which invariably convey a sense of entrapment and fear, a vulnerability that does not merely accompany, but constitutes, the reality of carnal existence. It is however for his slaughtered animals that Soutine is more truly remembered. And perhaps this was inevitable – as Soutine recalled: "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. When, as a child, I drew a crude portrait of my professor, I tried to rid myself of this cry, but in vain. When I painted the beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate. I have still not succeeded."

The carcasses of beef – of which Soutine painted at least ten – are among his most significant achievements. While he takes his initial inspiration from Rembrandt's Flayed Ox (1655), which he would have encountered at the Louvre, Soutine does not simply copy the work of his predecessor. In fact, he famously hung actual beef carcasses from the rafters of his Monparnasse studio. Like Rembrandt's Flayed Ox, Soutine's beef carcass resembles the crucifixion of Christ. But Soutine would surpass even Rembrandt in his prolonged interrogation of the flesh as a kind of elemental being. Soutine would repeatedly pour blood onto the carcass to re-enliven the decomposing flesh and enhance its color. The powerful stench of rotting meat, as well as the leaking of blood through the studio floor led neighbors to complain (and in fact to suspect that someone had been murdered) – so much so that the police came to confiscate the putrefying carcass. The authorities were instead treated to a lengthy discussion on the high demands of Art.

Perhaps what is most startling is that both blood and mud seem to have been applied to the canvas itself, calling forth an extremely visceral experience. These are extraordinarily powerful works of art that seem indeed to cry out to us in a primordial language: the splayed carcass suggests a kind of martyrdom; a melancholic, even tragic, vision of the world; a profound awareness of the inexorable processes of death, putrefaction and decay.

The art historian Sam Hunter observed that for painters such as Chaim Soutine and Francis Bacon (who undoubtedly encountered Soutine’s work), “Flesh is … the essential material of being and of things, life’s basic substance.” Soutine reminds us that painters of the highest order perform a kind of ontological function, an operation on behalf of being itself – a function that involves the turning back of the flesh of the world on itself. If Soutine’s work beckons us toward a compassion for animals, it is not by appealing to any rational moral principle; nor does it derive its authority from an extra-worldly source. Its origin is literally in the flesh, in the intercorporeity, the transitivity that exists between humans and animals – a connection and separation that is the presupposition and ground of carnal empathy.

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."