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

Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"
Nov 27th 2019
EXTRACT: "Jay Willis at GQ reports that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said on Fox and Friends that Trump is God’s Chosen One. He said he told Trump, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” Perry also said that he had written a memo for Trump about how God uses imperfect people, comparing Trump to biblical figures such as Solomon, Saul and David, who were also flawed. This evangelical discourse that a providential God controls political power goes back to old West Semitic Religion"
Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."
Oct 9th 2019
EXTRACT: "The idea that we are living in an entrepreneurial age, experiencing rapid disruptive technological innovation on a scale amounting to a new “industrial revolution” is a pervasive modern myth. Scholars have written academic papers extolling the coming of the “entrepreneurial economy”. Policymakers and investors have pumped massive amounts of funding into start-up ecosystems and innovation. Business schools, universities and schools have moved entrepreneurship into their core curricula. The only problem is that the West’s golden entrepreneurial and innovation age is behind it. Since the 1980s entrepreneurship, innovation and, more generally, business dynamics, have been steadily declining – particularly so in the US. "
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: ". But today, the impulse to gain attention on social media has produced a discourse of extreme defamation and scorched-earth tactics aimed at destroying one’s opponents. We desperately need a broad-based movement to stand up against this type of political discourse. American history is replete with examples of people who worked together to solve – or at least defuse – serious problems, often against great odds and at significant personal risk. But the gradual demise of fact-based history in schools seems to have deprived many Americans of the common ground and optimism needed to work through challenges in the same way they once did."
Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.
Jul 22nd 2019
It’s worth remembering, then, that we are not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain. The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Postulating that there is no such thing as happiness may appear to be a purely negative message, but the silver lining, the consolation, is the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure. If you are unhappy at times, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it. Far from it. This fluctuation is, in fact, what makes you human.
Jul 10th 2019

 

The eight-mile ‘river of flowers’ that grows alongside a motorway nea
Jul 5th 2019
"........since World War II, 97% of unimproved grassland habitats have vanished from the UK. This has contributed to the loss of pollinating insects – and the distribution of one third of species has shrunk since 1980."
Jun 25th 2019
"For many of us, eating a meal containing meat is a normal part of daily life. But if we dig deeper, some sobering issues emerge. Every year, 66 billion terrestrial animals are slaughtered for food. Predictions are that meat consumption will rise, with increasing demand for meat from China and other Asian countries as their standards of living increase. The impact of grazing animals on the environment is devastating. They produce 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and livestock farming is a major contributor to species extinctions."
Jun 22nd 2019
"Throughout history, people who have gained positions of power tend to be precisely the kind of people who should not be entrusted with it. A desire for power often correlates with negative personality traits: selfishness, greed and a lack of empathy. And the people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and lacking in compassion."
Jun 21st 2019
"In this era of Trump, it should perhaps come as no surprise to find supposed experts lacking in historical perspective. Yet it is still disappointing to find this deficit in the New York Times, which prides itself on clinging to a pursuit of the truth. So it is a bit sad to read the plaintive cry of Allison Schrager’s op-ed of May 17, lamenting that the domination of art markets by the super-rich will somehow force smaller galleries to go out of business, and imperil the careers of young artists."
Jun 17th 2019
Extract: "ust as an earlier generation resisted the limiting post-War era "white middle class" definition of being American by giving birth to an awakening of cultural pluralism and ethnic pride, it falls to our generation to fight for an expanded view of the idea of being American that rejects the narrow view projected by Trump and white nationalists. The idea of America isn't theirs. It's bigger than they are and unless our national cohesion is to unravel, this challenge must be met by projecting an inclusive vision of America that celebrates our inclusive national identity in an increasingly globalized world."
May 28th 2019
Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries.