Cook, Baker, Candlestick maker | What made Chaïm Soutine such a formidable painter?

The focus of the Courtauld Gallery’s winter show is the famous émigré painter Chaïm Soutine, whose dalliances in the underworld of 1920s Paris are somewhat legendary. Hanging out with the likes of Amedeo Modigliani in the garrets of Montparnasse, Soutine is often placed in the bracket of struggling immigrant artists when in reality he was somewhat successful. And that’s not the only thing surprising about Soutine.

A careful selection of paintings at the Courtauld of everyday bellboys, cooks and servants reveals Soutine’s chops as a painter – a smack between the eyes that I did not see coming. Aside from the curious subjects of humble waiting staff, the paintings are filled with a  wonderfully tormented brushstroke that twists and turns with flecks of pigment that inks colour across the skin. Soutine is often spoken of in the same breath as Vincent Van Gogh – and in this exhibition it is easy to see why with powerful swathes of paint conjuring up the same raw expression of scenes like the Saint-Rémy asylum.

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Heading back to the start – Chaïm Soutine always saw himself as something of an outsider. A Russian Jew living in Paris with few friends and even fewer patrons, from a young age Soutine’s artistic leanings had been harshly discouraged. Living in the shabby artist’s residence of ‘The Beehive’, Soutine rejected the popular whisperings of lyrical abstraction and tachisme in Paris in favour of figuration. He held fast to a radical, unique vision of painting that was positively brimming over with a frantic energy and frustration that reflected his personal and professional problems.

In a tidal wave of cubists and dadaists between the two World Wars, Soutine is often described as the only expressionist at the party who paved the way for American Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism. You just have to look at Francis Bacon’s harrowing Popes to feel Soutine’s ghost lurking in the shadows.

He had no social graces and positively put people off with his scruffy appearance and lack of manners. He even used to rip canvases to shreds or set them on fire if he thought they were below par. The plot thickens when Soutine’s work was noticed by Albert Barnes (the notorious private collector and creator of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia) who proceeded to buy an entire studio worth of paintings. Suddenly Soutine was a sensation, a trendsetter – much to his quizzical disdain.

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Looking at the surface of these works now they still hold the same power. They are hocks of meat hanging from the bones of carcasses in the butcher’s warehouse. They are effortlessly evocative.

But where is Clement Greenberg when you need him?Of course the press have happily toed the line to talk about the underworld of characters in this show and Soutine’s fascination with a man in uniform at a time of wartime garb. Despite the importance of Soutine’s figures, it is the formal beauty of his painting technique that captures the imagination. And where the true magic lies is the surface dripping with blood and life. These are not individuals from the kitchens and sculleries of France – they are a pack of wild animals.