Chaim Soutine

OK. Let’s get on with Chaim Soutine, who came up in reference to Bill de Kooning.

I’m going to begin it by reposting the painting below by Soutine that John was nice enough to point out. We’d begun by recognizing that the paint gives the feeling of flesh rather than going after a “photographic” depiction of it. I was reading Louis Finkelstein’s startlingly original talk on Soutine given in 1998, titled “The Logic of Soutine,” last night and I want to go into it at length. Soutine is a good way in to talking about things that were beginning to arise when we were looking at Turner, primarily the independent behavior of color and a kind of space that Finkelstein refers to as “geodesic space” in relationship to R. Buckminster Fuller.

I’ll just take a quote from the beginning of the talk to give a sense of his intentions and of course my own in trying to bring them more to light here:

Not long I read, in a publication that purported to be devoted to art criticism, the assertion that “coherence in a work of art is pretty much overrated.” When I recovered from my astonishment and rage, I reflected that such a statement is fairly indicative of many general aspects of our times, and that it is of a piece with similar statements that might be made about ethics in business, literacy in institutions of learning, responsibility in journalism and honesty in public life. However, I began to realize that there exists in the visual arts a special case where there is very little reason for people to have much use for coherence, mainly because they have had so little opportunity to become acquainted with it in the first place. This, of course, is due to the very low quality of teaching in general, and the abominable level of art writing, including most of which has been institutionally sanctioned. This low level of critical discourse derives from the fact that the art works themselves are not being examined and studied closely.

Chaim Soutine, Little Girl, 1918

The thing that I always notice first with Soutine is the incredibly rhythmic movement of his brush work. Note the feathering of the paint defining the edges of the arms, rather than how most painters simply have a contour line, the paint is active throughout its passage along the forms. One is immediately drawn into the sensuous vitality of the paint itself — the pure visual excitement of it.

This is what hits one on the surface and most viewers don’t begin to examine the structural elements of Soutine’s work–the color and space. Those are what Louis Finkelstein focusses us on his marvelous talk.

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24 Responses to Chaim Soutine

  1. johnk823 says:

    Bart, This is great! Wow!! Coherence in a work of art being overrated. I would have to guess that it would depend on ones definition of what their view of coherence means. If their thinking is coming from the old school masters, then we are all doomed to cohereing to anything. If one doesn’t choose to represent a painting in the realm of realistic coherent idealogy form days gone bye, then we must all be overrated for sure. I wonder if I am coherent to anything? I sure am oblivious to stupid remarks, but then that’s another story.

    I like the way the statement you posted is concluded and the reality of its truth behind it. Institutionally sanctioned kind of hit it right on the head for me. Coherence to what?

    Soutines, “Little Girl”, certainly negated the art critics statement on coherence. Its about freedom, about using color like no other, about vision and feeling the art rolling around inside the mind and like you said pure sensual excitement and being drawn into the work, participating in another worlds realities, being imbued in the paint itself.

    There is no coherence in art and so how can it be overrated?

  2. trueoutsider says:

    OK. Now let’s get after the structural stuff that Finkelstein is analyzing in Soutine’s work. He calls the structure geodesic. The geodesic principle is at work in a painter like Giacometti, which is that volume is articulated by lines that traverse the form in varying to directions to heighten the sense of tactility and solidity. In Giacometti the lines not only move over the form but also indicate the searching for form with the multiplicity of lines, suggesting the weight of the from floating in space.

    I particularly like this passage in the talk:

    The geodesic mode of experiencing and making form, because it goes from point to point continuously, with great intensity of feeling and focus at each sequential move, does not involve a notion of composition. A highly simplified explanation of how it works would be: you start somewhere in the center, and when you’ve reached all the edges, you’re done. There may very well be, and I think in the best works there surely is, an awareness of what Hans Hoffmann called “compositional forces,” but that is not at all the same as being guided by a compositional scheme thought up before the painting has begun. Maurice Tuchman claims that Soutine did indeed work without any interest in composition per se. Particularly in the Ceret and Cagnes landscapes, but elsewhere as well, the coherence of the pictures’ spaces and surfaces is very satisfying. Soutine must have had a very lively awareness of how each successive increment of form affected, modified, gave new direction to, and potentiated the whole. He was always in time with felt meanings as they unfolded. The best analogy I can offer for this sort of continually emergent awareness if the art of Frank Sinatra. What made his singing something special was that he took liberties with the expected melodic and harmonic and rhythmic flow of the music to bring out more subtle and surprising expressive gestures of its meaning, to give it a new unanticipated emotional content.

    Now the only little bit I’d substitute there would be Thelonious Monk for Sinatra. But tastes will always differ. The main thing is that Finkelstein is echoing what I was posting about jazz improvisation as an analogous to a certain kind of expressionist painting.

    We can take a look at this wonderful Cagnes landscape with what has just been said so eloquently by Mr. Finkelstein:

  3. trueoutsider says:

    Finkelstein also mentions the cap on the woman’s head on the right walking into the painting by Balthus as a geodesic shape, observing how the criss crossed lines define the form of the cap. :

    Balthus, The Street, 1993-1935, Museum of Modern Art

  4. trueoutsider says:

    There’s also this at the end of the talk, bringing home the inspiration that Soutine’s work provided to de Kooning.

    De Kooning carried forward this inspiration in two ways, the most obvious of which lay in his paint handling. He wanted to achieve in paint the feeling of flesh and, by extension, every other kind of materiality and carnality. But he also followed Soutine in his opening up of plastic possibilities. Forms move in space and energize the whole picture. Spatial schemata are transformed. New schemes and proposals of what can be meant by pictorial organization and consequence are generated….

    We see in De Kooning’s Gotham News, painted in the mid-50s, the same twisting planes that we see in Soutine, the same richness of color. Even though we don’t see the objects, we see the same internalization of form. De Kooning’s reflection on Soutine helps us to see these elements in Soutine as well. …

    These ideas are transformed in the work of De Kooning from the 1980s into an extreme giving -of- life- to- paint- itself. One other thing that De Kooning profited by or was driven to by Soutine was the act of imagining the openess of the picture plane, imagining the picture as available for all sorts of schematic realizations of space different from the conventional perspectival schemes. That’s a part of the life of painting we all inherit, but I don’t think anyone has gone further with this than de Kooning.

    I agree completely with that last sentence.

    Willem de Kooning, Gotham News, 1955, 69″ x 79″

    Note the transfer images from the newspaper that we saw a detail of on Willem de Kooning 2:

  5. trueoutsider says:

    It’s also interesting to compare the spatial construction El Greco’s View of Toledo to the Soutine above. The El Greco just happened to spring into my mind when I was looking at the Soutine. What’s particularly interesting to me is how both roads that take us into the paintings are placed almost identically.

    El Greco, View of Toledo, 1600 47 x 42 inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art

    I’ll add this from Sister Wendy’s Book of Meditations:

    Joy is not a constant condition. Most people manage a settled cheerfulness, but this, however admirable, has nothing to do with joy, which flashes suddenly upon our darkness. Like the lightning in El Greco’s View of Toledo, joy does not merely illuminate our interior landscape, it transforms it. The world becomes different, marvelous and unique.

  6. johnk823 says:

    Well, I came up with two definitions for – coherent – (adjective)
    Webster Vest Pocket Dictionary

    Webster Definition: 1) able to stick together 2) logically consistant

    So, based on the above statement, what am I missing when applying the Webster definition for coherence which is a (noun). Are we talking about the ability to stick together materiality and cardinality with plastic possibilities? Or maybe the logically consistant use of richness of color with extreme giving of life to paint itself. Or maybe all sorts of schematic realizations of space different from the conventional perspectival schemes.

  7. johnk823 says:

    As to Gotham News, there is so much going on in this painting, I guess it would almost cover the entire newspaper. Dogs, cats, fish, people buildings, cats trucks and planes. Lots of great color, moving lines and everything under the sun, yet it is somewhat confusing to look at on a computer. I guess this then is the coherent part of coherence in a work of art that is pretty much overrated.

    Some might call it beautiful, some might call it glamour, some might call it appauling, but I call it the daily news.

  8. johnk823 says:

    As to The Street, quick call the cops, that guy it trying to hijack that little girl.

    Very different kind of painting, the people look kind of robotic in their movement. This may have been the intention, but it just catches my attention on first viewing. Nice perspective that tends to draw you down the street. I’ll have to think about this one for a while and comment more later.

  9. johnk823 says:

    Cagne and El Grecos back road are pretty much the same also. I think it a copy!!

  10. trueoutsider says:

    John, yes, Finkelstein is talking about a logical consistency, by which he means an internal visual logic. Soutine and de Kooning or any other great painter isn’t just throwing paint around randomly. They’re building an illusionistic space that has it’s own sets of rules. We can look at Cezanne, Mondrian, Seurat, or even Milo Russell for that matter. Each painter has assembled their own particular vocabulary of form and color and means of achieving the feel of spatial illusion. In each case it’s different. In each case it comes from the mind of the painter.

    The reason we know that it’s coherent and logical visually is that any one of these painter’s works are immediately identifiable and visually compelling. Yet none of them are based on Renaissance perspective, which was the prior logical system overthrown by the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, etc.

    All these various schools of painting and individual painters within them were forced to devise a new form of internal visual logic.

    Soutine developed one of the most compelling because his work was made spontaneously with wet into wet painting–a much more difficult achievement than a a slower analytical process based on preliminary drawings. Take Seurat, for example, since we were just looking at him. Seurat developed his own system of representing nature that wasn’t what a camera would record. Much of the impetus for finding new forms of painting came from the fact that the camera had largely displaced much of paintings former role as sole witness or reality.

    Here’s Seurat’s description of his internally coherent method of making a painting:

    August 28, 1890

    Art is harmony.
    Harmony is the analogy of contrary and of similar elements of tone, of color, and of line, conditioned by the dominant key, and under the influence of a particular light, in gay, calm, or sad combinations.
    The contraries are:
    For tone: a more luminous, or lighter, shade against a darker.
    For color: the complementaries, i.e., a certain red opposed to its complementary, etc. (red-green, orange-blue, yellow-violet).
    For line: those making a right angle.
    Gaiety of tone is given by the dominance of light; of color, by the dominance of warm colors; of line, by the dominance of lines above the horizontal.
    Calm of tone is given by an equivalence of light and dark; of color; by an equivalence of warm and cold; and of line, by horizontals.
    Sadness of tone is given by the dominance of dark; of color, by the dominance of cold colors; and of line, by downward directions.

    Seurat wrote to a friend, “They see poetry in what I have done. No, I apply my method, and that is all there is to it.”

    Soutine had an entirely different “method”. What Finkelstein was objecting to is the notion that Soutine and de Kooning and other painters of like manner are often described as throwing paint around with no logic or order. That’s a false way of seeing these painters. Soutine, de Kooning and other action painters are just as internally structured and logical is Seurat or Cezanne or any other great painter. Of course, there are plenty of expressionists who are indeed throwing paint around with no internal logic or order. Vast numbers of them nowadays.

    That’s why he was so incensed at the comment that “coherence in art is overrated.” The critic was saying, in effect, that art doesn’t need to be coherent. That painters can throw paint around randomly and it’s just the same as painting like El Greco. Finkelstein is incensed that there are no more standards applied to painting anymore. No discipline. No serious looking or thinking about painting and its role as a profound means of human expression.

    We can get more into Finkelstein’s examination of Soutine’s structure and use of color as we go along. I’m out of time now and have a burgeoning to-do list backlogged. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get back to this without too much delay.

    • johnk823 says:

      The critic was saying, in effect, that art doesn’t need to be coherent.

      This is exactly what I was trying to explain above. I feel that Finkelstein’s comments are being based on a belief system the he happened to inject into his own brain as to how every painter on the planet should think like and if they don;t comply and paint, based on his learned ideaology, then artist stepping out of these for mentioned belief systems rules, don’t know what they are doing. So, basically, he finds himself to be judge, jury and executioner to those stepping outside of his belief system, which to me takes away for an artist right to free expression in there works.

      If his, Finkelstein, belief system was all that the artist of today, yet alone that time period, had to go by inorder to paint, we wouldn’t have all the awesome paintings that we are looking at today or to come in the future.

      I do believe, however, that certain things that occur in art that get pushed through as art, as we have already discussed elsewhere, need to have some kind of moral controls, if for no other reason but for the sake of children, that may end up viewing it, and the moral impications it may have on them.

      • trueoutsider says:

        John, Finkelstein isn’t telling anybody how to paint. He’s looking at how Soutine painted and what the underlying structures are. Soutine’s painting does need to be coherent. It is coherent. All art needs to be coherent visually, particularly if it’s going to challenge what is normative. If one is going to break the rules, it isn’t done by not knowing what the rules are. All great art is visually coherent. All good art is the same.

        You’re completely misreading Finkelstein if you think what he’s writing is “based on a belief system the he happened to inject into his own brain as to how every painter on the planet should think like and if they don;t comply and paint, based on his learned ideaology, then artist stepping out of these for mentioned belief systems rules, don’t know what they are doing.”

        That’s in fact the exact opposite of what he’s saying. He’s saying that Soutine stepped out of the common belief system of the French Academy with complete knowledge and a sophisticated notion of constructing his own alternative perceptions. Furthermore he’s saying (you’ll see when I continue with his thoughts) that Soutine’s perceptions were much more accurate, in terms of how the eye actually perceives reality, than is the single point perspective of Renaissance space that the camera observes.

        Soutine isn’t copying El Greco’s painting at all. They’re both painting using the same kind of visual perceptions that don’t rely on single point perspective. That’s why they have such striking similarities. El Greco was painting Toledo. Soutine was painting Cagnes and Ceret.

  11. trueoutsider says:

    John, when thinking about and looking at the Balthus, you might keep this painter in mind, Piero della Francesca. Note how della Francesca is composing the painting. the price placement of the diagonals and the figures. Also the still posed quality of everything as in the Balthus. How the figures fit into an almost abstract geometric design. Balthus is very similar and studied Piero closely. Balthus also ran the Villa Medici for years so he was steeped in the Italian Renaisssance.

    Piero della Francesco, one of the frescoes in Arezzo of the Legend of the True Cross:

  12. johnk823 says:

    Interesting video. With the back drop the lady is in, it looks like a painting in itself.

  13. johnk823 says:

    Bart, OK, I was reading it wrong and after reading your post, now I have a much better picture as to where I did go wrong in my reading. Thank you for helping me to better understand the relationship on how he was using the common belief system of the French Academy with complete knowledge and a sophisticated notion of constructing his own alternative perceptions and how the eye actually perceives reality, than is the single point perspective of Renaissance space that the camera observes.

    This certainly make good sense and I don’t know how I didn’t get that from the beginning. It sure is easy to misread things, thanks!

  14. trueoutsider says:

    Good John. I’m going to continue with Finkelstein on perspective. Keep in mind that he’s investigating what goes on in Soutine’s painting. He’s not prescribing how anybody should paint their own paintings. He’s like Hans Hoffman in that regard. Like Hoffman he’s pointing out how paint operates visually, getting artists to look. What they do with their observations is their own business.

    The expectation that Soutine confronts is perspective. The root of the word perspective means “seeing through.” Think of the famous Dürer print of a man looking at a reclining woman through a fridded glass and drawing here on a gridded sheet of paper. For For many people — many people who should know better — perspective embodies the truth of seeing. Closer examination, however, shows that perspective is not true to the way we see. Instead, perspective is a powerful because consistent set of rules which intervenes artificially on actual perception. Indeed in its early theoriticization, way back in the 12th century, this artificiality was explicitly identified. Perspective was called prospettiva artificialis. To see according to the rules for perspective,w e would have to shut one eye, and keep the other absolutely fixed and unfocused. We never see in this manner. Instead, our eyes are constantly moving, both in angle and in depth. We have a very narrow cone of focused vision of roughly three degrees. We’re definitely more interested in some things than in others. If we didn’t limit our field of perception in this manner, our visual experience would be terribly confusing. Perspective was an artificial for constructing pictures in a controlled fashion. Every time you measure projective dimensions for marking our intervals on some implement held at arm’s length, you are, in effect, participating in this artificial scheme. You’re in the grip of actual seeing, you’re limiting what you see in order to make what you see clear, distinct and comprehensible.

    This is the Dürer print Finkelstein refers to above:

  15. trueoutsider says:

    Go 19 seconds into this youtube and you’ll see exactly what Finkelstein is talking above when he says: Every time you measure projective dimensions for marking our intervals on some implement held at arm’s length, you are, in effect, participating in this artificial scheme.

    Note also that Lopez Garcia draws the exact place for where he has to place his shows. This way he’s exactly fixing in space where his single eyeball will view the scene from. Finkelstein is simply pointing out how artificial the system of single-point perspective and how it doesn’t remotely address how human beings actually see the world on a daily basis. None of us stand in one place with our head oriented in one position with our single eye fixed on a single point on the horizon.

    Artists like van Gogh, Soutine, Cezanne, etc. were attempting to construct a spatial illusion more compatible with how human beings normally take in the world in front of their eyes.

  16. johnk823 says:

    I kindof understand what you are saying, but when looking at perspective one must understand that each and every item in a perspective is based on the furthist perspective poin first, then every item in that overall perspective, also has it own personal shorter object perspective. You can also have vertical and horizontal perspectives that will also play a roll in the overall complete and complex perspective.

    In other words, there really is no such thing as just a single point perspective where many objects are included in the overall subject matter of a painting, picture , etc. , yet every subject within the first and longest perspective point will be a part of the first single perspective point , but will also have their own personal perspective point as well.

    I have some great books on perspective and in reality, perspective in much more complex than most people know about. The majority of people know about single point, double point and three point perspective, but it is way much more complex than that, and this is most likely what van Gogh, Soutine, Cezanne, etc. were attempting to construct, the complex nature of what real and total perspective is, beyond what most people know.

    The grid picture above is in my Durer book or maybe in another book I have, anyway I remember it and have read about it quite a while back. Also, remember too, we all have different sets of eyes and all see things a bit differently, then add to that the minds eye that really sees differently. So, what works for one may not necessarilly work for another.

  17. jhobson1987 says:

    Hi just wanted to leave a small comment thanking you for this post on Soutine. If i could possibly pick a favourite painter, it would surely be Soutine. It is a sad fact that you don’t often encounter the work of Soutine these days, publications on his work are very seldom seen, his catalogue raisonne is so so rare to find! Its good to see active intelligent debate on him. I’m new to wordpress so coming across such a conversation is most gratifying! Thanks again. James

  18. trueoutsider says:

    Thanks, James. It’s good to hear from another artist with an enthusiasm for Soutine. The fact that Soutine is so invisible to most people is indicative of the sorry state of painting in general.

    Soutine is one of my favorite painters and always has been. Roualt is another great painter who has been thoroughly neglected. There’s a mystical quality in both of these painters that doesn’t remotely transfer into reproduction or onto a computer screen. The same flattening happens with painters like Monet or Cezanne, etc

    The complexity of the surface of the paintings of the above painters — and of course so many others, late Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, etc.– has to be viewed up close. Otherwise one is just seeing a flat image.

  19. Nada Stone says:

    i agree that ones needs to experience these paintings live in order to appreciate them fully: i was lucky to just visit an exhibiton of modigliani and soutine in paris and the thing that struck me most about the soutines was his sense of emotion; much in the same way that Edward Munch hits one; with an overwhelming feeling of his sadness of even feelings of total mental disbalance: Soutine has a painting called La Folle; of a woman with huge hands gripping; the color of green and a menacing shadow behind: the flattening and distortion of the picture plane; coupled with her huge toubled eyes; this together really spells out the emotional aspect the painter must have been feeling: Kadinsky once said that the main thing an artist can convey to a viewer is his emotion:
    So it is interesting to look at Soutine from that point of view:

  20. trueoutsider says:

    Thanks for the insightful comment, Nada. These are all wonderful painters. I agree with Kandinsky’s remark absolutely and thanks for sharing it.

    Below is the Soutine painting that you mention. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I can imagine in my mind how it looks, being so familiar with his use of paint, but as you point out it’s not like the experience of the actual painting by a long shot. — a complex paint surface can only be suggested with computer pixels, regardless of how fine the resolution.

    But, for me, it’s better than not being able to see it at all:

    It’s interesting how much attention van Gogh has gotten in comparison to Soutine. I find both painters equally fascinating. I also love Munch and Modigliani but in a different way. It’s a different feeling and it’s a different way of using paint. But they’re all alike in viewing paint as a vehicle for exploring emotional / spiritual states.

    I wish there were more painters around like them but if they are they’d be hard to locate in commercial art galleries and/or museums. The current calamitous condition of the art world as entertainment center/shopping mall is hardly conducive to painting with authentic feeling on the order of Soutine and company. I would imagine that’s the one type of painting that’s completely barred from inclusion in the rarefied precincts of the fine art world these days, to the extent that there’s any painting whatsoever allowed there.

  21. kinneret says:

    I’ve always love love loved Soutine. For some reason his works reminded me a bit of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Just I guess an underclass of people silently swept under. Did you know Soutine really died because he was fleeing Nazis and in his struggle to evade them he was unable to take care of serious health problems? So in essence they killed him.

  22. trueoutsider says:

    I read Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road To Wigan Pier when I was in Mexico for a summer in the early 80s that had a great effect on the direction my work took. Great books. All the best artists are part of the underclass that gets silent swept under these days, or so it seems to me.

    I did know that Soutine died fleeing the Nazis. Think it was due to ulcers that needed to be operated on and the ulcers obviously caused by the stress of the conditions in Europe. But I need to look up more specifics as this is from memory. And my memory ain’t what it used to be, just like the old gray mare….

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