Art Review: Soutine Portraits, Courtauld Gallery ‘Radical, Unflinching Portraits’

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Chaim Soutine is not a name that many will be familiar with; he certainly isn’t as well-known as his mate, Amedeo Modigliani. And this exhibition of portraits may not be as grand as the show that’ll open on his friend at the Tate Modern at the end of the month, but this is a fantastic collection of works that played a key role in establishing Soutine’s reputation in interwar Paris, and turned him from a struggling painter into a wealthy one.

Born in Russia (modern-day Belarus), Chaim Soutine arrived penniless in Paris just before the start of the First World War. For the following few years, he lived in poverty in Montparnasse alongside other immigrant artists, including Modigliani. But it wouldn’t be until after the war – and Modigliani’s death – that Soutine would break through.

In the 1920s, as the city was booming again, Soutine became fascinated by the cooks and waiting staff of French hotels and restaurants – a new social class comprised of service personnel waiting on the wealthy and connected.

This attraction to more modest sitters rather than the metropolitan elite certainly follows in the path of van Gogh, whose works Soutine’s have often been compared to. And understandably so for these are radical, unflinching portraits. What bold, fiercely expressive modern paintings these are.

Butcher boys set against backgrounds of bleeding red, young men swamped by their white chef’s overalls, maids and housekeepers drawn and pale, waiters with hands on hips scowling out from the canvas… These are portraits that both demand and command connection. These are real people, flesh and blood, with real emotions – whether exhaustion, fatigue, impatience, or vanity. They feel as close to snapshots as portraits can be.

There is no doubt, though, that there is something odd and twisted about these images – these are not naturalistic representations. And as I looked over the twenty-one artworks in these galleries, I wondered how that impacted my connection with them. It was then that I spotted a quote from de Kooning (an artist who has spoken of Soutine’s influence on his own work) in the wall text. “Soutine distorted the pictures but not the people.”

I think this is an excellent observation for the connection with the sitters is there, even though it can take a moment to unpick them from the swirl of colours. Nothing is unnatural about the sitter or their postures – many are understandably slouched or hunched over. Instead, it is our lens that has been skewed.

This collection of portraits wowed collectors at the time and, today, they are considered among his greatest achievements. This is the first show on Soutine in the UK for thirty-five years and it is also the first thematic exhibition anywhere on Soutine. Basically, what I’m saying is this – the opportunity to see Soutine’s works does not come around often, and certainly not seeing such a pivotal collection as this. Grab that opportunity to see a set of portraits that transformed a masterful artist’s career!

The Courtauld Gallery, London, to January 21, 2018
Admission £10.50 (included in general admission to The Courtauld Gallery)

Image credits:
1. Bellboy c.1925, Chaim Soutine, ©Courtauld Gallery, Centre Georges Pompidou.
2. The Waiting Maid (La Jeune Servante, also known as La Soubrette) c.1933, Chaim Soutine, ©Courtauld Gallery, Ben Uri Gallery
3. Pastry Cook of Cagnes (Le Pâtissier de Cagnes) 1922, Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery Museum of Avaunt-Guard Mastery of Europe (MAGMA)

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