Unreal Nature

January 3, 2017

In His Innocence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:36 am

… in his innocence, museum pictures were real pictures, and his own pictures ought to look like them.

This is from ‘Soutine’ (1963) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):

Soutine had to have the thing he was painting out there in front of him. He wouldn’t invent. He wouldn’t paint from memory, even the memory of a motif he had worked from day after day. He wouldn’t paint from drawings or from photographs or from an earlier painting of the subject. He had to have the real thing there.

He even needed it there when painting his paraphrases of old masters. He never copied from the picture, either the original or a reproduction; he reconstructed the motif of the picture, worked from a model or a still-life subject disposed in accordance with the prototype.

… Reconstituting the motif rather than working from the picture was a curious procedure to adopt when transposing other men’s images. After all, one of the reasons why painters make copies or transpositions is to save themselves the bother of employing a model or buying a lobster or taking a trip to the country. And as a matter of fact Soutine was often put to more trouble than usual when he tried to find the living equivalent of an image he had chosen to adapt.

[line break added] Some of the most grotesque stories in the Soutine legend tell of such occasions. There is the story behind the picture based on Courbet’s reclining girl — the days of motoring round the countryside before a suitable model was found; the jealousy of her husband, a railway gatekeeper, who, after one session, tried to stop her from posing; Soutine’s rage and threats of legal action.

… There is the story about the carcass of beef which he had hanging in the studio while painting four or more large canvases paraphrasing the Rembrandt carcass — the complaints of the neighbors at the stench of decaying flesh; the pail of blood used to freshen up the meat as it got dry; the model hired to fan away the flies so that the motif could be seen; the artist’s growing rapture at the colors that emerged as the meat decomposed, and the neighbor’s growing desperation; the calling in of the police; Soutine’s incomprehension and rage.


[ … ]

… This painter of genius came from a society in which there was not simply no background of painting but a positive hostility to painting, so that painting for him was not just a luxury but a forbidden fruit. The act of painting was a magical activity, a weaving of spells, and, since it happened that he could weave spells which by any standards were unusually potent, he was bound to display the powers he had appropriated.

[line break added] He would want to find a style in which they would not be wasted but could be paraded in all their glory, and obviously the best opening would be a traditional sort of style, sonorous in color, rich in impasto, and — this above all, perhaps, for a child of orthodox Jewry — providing the opportunity to show off his skill in producing recognizable representations. Moreover, he lacked the sophistication demanded by any artist who is to work easily in a twentieth-century idiom.

… Secondly, he lacked sophistication in the sense of bored over-familiarity with the masterpieces of the European tradition hanging in the museums, paid lip-service to by parents and other bourgeois and providing criteria of artistic respectability which must be shot at. For Soutine, in his innocence, museum pictures were real pictures, and his own pictures ought to look like them.

Chaim Soutine, Self Portrait, 1918

More from this essay next week.

My most recent previous post from Sylvester’s book is here.




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