Unreal Nature

January 10, 2017

A Miraculous Teeming Substance

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:59 am

… The object is not so much tortured as lovingly torn apart.

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

… There were only two painters whom Soutine is reputed to have felt any warmth in his mature years: Courbet — him in particular — and Corot. And Courbet’s influence upon him was probably greater than Rembrandt’s, especially during the last ten years of his life. What Soutine liked about Courbet, he told René Gimpel, was that he was ‘direct’; Corot gave him the ‘same sensation of immediate contact with things.’

[line break added] It is significant that this feeling for Courbet and Corot was one that Soutine shared with André Derain, who also came to turn his back on ‘modern’ art — at about the same time as Soutine did — though by reasoning rather than by instinct, or one might say through an excess of sophistication rather than a lack of it. The point is that Courbet and Corot were the last great masters before the beginning of modern art. They are the nearest to us of the old masters.

[line break added] Courbet, certainly, has in many ways a sensibility which the twentieth century can easily make contact with, in a sense that Delacroix has not (I am talking about them as painters; as theorists it’s probably the other way around). But his aesthetic is not modern: it’s closer to Titian’s and Rembrandt’s than it is to Cézanne’s. Impressionism is the great divide. In a sense there is a larger gulf between Courbet and Monet — even perhaps the Monet of the Seventies, certainly of the Eighties — than there is between Monet and Jackson Pollock.

[line break added] That Courbet and Monet were alike concerned to paint what they could see while Pollock’s marks were self-determined — even this difference, which is scarcely negligible, counts for little. What does count is that Courbet painted things and Monet painted sensations. And as soon as the painter starts to paint sensations, his canvas becomes an entity of quite another order than that of a painter of things. It ceases to be a sort of window; it becomes a sort of grid.

[line break added] It interposes between the painter and his motif an autonomous structure which, instead of effacing itself, asserts itself, because its rhythm and texture are meant to be the equivalents, embodiments, of the rhythm and texture, so to speak, of the painter’s sensations. The marks on the canvas become opaque instead of transparent, and their internal homogeneity becomes more important than the heterogeneity of the different elements represented by the picture — and it is this internal homogeneity of the marks that makes a Monet more like a Pollock than a Courbet in aesthetic conception.

[line break added] In other words, in an Impressionist painting or a Post-Impressionist — in the broadest sense — painting, a tree and the sky behind it are meant to look more like each other than unlike each other. In a pre-Impressionist painting — Courbet being the last great pre-Impressionist — a tree is one sort of thing and the sky is another; the different things represented are disparate entities, not adjacent areas in the field of vision.

courbet_thetrout
Gustave Courbet, The Trout, 1871

… Yet there remains that freedom in Soutine’s handling, a boldness and arbitrariness used even within the framework of a pre-Impressionist idiom, which belongs to this century and lay beyond the compass of Courbet’s conception of what painting could be. And there is another thing that makes Soutine a modern painter: his instinct to paint the motif in close-up.

… The close-up view is an inevitable consequence of the twentieth-century’s predilection for flat and simple design. Its affective implications can vary. It can aggrandize. Most often it signifies a refusal to maintain ‘a respectful distance,’ expresses a will to intimacy, whether that of sympathy or that of insolence: either way it is anti-heroic; it probes. In Soutine’s work it seems to have another meaning. Close-up first becomes important to him in those Céret landscapes of c. 1920-21.

soutine_chemin_de_la_fontaine1920
Chaim Soutine, Chemin de la Fontaine des Tins at Céret, ca. 1920

… in the Céret paintings the forms are dense and congested and their nearness makes them loom up, dangerously close, threatening to burst through the picture plane and having to be held at bay. As if fearing attacks from them, Soutine assaults them: the canvas becomes a battleground between the menacing force of whatever confronts the painter and the bending force of the painter’s will.

And this becomes Soutine’s pattern (one that is highly consistent with what we know of his personality): to put himself in a position from which he feels that something is threatening him, so that he must attack it, wrestle with it, twist it, wring its neck. It is as if he can only make contact with the external world through an act of violence and violation. It is painting as a form of in-fighting. The brush is a weapon, and the paint is a magical substance with which to obliterate and remould the contours of the object, and its identity.

[line break added] The object is not so much tortured as lovingly torn apart. It is no longer a hillside or a tree, a carcass of beef or a dead bird. It is changed by paint into a nameless organism writhing in the throes of love or death, heaving with life. The paint appears to act like a miraculous teeming substance that actually generates life under our eyes. It is as if matter and energy were being continually churned out, were forever being renewed by the paint.

My most recent previous post from Sylvester’s book, and the first from this essay, is here.

-Julie

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