Chaim Soutine exhibition

A visit to see Soutine at The Courtauld Gallery in London turned out to be a mismatch of the expected. Having studied this phenomenal artist ever since I began to paint seriously myself in the 1970s, his work has been massively influential, validating looseness and freeing up honesty. I’ve responded most to his landscapes – more so than the portraits but Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys are the subject of this exhibition. There aren’t many Soutines in British collections, so to suddenly be confronted by 21 portraits, most of which I knew so well from reproductions was something of a shock to the senses. Not so much the visual as the tactile.

soutine-3The Chambermaid (1913)

In truth, they were both disappointing and exhilarating. Maybe that sentence needs some explanation. Disappointing because they were less spontaneous than I expected. The execution was carefully considered even though he never made drawings, either on the canvas or in sketchbooks. In fact, there are none in existence. There I was, expecting de Kooning-like explosions of passion. Frenetic paint and ideas mixed up together and dumped spontaneously on the canvas, instead I found repetitive series. Nothing wrong with that, it was just not what I was expecting. More fool me.

My visit happily coincided with a curatorial talk. His painting practice was not mentioned once; at the end I had to ask the question ‘Did he use knives or just brushes?’. Neither on the information panels was there any reference to technique, well, just one reference to brushmarks. All reviews have been concerned solely with the subjects of the paintings – who or rather what they were, their jobs, their social status, their poses etc. It was more a psychological study than a painting one. That was disappointing for me as a painter, but it must be what most visitors are interested in. As a masterful manipulator of paint and restricted colour, how could this be?

With van Gogh, we hear about the way he painted, as with de Kooning, Pollock and Dubuffet, but if anyone needs his technique discussed and analysed it’s Soutine. One often encounters the same anthropocentricity with Rembrandt, whom Soutine admired above all, as must, I submit, any real painter. Just look at Rembrandt’s handling of  paint.

Details, Soutine (l) Rembrandt (r)

So those were some disappointments, what about the exhilaration? It’s what I get when in front of a REAL painting, a work in which the integrity and sincerity of the worker smacks you in the face, right between the eyes. This doesn’t happen often, even with ‘big names’ and the grand masters, there is so much commercialism to sift through. This has always been the case.

If I don’t paint for money, why should anyone else! Soutine didn’t, at least not until, he was ‘discovered’ by the immensely rich American collector, Albert C. Barnes. He became an overnight celebrity in Paris, and possibly more repetitive.

Soutine’s enormous impact stems from his ruthless approach and his early forthright attack on stuff of painting; his independent vision, fierce individualism. His close friend Modigliani had absolutely no influence on his technique whatsoever although he did on choice of subject. The other big quality was his downright angry unconventionalism. Oh, yes, his landscapes are angry, and from that anger he derived energy. But I’m not convinced his portraits are angry at all.

A human-being sat in front of you, staring straight at you – as his models did – can be unnerving, especially if that person is bored or anxious, and doubts whether he’ll ever get paid. I found it difficult to concentrate on the actual panting and distance myself from the living being in front of me, for his paintings certainly are ‘alive’. When I did, my passion bounded back.

In 1913, at the age of 20, he arrived in Paris from Lithuania. It took 10 years of extreme poverty before being discovered by Barnes. As a Jew he felt constantly persecuted and from 1940 hides from the Nazis. He dies tragically from an untreated ulcer in 1943.

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Residency at Bucks Mills Cabin

Residency at Bucks Mills Cabin

Two weeks of intensive focus on Art at this majestic venue has now finished leaving me tired but with a body of work which ultimately feels worthwhile. “Majestic”? This is the location, not the actual cabin, which is anything but majestic: dilapidated inside with very little of the spirit of those two lady artists, Mary Stella Edwards and Judith Ackland remaining despite their artefacts being everywhere. Nevertheless, I feel very privileged to have been given this chance of residency at what the National Trust calls an “Artists Retreat”. I should have liked it to have been both: a residency and a retreat. It was neither really: one couldn’t reside there (sleeping was not allowed) and the continual footfall of visitors past the door made “retreat” impossible, at least for me.

Let me hastily qualify the above criticism by acknowledging the difficult position NT must find itself in with regard to this unique place. Deciding how to preserve or conserve perishable textiles is very difficult but there is little inside the Cabin which could not be resolved by a good clean and refreshing of some of the furnishings: the carpet and curtains in particular. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a pernickety person (ask my wife) and well used to roughing it, but I was upset about the disonance between the spirit of Edwards and Ackland and the state of the cabin interior now. They were sophisticated, educated and well-to-do ladies who would not, I’m sure, have tolerated such decay.

There is a vast difference between that and a simple frugal lifestyle. I was told that the dirt was “original” and that the cabin was as it was left by the lady artists but a lot of the grot has been left by subsequent users – and not, I’m sure, by previous artists, who would have all treated the cabin with great respect. [I hear the cabin was used for parties etc between 1971 and ownership by the Trust in 2008.]

Fabrics decay. Should they be allowed to, in honour of their provenance – ultimately to disappear completely – or be replaced by facsimiles the better to convey the original style? Is it necessary, by virtue of dust, dirt and decay, to convey the impression of a ‘time capsule’? I think the Trust should address this question as a matter of urgency. The beauty of Bucks Mills is its inspiring location and the spirit of Ackland and Edwards. It is wonderful to have their belongings as left by them and there is enough documentary evidence to keep it very much the same. But it really does need some sensitive TLC. It was the spirit I tried to tap into.

Although a good part of my working life has been on western UK cliffs and coastlands, my natural inclination is always towards woodland, and there are superb tracts of ancient woodland east and west from Bucks Mills. It was here I first gravitated, spending time in the company of what appeared to be an epidemic of ticks before coming to my senses and realising that the main point about being at the Cabin was the coastline. And so thereafter it was here I mainly concentrated, becoming intrigued by the endless jumble of rocks and pebbles played upon by the light, weather and tides which made each day very different from the preceding one.

IMGP2542

The coastline looking west.

I hope to be posting some other examples of work here and the entire body on my website in the near future. Below are a few examples from the Pebble series. My main medium was oil pastels on high gloss silk art paper in self-made ‘sketchbooks’. I also use chinagraph pencils. These media allow a lot of flexibility. The more I worked, the more I became aware of the magnificence of Jackson Pollock’s intuition – instinctive painting and mark-making.

Some of the studies will lend themselves to larger oil paintings, and I’m looking forward to that. I will post more results soon. Please leave comments, I will greatly value them.

Pebble series 15, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

Pebble series #15, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32cm

Pebble series 20, Oil pastel on silk paper 32X45cm (6)

Pebble series #20, Oil pastel on silk paper 32 x 45cm

Pebble series 13, Watercolour 23x33cm

Pebble series #13, Watercolour 23 x 33cm

Pebble series 06, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32cm

Pebble series #6, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32cm

Pebble series 01, Oil pastel on silk paper 11.5x16cm

Pebble series #1, Oil pastel on silk paper 11.5 x 16cm (the first small study).

Pebble series 04, Oil pastel on silk paper 23x32.3cm

Pebble series #4, Oil pastel on silk paper 23 x 32.3cm