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Soutine, the tenth child of an impoverished clothes-mender, was scarred by his childhood in the Jewish ghetto near Minsk and felt life was nothing but pain and suffering. He endured stomach ulcers and epileptic fits, and was a mass of illnesses, obsessions, delusions, jealousies and fears. Unlike the polite, gentlemanly and well-behaved Schiele, Soutine was a crude, boorish barbarian, a sort of higher primate, whose ugliness, filth and coarse manners became legendary in Montparnasse. Friends recalled, “His dark face and burning eyes created a tormented expression; his body huddled into his coat, he seemed a frightened, suspicious man . . . He was a man in torment. He paints a great deal, but he will suddenly slash at the canvas, tear at it, like one possessed.”

Jean Chardin’s 18th-century The Rayfish (c.1728) shows Soutine was inspired by a great predecessor. In Soutine’s Still Life with Rayfish, his fish stands upright and unsupported, its dangerous sting-tail hidden, not flattened but humanised. It has a pointed head, drooping eyes, open mouth and wide wing-like supplicating arms. The red in the fish is accentuated by the jumbled pile of tomatoes on a wavy cloth in the foreground. Even this triangular fish, soon to be killed and eaten, has an anguished and tormented expression.

Soutine’s paintings are molten, horrific, demonic explosions of cadmium red and haemorrhages of carmine colour. His uniformed cooks and page boys look like madmen in an Edgar Poe House of Usher hotel. Pastry Cook (1923) portrays the young man’s large forehead, high wing-like ears that could carry him aloft, drooping asymmetrical eyes, long thin nose, pursed red lips and narrow pointed chin. He is seated in a fragile wooden chair that reaches the height of his tight white cap adorned with a cloudy flopping top and is encased in a huge billowing white uniform, buttoned on the left side, with broad square shoulders. His hands, extending out of the puffy sleeves and holding a red handkerchief, are folded on his lap. Exhausted and miserable, he looks ready to collapse in a hospital. By contrast to this weak and pathetic creature, August Sander’s contemporary photograph of a bald, stout pastry cook in a Cologne hotel in 1928 seems well-fed, satisfied and proud of his calling.

The Madwoman (c.1919) is executed with violent slashes of paint that suggest her disturbed condition. She is twisted and contorted, her neckless head is hunched into her wide sloping shoulders, her left hand is defensively crossed against her unnaturally long right arm, which hangs down to her right thigh. She wears a tilted, misshapen green hat, and has straggling strands of black hair, widely-set eyes, flat nose, twisted mouth and low squared-off chin. The poor creature, the very essence of fear and misery, is in a hopeless and incurable condition.

Soutine’s Self-Portrait is a grotesque caricature of his unusually crude and ugly face. Sitting sideways and turned toward the viewer, he wears a hideous greeny-yellowy jacket with a high round shoulder and an elongated right arm. He boasts thick pasted-down black hair, one black and one obscured eye, a huge nose that juts out like a clown’s, thick protruding lips and battered boxer’s ears. Maurice Tuchman called this study in humiliation, “a pitiless, ruthless mask, ridden with self-contempt.” His portrayal of himself as a lump of deformity looks more idiotic than his 1919 painting of The Village Idiot.
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