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Page Boy at Maxim’s (c.1927) portrays the hotel servant dressed in fiery red uniform with a tilted flat red cap on his black hair and shiny gold buttons down the centre of his jacket. His left shoulder is jerked high above the right. His eyes are blackened as if he were blind, his nose and ears are twisted. He sports a small, square Hitler moustache and his narrow chin is propped up by a high tight collar. He stands with legs apart and knees slightly bent in a deferential pose, and with one palm open as if obsequiously soliciting a tip. Attractive uniforms give the servants prestige but also mark their menial status. These servants do not, like Thomas Mann’s handsome and charming eponymous waiter in The Confessions of Felix Krull (1954), enjoy culinary treats and sexual favors in a grand Frankfurt hotel. Soutine’s underlings are more like those in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which portrays a luxurious Paris hotel in the 1930s and servants who express contempt for the upper classes they serve. The cook routinely spits in the soup, the waiters dip their greasy fingers in the gravy. “Roughly speaking,” Orwell wrote, “the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.”

The figure in Seated Choirboy (1927-28), dressed like a future cardinal, wears a long brilliant red cassock that reaches to the floor and, like the hotel servants, a cap on the back of his head. Portrayed in a three-quarter view, looking to the right and seated on a rickety chair, he hides his clasped hands in his wide sleeves. He has large eyes and a long nose protruding over his tight red lips. His tense and timorous expression suggests uneasiness in his spiritual role.

Soutine influenced the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning, who admired his thick impasto texture and wrote that he “builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There’s a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness in his work . . . His pictures had a glow that came from within the paintings — it was another kind of light.” De Kooning’s biographers concluded that “Soutine helped give him the fortitude to make art that disappointed taste and stood outside the fashion of the time.”

The psychologically penetrating paintings of Schiele and Soutine reflect the inexorable movement toward destruction in the First and Second World Wars. War weakened Schiele, who served in the Austrian army but never saw action and died in the 1918 influenza pandemic, and victimised Soutine, who could not get proper medical treatment for his perforated ulcer while hiding in occupied France. Their pictures foreshadow the horrors of the Gulag and of Auschwitz. Schiele’s emaciated bodies — entangled, twisted and tormented — look like concentration camp survivors. Soutine would have been sent to a death camp if the Nazis had caught him.
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