The faces above and below stairs

Soutine’s hotel workers and Cézanne’s gardener feature in two London exhibitions of portraits

Michael Prodger

In the Paris of the 1920s and 1930s Chaïm Soutine was an oddity. He stood out not because he was an émigré — there were any number of those, from Chagall and Modigliani to Picasso and Brancusi — and not because he was poor, the common artistic predicament. He went against the grain because he was an Expressionist in a city of Cubists and Dadaists. His thickly impasted and violently worked paint surfaces have always been read as manifestations of a troubled soul, a sort of automatic painting that bypassed the cerebral and went straight for the guts. His disciple, the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning, said that Soutine “builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There’s a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness in his work.” Soutine’s pictures, he thought, “had a glow that came from within the paintings — it was another kind of light”.

Expressionism was a German movement rather than a French one and although he had no formal links with them, Soutine had more in common with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and with the Blue Rider group in Munich than with his Parisian peers, who were more interested in the problems of representation than expression.

What Soutine sought to express was a tangled mix of early experiences, whether in his landscapes, his portraits or his celebrated paintings of beef carcasses. While he was painting them his Montparnasse neighbours called in the police when the stench from his studio became too great. Chagall once saw the blood from the animal leaking from beneath Soutine’s door and fled into the street screaming, “Someone has killed Soutine!”

Soutine had been born in 1893 to an impoverished Jewish family living near Minsk and his upbringing was marked by impecuniousness and persecution — not just the prevalent Russian anti-Semitism but closer to home: when he drew the local rabbi the man’s son beat him to the point of insensibility. When Soutine moved to Paris in 1913 he had a full decade of hand-to-mouth existence before he had any kind of success. And he had a temperament in which depression alternated with anger: “A man in torment,” is how one friend described him. “He paints a great deal, but he will suddenly slash at the canvas, tear at it, like one possessed.”

Soutine claimed that his art was all about one thing: “Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it,” he recalled. “I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat . . . This cry, I always feel it there. When I painted the beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate. I have still not succeeded.”

Looking for that cry in his portraiture may seem an odd exercise, but that is what the Courtauld Gallery seeks to do in Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys, an exhibition, running until January 18 next year, that looks at his paintings of the 1920s showing the serving class. Soutine felt he had more in common with these below-stairs figures he came across in Paris and in Nice than with the patrons of the restaurants and hotels in which they worked. Barely noticed by their clientele, Soutine did notice them and thought their anonymous lives worth commemorating.

He used the same format for the portraits, two-thirds length, and often the same pose too, the sitters with their hands on their hips — an odd posture less indicative of relaxation than of indignation. His sitters may be off duty but they remain wary, starkly outlined in their red or white liveries against a dark background. Their features are often skewed as if the flesh were unconstrained by the bone structure beneath. This liquidity of form gives each face a transient and inevitably soulful expression.

The pictures clearly show distinct individuals rather than archetypes but whether the emotion in each face belonged to the waiters and chefs themselves or to Soutine is much harder to say: there is self-identification here as well as identification. And there is present too something of the heroism of ordinary lives. Soutine claimed Rembrandt as his painterly inspiration (“He’s a god, he’s God”) but these portraits have more in common with the peasants of Jean-François Millet and, in particular, the neighbours — the postman and his wife, the soldier of the Zouave regiment — Van Gogh painted in Arles.

The portraits also carry a touch of survivor’s guilt: in 1923 the American collector Albert Barnes saw one of Soutine’s portraits of a chef, declared it one of the greatest modern paintings he had ever seen, and bought 50 more Soutines on the spot. The first thing the painter did with his new-found wealth was to call a taxi and order the startled driver to take him to Nice 400 miles away. It was Barnes’s largesse that saved Soutine from the hardscrabble life of his subjects. He could have been the sitter as well as the painter.

Cézanne Portraits just along the road at the National Portrait Gallery, until February 11, complements the Soutine exhibition and highlights a central strand of the older artist’s career: 160 of his extant 1,000 paintings are portraits and 50 of them have been gathered for this show. Cézanne too painted history’s forgotten people, such as his gardener Vallier, but even when depicting the human face his concern was the same as when he painted landscapes or an apple — the very “thingness” of an object and its underlying structure. If Soutine sought to show the emotional depth of his sitters then Cézanne also sought to show their physical presence.

Where Soutine painted fluid features Cézanne could be entirely uninterested in them: his faces are sometimes just a series of planes, masks with black holes for eyes and lips that have gone missing. His particular gift was to make his portraits not just experimental compositions but images of mutable humanity too.

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