Art Thoughts, Week 19 -- Soutine & Chaos

The Pastry Chef (Baker Boy), Chaim Soutine, (Russian, active in France, 1893—1943), c. 1919, oil on canvas, BF 442.

In the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast, the main character Belle is aided by various anthropomorphic household objects: a clock, candelabra, and others, all highly animated, helpful and effusive. They would have found a compatriot in the chair in this painting of a young pastry chef. He is a jumpy, assertive fellow; less interested in holding the sitter, than trying to gain attention from the viewers for himself; poking out around the arm of the sitter like an insistent puppy. In fact, many other parts of this picture try to assert themselves by pulling away autonomously from the expected composition: the chef’s right ear is straining to remove itself from the head; the blood-red towel in the chef’s fists is struggling to extract itself; the cream baker’s jacket is about to twist off. Even the paint layers themselves compete against each other for attention and supremacy, creating an incredibly seething matrix, even for someone like Soutine. The whole is a truly cacophonic bazaar of shouting shapes and writhing colors; all elements conspiring to get our attention, and their own way. Yet somehow Soutine – perhaps despite himself – was able to press enough stability upon this chaos to keep it recognizable, without moving fully into Mitchell or De Kooning territory.

But whence the chaos: perhaps we have it turned around? Was the tableau less the suppressed than Soutine himself? There is some evidence for this from Soutine’s life: he had troubled and destructive episodes fueled by depression, poor health and forced exile. But despite this, the evidence in this painting seems to point to suppression by the painter of not simply himself, but more pointedly his wild perceptions of scenes that doggedly pursued him; his animalistic desire to swing paint with abandon conflicting with his need for a semblance of accuracy in depiction. Obviously his technique here is belying his current psychological state and aesthetic needs. Otherwise, his other paintings wouldn’t differ much – which they do; otherwise this painting would be de rigueur – which it’s not.

One aspect of the painting’s surface which seems to support this is the series of thicker, restraining bars of paint which Soutine has laid over the more roiling soup of undercoating, pentimenti and contrasting glazes and washes. In the center of the boy’s jacket especially, more substantial bars of navy and avocado hold in the pool of violet and sea-foam underneath. Another point of suppression can be seen in the chef’s face. The one side, with the swollen ear, is vastly different than the other, more sedate side. This is more of a difference than shading, angle or composition can explain. Together, they exhibit a Jekyll and Hyde-type vacillation of mood, which is analogous, certainly, with the conflicted paint surfaces.

A final interesting note to keep in mind is that, unlike portraits by Paula Rego or Alice Neel, it’s not the gaze in Soutine’s portraits which rivet us; it’s not necessarily by any fault of the sitter that we are arrested by the picture. It’s the conflicted and affronting paint surface and application which jars and holds us, even these nearly 100 years hence. Soutine wasn’t primarily suppressing the psyches of the sitters he painted; he was busy suppressing the wild animal of abstraction convulsing inside him.

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