Painted circa 1920, the trees in Les platanes à Céret fill the canvas, each striated trunk exploding with an energy, a pulp, perfectly encapsulating the raw life force so distinctive of the pictures of Chaïm Soutine. The countryside in Céret was to prove a vital testing ground for Soutine as he developed his unique visual idiom. He had first visited the area in 1919, and had in fact returned to live there for three of the most important, formative years of his career. Les platanes à Céret appears to have been painted during this period, when Soutine dedicated himself largely to pictures of the strange, surrounding landscape.
Soutine had moved to Paris years earlier, but his intense poverty, combined with the First World War raging through France, had meant that he had been essentially unable to leave the French capital. At the end of the War, his dealer, Léopold Zborowski-- the first owner of this work-- encouraged him to head to the countryside, which he did in the company of his great friend Modigliani. For Soutine, after the years of urban squalor, this was an epiphany. The colours and sheer life force of the countryside and of nature, as well as the sense of scale, appear to have opened up new vistas, new possibilities in the painter's mind. Where his Paris paintings had often taken still life themes or been portraits and copies from Old Masters, now he was able to work from the vastness of the world around him. The impact of the first journey to Cagnes and Vence can well be judged by his return to the countryside; the fact that Zborowski encouraged and indeed financed him shows how striking the difference was in his works, how exciting the advances. Away from Paris, from his fellow artists, from the art scene in general, he made his own leaps and bounds, capturing the pulsing energy of the world in his convulsive paintings. It is in paintings such as Les platanes à Céret that the influence of one of Soutine's most revered predecessors, Vincent van Gogh, can be seen. The surface itself is alive with impasto, with a wealth of varied surface that makes this country scene appear real and even organic; Soutine has captured, in his angst-fuelled and intense manner, the very stuff of life.
Soutine's years far from the rest of the Parisian art scene led to his own advances, the development of his own avant-garde. Intriguingly, though, it was in Céret that Soutine felt the influence of Cubism had made itself briefly apparent:
'I never touched cubism myself, you know, although I was attracted by it at one time. When I was painting at Céret and at Cagnes I yielded to its influence in spite of myself, and the results were not entirely banal. But then... Céret itself is anything but banal. There is so much foreshortening in the landscape that, for that reason, a picture may seem to have been painted in some special style' (Soutine, quoted in M. Tuchman, E. Dunow and K. Perls, op. cit., p. 19).
It is this foreshortening that is apparent in Les platanes à Céret, with its surface so densely packed with the mass of gnarled, twisted trees and branches, the houses peeking through from behind, the sky present in only the most occasional flicker of blue between the canopy of lives. There is, as Soutine pointed out, such an extreme of foreshortening that Céret appears almost to spill from the wall and through into the world of the viewer.