“Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it. I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat. This cry, I always feel it there. When, as a child, I drew a crude portrait of my professor, I tried to rid myself of this cry, but in vain. When I painted the beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate.” —Chaim Soutine
“I wanted to paint the scream more than the horror.” —Francis Bacon
Between 1923 and 1925, Soutine painted an extraordinary sequence of nine canvases that take as their starting point the newly slaughtered carcass of a steer, the vermillion-colored flesh and golden suet flayed and opened up for the artist’s penetrating inspection. Only three of these prized paintings remain today in private hands, of which the present is the largest, most powerfully visceral, and most nearly abstract in the vigorous streaks and swirls of viscous, jewel-like pigment that Soutine used to render the bloody meat. The remaining six paintings are housed in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Kunstmuseum Bern, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture in Grenoble, and the Paris Orangerie.
With his irrepressible intensity of expression, Soutine painted like no other artist of his time. Despite achieving international renown for his work in his own day, he belonged to no school or movement; he had no students or followers. In the wake of the Second World War, however—during which Soutine died from a perforated ulcer while hiding in France from the Gestapo—his art became a veritable touchstone for a new generation of painters. In the dense materiality and compulsive energy of Soutine’s surfaces, the gestural impact of the artist’s active presence and the irrepressible force of his emotion, de Kooning, Pollock, Guston, and Bacon—to name just a few—found something vital and relevant that complemented and confirmed their own vision, helping to crystallize it at this decisive moment. “Soutine’s struggle to paint, his ache to capture the emotive essences (and excesses) of his observed motifs,” Norman Kleeblatt has written, “whether a bloodied carcass or a turbulent landscape, fit clearly not only the reigning American style, but also the emotional intensity and tragic anguish that accompanied the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. The wounds were still fresh, if unspeakable” (An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum, New York, 1998, p. 60).
The story of Soutine’s flayed bœufs is the stuff of modern-art legend today. In 1922, the forceful American collector Albert Barnes had come upon one of the artist’s recent paintings in a group exhibition that the neophyte dealer Léopold Zborowski had organized. At the urging of Paul Guillaume, who would go on to publish in January 1923 the very first article on Soutine, Barnes met with the artist—utterly impoverished and almost entirely unknown until then—and ended up buying over fifty paintings straight from his studio in Paris, for which he paid some 60,000 francs. “No contemporary painter has achieved an individual plastic form of more originality and power than Soutine,” Barnes proclaimed (The Art in Painting, Merion Station, PA, 1925, p. 375).
With proceeds from the Barnes sales paying his way, Soutine traveled south to Cagnes, where he largely abandoned the convulsive landscapes of the preceding period at Céret and turned instead to portraiture and still-life. He began by painting a large side of beef that he purchased from the local butcher and then, after renting a more spacious studio on the rue du Saint-Gothard back in Paris, moved onto an entire carcass of a steer that he procured from the slaughter-houses at La Villette. He hung the meat from butcher hooks on the wall and painted as it decomposed. “When the glorious colors of the flesh were hidden from the enthralled gaze of the painter by an accumulation of flies,” Mortimer Wheeler recounts, “he paid a wretched little model to sit beside it and fan them away. He got from the butcher a pail of blood, so that when a portion of the beef dried out, he could freshen its color” (Soutine, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1950, p. 68).
Neighbors, not surprisingly, lodged complaints about the stench. One version of the story holds that when health authorities arrived to inspect, Soutine harangued them on how much more important art was than sanitation or olfactory pleasure. His model and confidante Paulette Jourdain, however, recalled that Soutine, terrified of police, fled when uniformed officials arrived, leaving her to plead his case. In the end, all parties agreed that Soutine would inject the beef with formaldehyde to halt the decay while he continued painting. Concerned about poisoning the neighborhood dogs by disposing of the contaminated meat in the garbage, he and Paulette dug a large hole after he had finished with it and duly buried his still-life motif.
Soutine, of course, was far from the first artist to draw inspiration from the offerings at the butcher’s counter, the vivid red steaks streaked with ivory and pale gold fat. Annibale Carracci, one of the most revolutionary artists of the late Renaissance, produced two exceptional scenes of a butcher shop in the 1580s. During the next century, Dutch and Flemish genre painters made the subject a veritable specialty, as well as lavishing attention on dead game in the context of hunting and kitchen still-lifes. Chardin in France and Meléndez in Spain stand out among the many eighteenth-century heirs to this tradition, while Goya took it to the next level, dispensing with niceties of composition and subtleties of texture in order to heighten the expressive effect of his meaty subjects. Born and raised desperately poor in the Lithuanian shtetl, an environment not only devoid of visual culture but downright hostile to it, Soutine greedily devoured the art of these Old Masters and more at the Louvre—one of the few places that he could find to stay warm—upon his arrival in Paris in 1913, at age twenty. He studied Rembrandt’s great Slaughtered Ox at length, no doubt admiring its tactile, encrusted surface. “From nothing, a cultural desert, he finds himself in the Louvre, facing the skill and taste and sumptuousness of centuries,” Andrew Forge has written. “It is a measure of his stamina and the force of his need for self-definition that he was able to absorb and use so much” (Soutine, London, 1965, p. 11).
None of these august precedents, however, prepare us for the commanding physical presence of Soutine’s paintings of beef. Soutine has stripped away any narrative or allegorical setting, laying bare the naked fact of the animal and its death. “There is no room for anything but the carcass,” David Sylvester has written. “The carcass is the setting” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1963, p. 13). In the present composition, Soutine has drawn closer to the raw motif than in any of his other bœufs. Cropped at the top and bottom by the edge of the canvas, the huge chunk of meat pushes into the viewer’s space with a visceral immediacy, asserting its sheer physical presence. It is heroic and imposing, yet at the same time a helpless victim of Soutine’s intense scrutiny. The ground is no longer the contrasting blue that the artist chose for most other treatments of the theme, but rather a virtuoso orchestration of dark reds, the same color as the deepest hollows of the carcass itself. The starting point for this extraordinary painting was the Bœuf et tête de veau in the Orangerie, but Soutine has now eliminated every element from that version that distracts from the pure subject of bloody flesh—the chain and hook, the pole with the nails, the calf’s head (transformed here into a steak), even the leg of the carcass. The result is much more wild and abstract than any other painting in the series.
The most arresting fact of the canvas, however, is Soutine’s handling of the paint—viscous, heavily loaded strokes, utterly unrestrained, that seem to possess the same fatty carnality as the butchered animal itself. In some of the bœufs, the meat looks as if it had been flattened and then stretched thin across the surface, as though it were the canvas itself. In the present painting, by contrast, the decaying flesh retains a strong sense of mass and plasticity, as Soutine’s thick, sensuous strokes—an abstract surface of dense matière and vivid color—evoke the physical, observed reality of striated muscle, curving ribs, and glistening deposits of suet. “Soutine is exploring the most direct relationship between the paint and the subject,” Forge has explained, “working as though the paint itself had become meat in his mind, as though the yellow paint was fat, rather than the means to describe fat, and the red was lean” (op. cit., 1965, p. 40).
At the same time, the energy and immediacy of the paint fabric imbues the composition with a sense of powerful, pulsing vitality that seems to contradict the very subject matter of the still-life—a literal nature morte. An image of death is charged with life, just as the inanimate canvas surface is transformed into the substance of flesh. “Soutine’s paint as it lies there upon the canvas appears to act like a miraculous teeming substance that actually generates life under our eyes,” Sylvester has proclaimed. “It is as if, as we look, matter and energy were being continually churned out by the paint, were forever being renewed by it” (op. cit., 1963, p. 15). The writhing, seething strokes, disquieting and full of vigor, command the viewer’s attention and provoke an immediate emotional response, entirely free from the traditional conventions of aestheticism, which mirrors Soutine’s own impassioned and obsessive identification with his recurring motifs.
The freshly butchered meat, of course, also represents a source of nourishment, the raw stuff of life, a fact that would have had particular resonance for Soutine as a product of the Jewish shtetl. The association between food and death represents the very foundation of Judaism’s kosher edicts, which stipulate that the animal must be killed as quickly, cleanly, and painlessly as possible, then immediately rinsed and drained of all blood. Soutine’s whole process—inspecting the decomposing carcass for days, lingering over the details, pouring fresh blood over the meat to preserve the vivid color—is in direct opposition to these sacred laws. The power of Soutine’s art rests in no small part upon his need to see the forbidden thing, to paint it and possess it.
Throughout his childhood and first decade in Paris, moreover—indeed, until Barnes’s storied discovery of his work in 1922 brought him a measure of financial security for the first time ever—gnawing hunger had been a relentless and inexorable part of Soutine’s daily existence. By the time that he was able to afford plentiful food, his years of deprivation had left him with stomach ulcers, ultimately fatal, that relegated him to a meager diet of bread, milk, and soup. Soutine’s images of animal flesh become, in this light, the unbridled exorcisms of his insatiable hunger and desire; the voluptuous, jewel-like pigments render the butchered beast unexpectedly and beguilingly beautiful. “His canvases rivet the viewer with their convincing physical presence and their kinetically charged substance, which embody the fervid inner need that compelled the artist to paint them” (Chaim Soutine, exh. cat., Galerie Thomas, Munich, 2009, p. 9).
These were the very qualities that struck the new generation of the avant-garde with the force of a revelation in 1950, seven years after Soutine’s death, when his achievement was showcased in a major retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art. Soutine himself had turned to Rembrandt and other old masters for inspiration, extracting and distilling those aspects of their work that helped him to express his own vision. Now, the younger cohort found in Soutine’s work a shock of liberation, which affirmed and validated the unfettered gestural expressiveness that they were then pursuing. Pollock told his biographer Frank O’Hara that he painted Scent (1955), one of his very last canvases, as an homage to Soutine, while Guston claimed that in a gallery full of paintings by Picasso and his ilk, “you don’t want to look at anything else but the Soutine… It’s so mysterious and so inner” (quoted in Soutine and Modern Art, exh. cat., Cheim & Read, New York, 2006, no page). “I’ve always been crazy about Soutine—all of his paintings,” de Kooning could still claim decades later. “Maybe it’s the lushness of the paint. He builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There’s a kind of transfiguration in his work” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 53).
Critics and writers too were quick to claim Soutine as a precursor of extraordinary significance to the newly vital and instinctual approach to painting that held sway in the post-war era. “Certain qualities of composition, certain attitudes toward paint which have gained prestige here as the most advanced painting, are expressed in Soutine in unpremeditated form,” wrote the painter Jack Tworkov, in a review of the MoMA retrospective that was read by almost every prominent art world figure of the day. “These can be summarized as: the way his picture moves towards the edge of the canvas in centrifugal waves filling it to the brim; his completely impulsive use of pigment as a material, generally thick, slow-flowing, viscous, with a sensual attitude toward it, as if it were the primordial material, with deep and vibratory color; the absence of any effacing of the tracks bearing the imprint of the energy passing over the surface. The combined effect is of a full, packed, dense picture of enormous seriousness and grandeur, lacking all embellishment or any concession to decoration” (“The Wandering Soutine” in Art News, November 1950; quoted in ibid., p. 64).
Two years later, Harold Rosenberg, who coined the term “action painting” to describe the work of Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline, put it more pithily, describing these artists’ style as one “which the painter could have acquired by putting a square inch of a Soutine…under a microscope” (“The American Action Painters” in Art News, December 1952; quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2006, n.p.).
Soutine’s subject matter—particularly his butchered animals, the naked, haunting embodiment of the “cry” that the artist so desperately sought to liberate—also resonated powerfully in the post-war era. “Painting is a much more immediate language, and much more direct, than the language of words—much closer to the cry,” explained Dubuffet, who cited Soutine’s fleshy meat paintings as a key source for the raw power of his early Corps de dame series (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 82). “Soutine was not just my hero,” concurred Baselitz, who hitchhiked to Amsterdam in 1959 to see Le Bœuf at the Stedelijk Museum, “but in our rotten post-war period, his images were also a quite perfect replica of a skewed world—our world… There was more of the existential and the broken, as well as the cynical and the hideous, in his images. At that time, he was really very important to me as nourishment” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2006, n.p.).
Of course, no great post-war artist took up and carried forward Soutine’s legacy with more searing intensity than Francis Bacon, for whom the animal carcass, with its mangled flesh, served as a powerful emblem of the frailty and brutality of the human condition. Bacon took David Sylvester to admire Soutine’s work at the Redfern Gallery in 1953, just a year before he painted his own Figure with Meat, in which two suspended sides of beef provide a raw and disturbing visual analogue for the seated pope’s epic scream. “Without Soutine, there is no Bacon,” proclaimed Damien Hirst, whose own controversial displays of dead and decaying animals represent yet one more link in this meaty chain.
“The intense beauty of the color and texture of his flesh painting is at the same time horrifying,” the critic Robert Melville wrote about Bacon. “[He] discovers a kind of equation between the bloom and elasticity of sensitive tissue and the fever and iridescence of carrion. He is the painter of flesh considered as a communal substance: as the guinea-pig of the senses, the trap of the spirit, the stuff of which murderers cannot get rid, the legitimate prey of pain and disease, of ecstasies and torments; obscenely immortal in renewal” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2001, pp. 32 and 95). The same could surely be said of Soutine, an artist in so many ways far ahead of his time.