Soutine, Landscape with Figures, c1922, private collection
Barry Schwabsky tried to locate Soutine on an art continuum from traditional primitivism to Paris-based expressionism to the foundation for modern abstraction. What Schwabsky could say was that by the early 1920s, the more exuberantly aggressive paint-heavy manner we now associate with Soutine was in place - canvases that exhibited an extreme pleasure in their writhing, tortuous substance. What other painter, he asked, has given permission to so much adolescent wallowing in undisciplined expressiveness? Well I can think of some, but that isn’t the point.
Soutine, Street of Cagnes-sur-Ner, c1924, 65 x 78 cm, University of Haifa.
Soutine did many writhing, tortuous landscapes. Consider Landscape with Figures c1922 which came from Soutine’s visit to Ceret. This might have been the era when his work reached its most abstract and its most expressionist level. The modern viewer, thinking of Soutine's poverty, romantic failures and lack of a family support system, might be tempted to focus on the formless swirls and the strange blotches of colour. And not just that. The figures seem stretched and the furniture seems out of shape. Also consider Street of Cagnes-sur-Ner c1924 which is now in the University of Haifa and View of Cagnes 1924, now ? in the Tate. Soutine's Cagnes scenes certainly look French. As does Chartres Cathedral c1934, now in The Museum of Modern Arts in New York.
I was looking for some trace of the first 20 years of Belarusian life in Soutine’s work. BellaBelarus recognised that there were almost no nostalgic memories of the motherland. This was totally different from, for example, Chagall’s paintings which were painted in Paris but looked as if they were firmly set in the Jewish Russian countryside.
Soutine didn’t seem eager to leave any trace of "home". Only in one of his last works, Return from School after the Storm c1939, might the viewer trace those distinctive tones of simple and soft landscape of what was then Russia and is now Belarusia. This painting was previously totally unknown to me, a Soutine fan. So it was very interesting that it held a mysteriously quiet power, less frenetic than his usual landscapes.
It took some time before the Belarusians saluted their own son. A permanent exhibition “Spaces of Chaim Soutine” was opened in the small Belarusian town of Smilavichy near Minsk. After years of wandering, Belarusian-born painter Chaim Soutine's story came back to the place where he was born. The exhibition is divided into 2 parts of the artist’s life. The first part of the exhibition is called At home: Smilovichi-Minsk-Vilnia. His early life was shown using old furniture and displays, with information about Soutine’s family and his studies in Minsk and Vilnia. The Paris part of his life was styled on a typical Parisian coffee house with a bar counter, tables and chairs. Paintings were hung on the walls, from Soutine of course, but also his Jewish contemporaries who also left for Paris as young men: Marc Chagall, Michel Kikoine, Pinchas Kremegne.
This Jewish artist died, tragically, in 1943. He was hiding in the forests near Paris, avoiding the Gestapo.
Soutine, Return from School After the Storm, 1939, 43 x 50 cm
Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
If I had assumed the Belarusians didn’t know the value of Soutine paintings these days, I was wrong. The Smilavichy gallery noted that Soutine’s paintings L'Homme au Foulard Rouge c1921 and Nature Morte à la Ray c1923 sold for huge amounts: £8,756,000 and £5,392,000 respectively at the Sotheby's auctions in 2007. I bet the Belarusians are now sorry that they disregarded their own son for so many decades. Perhaps we can ask Bella Belarus, a good online art gallery that displays 20th century Belarusian art.