Robert Tanitch reviews Soutine’s Portraits at The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2
Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), the Lithuanian-born painter, who became one of the leading expressionists of the Ecole de Paris, emigrated to France when he was 20 and penniless. He suffered poverty for many years. He became rich when Albert C Barnes, a wealthy American collector, bought a number of his portraits. The Nazis thought his work degenerate.
This small two-gallery exhibition concentrates on Soutine’s portraits of the staff of grand French hotels and restaurants in the 1920s and 1930s and which played such a key role in establishing his name and reputation.
The convulsive turmoil of the brushwork and the bold colours emphasise the stress, mental and physical, of this servant class and are as much a social commentary as Daumier’s tragic-comic portraits and August Sander’s photographs.
The asymmetric faces, smirking mouths, skew-whiff eyes, broken noses, rough hands and battered stained uniforms have a terrific emotional impact individually and collectively.
There is mockery, pride, modesty, arrogance and humiliation in their awkward and agitated stances. These anonymous people are defined only by their job description. Only one of all the portraits has been identified.
The butcher is butchered in red. The bellboy, hands on hips, is plastered in red, all buttoned up, his legs outrageously splayed, like an acrobat.
These sad sitters – the contemptuous head waiter, the Dopey big-eared pastry cook, the humble serving maid with downcast eyes, the inscrutable, sullen page boy, the servile valet – are nervous, frightened, vulnerable, commedia dell’arte clowns, some old before their time. They could be puppets and a subject for a ballet, perhaps?
Soutine was a regular visitor to the Louvre. The catalogue draws attention to the Old Masters who inspired him. Willem de Kooning said Soutine distorted the paintings but not the people. There is compassion in his frenetic distortion.
Soutine’s Portraits continues at The Courtauld Gallery until 21 January, 2018