Given my general preference for art created before World War II, it would seem trundling along to view the new exhibition, “Soutine/de Kooning: Conversations in Paint” — which opened last weekend at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia — wouldn’t be on the cards. Yet this intriguing show not only shines a deserving spotlight on a truly intense, talented artist but also reveals a great deal about the unexpected art-historical influences on an artist whose work I’ve always disliked. Who says you can’t teach a middle-aged art critic new tricks?
Expressionist painter Chaïm Soutine (1893–1943) and Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), although only a decade apart in age, inhabited very different artistic worlds. Both left the lands of their birth — Russia and The Netherlands, respectively — to make their fortunes elsewhere.
Soutine moved to Paris in 1913, where he fell in with Modernist painters such as Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985), while de Kooning arrived in New York in 1927, associating with artists who came to be known as the “Action Painting,” and eventually “Abstract Expressionist” school, such as Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), and Mark Rothko (1903-1970).
Although the two artists never met, and there’s no indication Soutine was ever aware of de Kooning’s work, de Kooning publicly acknowledged that Soutine was a major influence on his art. It’s appropriate, then, that the juxtaposition of these two artists is taking place at the Barnes Foundation. The founder of the collection, Dr. Albert Barnes (1872-1951), catapulted the then-unknown Soutine to fame in 1922 by purchasing 50 of the artist’s paintings at once.
Additionally, it was not long after de Kooning’s private tour of the Barnes collection in 1952 that perhaps his most famous series of works, those rather scary-looking images of women such as “Woman II” (1952), with their staring eyes and toothy grins, began to appear.
In its incarnation at The Barnes, “Soutine/de Kooning” consists of 48 paintings, along with a display of documents relevant to the impact that Soutine had on de Kooning — among them, a thank-you letter from Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989) following the couple’s private tour of the collection.
Split into five gallery spaces, the first two rooms of the show feature walls painted a dark brown, while the walls in the remainder of the exhibition are stark white. Since it feels a bit disjointed as an exhibition design, it’s not immediately apparent why this color change was used.
Fortunately, however, the overall layout is spacious, with no awkward bottlenecks, and plenty of opportunities for visitors to take a step or two back and look at the paintings from a greater distance. That distance, it’s worth noting, is needed to appreciate not only the size of some of de Kooning’s larger paintings but also the virtuoso technique demonstrated in several Soutine’s works.
Take a good look at Soutine’s “The Little Pastry Cook” (1922-23) from the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, and you’ll see what I mean. If you focus on the white uniform, you’ll see that it isn’t just pure white paint — it’s a mixture of various colors including gray, blue, brown, green, yellow, and orange, applied in different ways. In some areas the paint is thick and three-dimensional, while in other areas it’s scraped or smeared into a thin layer, to suggest folds, light, and shadows across the surface of the fabric.
It’s this “painterly” technique that we admire in the work of the Old Masters, such as the “Portrait of Philip IV in Fraga” (1644) by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), now in the Frick Collection in New York. When you examine the painting up close and under a raking light, the king’s garments look like blobs and squiggles. From a distance, however, the seemingly chaotic surface of the picture resolves itself into what you perceive as recognizable elements such as satin, lace, and embroidery.
Now imagine that you were to take a digital photograph of one of these paintings, and zoom in on one section so your brain has no point of reference to identify what it’s looking at. In a sense, what you’d see is a bit like what de Kooning was trying to do in some of his work.
As pointed out in the exhibition catalog, if you examined a Soutine under a microscope, what you see would look quite a bit like an Abstract Expressionist painting, such as a de Kooning; one could say the same for this kind of zoom-crop technique on the work of Old Master painters like Velázquez.
Surprisingly, it isn’t only in painterly technique that one can form connections between Soutine and de Kooning back to the Old Masters. For example, one can see how Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was a major influence on Soutine, since “Carcass of Beef” (c. 1925) is clearly inspired by Rembrandt’s “The Slaughtered Ox” (1655) in the Louvre.
Perhaps less obvious at first is the influence of Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516) on the work of de Kooning, but when one learns that de Kooning particularly loved Bosch’s work, one can see in paintings such as “The Visit” (1966-67) on loan from the Tate in London how the blobby, fleshy forms of some of the fantastical figures in “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (c.1490-1510) in The Prado affected de Kooning’s thinking.
Here I have to take a moment and give high praise to the authors of the excellent exhibition catalog that accompanies this show. The book takes the reader by the hand and leads him through art history and theory in a way that is neither so specialist as to be artspeak jibberish, nor so pedestrian to be easily dismissed as pandering. I appreciated that the art-historical connections made in the text were backed up by concrete examples, to the extent that, while reading, I would occasionally remark aloud, “I see that.”
Thus, when the catalog points out that Soutine particularly loved the elongated lines and intense contrasts of the work of El Greco (1541-1641), one can immediately perceive how El Greco’s famous series of views of the Castilian city of Toledo — piled up on its hilltop in dark colors under a threatening sky — are the ancestors of Soutine’s dark landscapes of the Catalan town of Céret in the foothills of the Pyrenees, such as his “Hill of Céret” (c.1921).
In comparing Soutine and de Kooning’s work in the exhibition galleries, I noticed that in some of the Soutine works in this show, such as “Landscape with White Building” (1920-21) and “The Houses” (1920-21), the windows resemble the black, heavy-lidded eyes of de Kooning’s “Woman” pictures. Is there a definite connection, or is this merely coincidence? Although the correct answer isn’t entirely evident, this does bring me to a point that needs to be made about shows such as this one.
Looking at art can evoke a wide variety of human experiences and emotions. Some exhibitions are worth a visit for pure pleasure because the objects on display are intrinsically beautiful or uplifting in and of themselves; certainly, there is nothing wrong with that.
Yet I often find that it’s in the more challenging exhibitions, such as this one, where I have to overcome my lack of knowledge, sense of apprehension — or indeed aversion — that I experience a greater degree of growth, whether it’s in the form of developing a true appreciation, or even if it’s only a greater sense of awareness.
In this particular instance, I came away enthralled by Soutine, wanting to learn more about him and to see more of his work. While I still don’t like de Kooning, I must admit that, as a result of this exhibition, I’ve gained a better understanding of certain aspects of his art.
Often, when we agree to try something new and challenge our long-held assumptions, we enrich ourselves. We may not end up changing our minds, but we do end up learning a great deal more than if we had never tried at all.
“Soutine/de Kooning: Conversations in Paint” is at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia through August 8, 2021, and, COVID-permitting, is scheduled to travel to the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris from September 15, 2021, through January 10, 2022.