Always ambitious, Willem de Kooning once told his photographer friend Rudy Burckhardt that he wanted to paint “like Ingres and Soutine, both at the same time”. Ingres, no doubt, for the rigor and refinement of his portraits of noble patrons, and Soutine for the expressionist abandonment he brought to everything from scenes of daily workers to the dense and windswept landscapes of the South of the France. Even though Soutine did not return the reference – he and de Kooning never met – the latter’s repeated praise served as sufficient premise for the academically enlightening exhibition “Chaïm Soutine / Willem de Kooning, Painting Incarnate (Paint Made Flesh) ”at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris this winter.
Conceived as a posthumous dialogue between two iconic painters from the schools of Paris and New York, respectively, the exhibition also retraced the relationship between two partner institutions, the Orangerie and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, where the exhibition originated last spring. It was on the premonitory advice of the French art dealer Paul Guillaume, whose collection formed the basis of the permanent inventory of the Orangerie, that Dr Albert C. Barnes returned from a trip to Paris with a treasure. of coins from a little-known Russian. painter named Soutine that he exhibited in 1923. Soutine, whose gestural intensity announced the very abstract expressionist movement that so many American painters embraced, made such a stir that the Museum of Modern Art, directed by the legendary director Alfred Barr, him devoted a retrospective to him in 1950.
At MoMA, then during a private visit to the Barnes in 1952, de Kooning discovered his painter soul mate in Soutine. He experienced the kind of epiphany that would forever influence, if not completely reorient, his work, deepening his commitment to Expressionism, as evidenced by his part of the nearly fifty paintings – and one extraordinary sculpture – by the curators selected for the exposure. The first examples of clearly cubist figures, such as wide-eyed Women (1944) in shades of rust and ocher and queen of hearts (1943-1946) in more vibrant tones, led to the breakthrough of de Kooning, inspired and credited with Soutine. “The flesh was the reason oil painting was invented,” de Kooning said at a conference in New York in 1950 as he embarked on his second series “Woman”. Barnes’ visit helped him complete key works, newly informed by Soutine’s expressive glory in depicting even the most pedestrian subjects.
For educational purposes, the Orangery’s original galleries featured some of the same Soutines that de Kooning would have been knocked out with. Their inimitable layers of melancholy and colorful impasto have stood the test of time. here is The hunter (1925), in which a groom in a bright red uniform and matching cap strikes a provocative pose, despite his modest stance at the behest of a Parisian bourgeoisie newly enamored of his economic status. He joined the young workers of Choir Child (1927-1928) and The little pastry chef (1922-1923), who, with their pallor and pronounced ears, easily duplicate the painter himself, as shown Self-portrait (c. 1918) with blouse and easel. Soutine had then left his native Minsk – now Belarus – and worked in the Montparnasse district in Paris among a group of immigrant artists whose collective was known as The Beehive (the Beehive). Undoubtedly encouraged by his peers and sponsors, Soutine sought out subjects that accommodated an additional leaning towards abstraction, culminating in his almost spooky renditions of raw butcher’s meat, such as The Skinned Beef and The Plucked Chicken, both from 1925.
De Kooning’s expressionist evolution in response to such works is even more evident in an imposing bronze sculpture from 1972, Clam fisherman, a rare sculptural example of this motif in his work. Working with clay, then metal, may have forced de Kooning to give figurative form to himself, as this gnarled, chiseled figure appears to have come out of the very mud he explores for edible specimens. This work echoes those almost abstract female effigies from a decade earlier (including Woman, Sag Harbor, 1964, executed in the raw, bold skin tones Soutine favored, which was also on view). A few degrees of difference, a little less detail, and it could be a piece of butcher’s meat.
Indeed, de Kooning’s homage to Soutine is apparent in the stylistic similarity between the above works of the mature Dutch master and the Soutine village landscapes and landscapes in which these subjects blend into the elements of the wind. and time (Countryside, 1922-1924, or The Hill at Céret, 1921). The two artists, separated by about half a century, seem to be one.
Highlighting the artists’ parallel trajectories, the final gallery of the exhibition revealed a selection of masterpieces from de Kooning’s “Woman” series which Soutine surreptitiously gave the Dutch-born artist license to pursue. . Among these is woman in landscape III (1968), where a female figure is practically disassembled in a controlled chaos of flesh and pastel color, animated by broad, assertive brushstrokes. The striking work hardly recalls its Woman II from more than a decade earlier (1952), where the demarcated face and figure persist, although they will soon disappear.