I was recently invited to the preview of an upcoming exhibition in New York, but much as I’d love to go, NYC is a long way away! I have the next best thing as the Helly Nahmad Gallery have sent me a catalogue. From that, I’ll try to give a virtual review of the show, before it begins!
My first thought is that this pairing of two modern masters (18 works by Soutine, 14 by Bacon) is inspired, especially as the parallels are explored along the themes of meat, flesh and paint. There have been attempts to force similar parallels between Bacon and others, like the Bacon and Caravaggio show put on in Rome in 2009. The convergence at that show was forced, but in this case there’s no need to collapse the two painters into each other, as if they were thematically indivisible. The correlations emerge naturally here: both Soutine and Bacon were inspired by Rembrandt’s 1655 Dead or Flayed Ox, an exemplum in flesh and bone, as well as a piece of pathos off the butcher’s slab. Both artists acknowledged the importance of Rembrandt’s work; both were fascinated by the analogies between paint and flesh; both lived in the same period; both stayed in Paris and were intimate with the old master tradition. So the exhibition stands on a solid bedrock, unlike a lot of parallel lives expositions. Rembrandt and Caravaggio anyone? These parallels are competently outlined in the introductory essay, “Flesh and Paint” by Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow, the curators of the show.
The exhibition catalogue also stresses this equivalency with a timeline that places Soutine and Bacon side by side. This allows the reader to cross-reference year by year, learning what works are being produced, what articles written, what books read, as we journey through time. So we read that between 1927-29 Bacon is in Paris improving his French, studying Poussin’s Massacre of he Innocents at Chantilly, and reading surrealist writers like Georges Bataille. In the same period, Soutine is enjoying success with shows and attention whilst painting meat hung in butcher’s shops. Onwards to 1933 when Bacon essays his first Crucifixion, a motif in which flesh becomes almost metaphysical, descending from the bones, a visual theme which the French critic Gilles Deleuze, in his Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation, read as a deformation holding consequences not only for modern art, but the Christian figurative tradition overall. Bacon certainly didn’t see his art as “spiritual”; Cimabue’s Crucifixion, and the whole gallery of carnal and holy suffering that followed it was nothing more than “ a worm crawling down the cross”, in Bacon’s memorable phrase. Meanwhile across the page, we’re learning that a few years earlier (1924-5) Soutine produced six “almost life-size” canvases of beef paintings, all developed from what is looking like a paint/flesh blueprint, or even ur-carcass, Rembrandt’s Dead Ox. They’re reproduced on the page like a Warholian series, but rendered with sympathy, not detachment. You’d have paid a high price for seeing them painted though: by all accounts, Soutine’s studio stunk to high heaven, and the decomposing meat attracted the flies thus causing consternation to Soutine’s visitors. This was long before Damien Hirst!
Away from thematic parallels, the exhibition catalogue surveys, with the aid of wonderful magnifications of works, the overlap of artistic technique. Although such terms are purely arbitrary, Soutine seems the most “painterly” of the artists. You can see why the American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning adored him. Looking at the hands of Soutine’s 1920 Praying Man (in the show), for example, can be a vertiginous experience: greens, reds, oranges and yellows pulsate, kind of like hallucinatory fruit. Colours are “pulled” over each other, and the spectator has the sense of losing their centre of gravity. Paint is solid and substantial, yet it seems to dance in a euphoric way before the eyes. Sorry, don’t have an image of Praying Man, but there’s a similar, nervous, decomposing look to some of Soutine’s other art. Take his 1918 Self-Portrait (in the show) where the effect is of paint stripping the flesh away to reveal the bones, and that yellow-brownish background reminds me of animal flesh. Soutine’s studio had indeed become a butcher's shop.
Though they have similarities where paint as flesh is concerned, Bacon’s technique is different because he applies the paint more sparingly. This has led to detractors accusing him of clumsy, or unfinished compositions. Issues of finish aside, Bacon sought a kind of armature or skeleton for the painting- and sometimes it’s difficult to see where this motor begins and ends in his art. With Bacon’s painting we don’t encounter the viscous blobs and bubbles approximating to fleshy fluids or pus, like we do in Soutine; it’s more like laying the body bare, resulting in a kind of shock “realism”. Of course we don’t have to relate technique to meat in Bacon:’s art. It’s also implicit in the painter’s name, his cultural origins in Dublin where he was surrounded by animal flesh, dogs and horses, motifs which persist into the 1970s with works like Untitled: Study for a Dog, (in the show). For Bacon, meat and violence may have been inextricable since he must have known the horrifying story of the Dublin rebel leader Robert Emmet, hanged, drawn and quartered in 1803. The story goes that the executioner sliced off the criminal’s head with a butcher’s knife, whereupon all the dogs came running to lick the blood off the pavements. It’s like Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas come to life in the streets of Dublin.
Bacon is much admired now, but Soutine has had his devotees too. I’m not that familiar with his work, so Martin Hammer’s closing essay on “Soutine Mania in Post-War British Art” is helpful. Hammer re-visits that potent ensemble of Rembrandt, Soutine and Bacon; but we also learn about the impact of Soutine on the likes of Lucien Freud, and the generation inspired by him- Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Studying Soutine- Auerbach especially- led to a new feel for the practice of painting. Like acolytes eager for the mysteries of art, they sought out the elder Soutine, and found the hidden secrets of the painted surface. Post-war British art was all the better for it.
If you’re in New York, the exhibition opens on May 1st.