Saturday 6 October 2012

Soutine at the Ben Uri Gallery

As I stood in front of Chaim Soutine's "La Soubrette" (waiting maid) yesterday, at London's wonderful Ben Uri Gallery, another visitor asked me what I thought of the painting. I replied that I liked it very much, and that although she looks a bit stern, if you look long enough, she softens up a little. "Mmm, just like my wife" he replied, and moved on.

La Soubrette is the latest in a series of high profile purchases by the Ben Uri, following on from the coup of acquiring Chagall's "Apocalypse en Lilas. Capriccio" painted in 1945 as an immediate response to the Holocaust and Georg Grosz's "Nazi Interrogation" painted at the beginning of that most terrible era.

The current exhibition is entitled "Chaim Soutine and his contemporaries from Russia to Paris" and showcases "La Soubrette". The work, produced in circa 1933 retains some of the earlier characteristics of Soutine's portraits, including the slightly elongated and pointed features of the subject. However "La Soubrette" is sadder than some of the earlier more self assured characters and has a look of resigned disappointment. At the same time, the slight, red mouth and the downcast eyes suggest kindness and acceptance. The picture was purchased with the assistance of the Art Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the V&A's Purchase Grant Fund. 

Soutine was born in 1893 in Smilovichy, a shtetl then in Russia but now in Lithuania. The tenth of eleven children, he displayed an interest in art from an early age but was discouraged by his very poor family. As a teenager he drew the local rabbi, contravening Judaism's prohibition on drawing faces and was badly beaten by said rabbi's son. All ended well for Soutine when he used the substantial financial damages he received to move to Minsk , soon afterwards going on to Vilna (Vilnius) where he studied at the School of Fine Arts. Moving on to Paris in 1913, he worked at the famous La Ruche in the most extreme poverty and with the likes of Chagall, Zadkine, Kremegne, Kisling and Archipenko as neighbours. 

He served for a short time in the First World War before being discharged due to developing the severe stomach problems that would eventually bring about his death. Soutine remained in France for the rest of his life, living outside Paris under an assumed name and false identity card from 1941, but had to travel back to the city in 1943 for emergency medical treatment. He died on 9th August 1943 following an operation for perforated stomach ulcers.

Although Soutine's painting is the focus of the current exhibition, it includes several other works that attracted my attention. The exhibition focuses on the work of the artists referred to as the Ecole de Paris with Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Mane-Katz and Jankel Adler all being represented. A smaller element of the exhibition includes works from the School of London as represented by Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. There's also a really good (and good value) catalogue too!

One of the great things about the Ben Uri is that every time I go, I discover an artist that I hadn't previously known. This time it was Chana Kowalska. The exhibition includes two of her works from 1934, "Shtetl" shown above and "The Bridge". I find "Shtetl" especially interesting. 

Kowalska, born in 1907 in Wloclawek, Poland, the daughter of a zionist rabbi she worked as a school teacher before moving to Berlin in 1922. Eventually settling in Montparnasse, Paris, she was a politically aware young woman and was active in the Parisian branch of the Kultur-Lige  as well as in Jewish communist circles. Following the German invasion of France, she and her husband, writer Baruch Winogora joined the resistance. Both were arrested, deported and murdered in 1941.

At first glance "Shtetl" shows the enclosed world of the Jewish village as a secure place with brightly painted houses and shops, people carrying water from the pump as well as signs of growing modernisation with maintained and protected trees and footpaths. But there is also a much darker side to this painting. The cart at the top of the picture is driving towards the church dome, but there appears to be no way to leave the shtetl as there is no exit from the street. And are those trees really protected by the fence, or do they indicate how trapped Europe's Jews were at this time? Kowalska would have been well aware of the threat faced by Jewish communities across Europe and the fact that help would not be forthcoming. "The Shtetl" serves as a warning of what was to come. 

Sonia Delaunay was born Sarah Stern in 1885 in Gradizhsk, then in Russia, now in the Ukraine. She made her way to Paris in 1905 to study at the Academie de la Palette, married German collector and art dealer Wilhelm Ude in 1908 through whom she met Picasso, Braque, de Vlaminck and Robert Delaunay
. Sonia and Uhde divorced in 1910 and she married Delaunay.  

The Delaunays were strong advocates for abstract art and became members of the Abstract-Creation Group in 1931. Sonia Delaunay survived the second world war and lived on to 1979. The above work is the poster she designed for her second solo show at Galerie Bing in Paris in 1964  and is a wonderful example of her graphic skills and her passion for colour. The Ben Uri exhibition also includes an invitation card for the Galerie Bing show.

And so to my favourite (non-Soutine) work in the exhibition Isaac Lichtenstein's - "The Blind Fiddler", from 1924 (below). Lichtenstein was born in Plonsk, Poland in 1888 and grew up in Warsaw and Lodz. He spent three years at the Bezalel School of Art in Jersusalem from 1908, moving on to Paris in 1911. He served n the Jewish legion at the end of the First World War and then moved on to the USA where he moved into publishing. 

The cubist influenced "Blind Fiddler" employs an often used Jewish motif - the musician - accompanied by a poorly dressed child. The urban backdrop is representative of the living conditions of the urban Jewish working classes throughout the 1920's and 30's which enabled some to move up in society, and to break free of the many restrictions placed on them by the outside world and by the community itself. The converse side of this, and the subject of this picture, was grinding poverty.

I have written about the Ben Uri before - here, here and here. The Gallery has a magnificent collection but is housed in very small premises in St. John's Wood meaning only a very small percentage of this treasure trove can be shown at any one time. The gallery has been looking for more central and larger premises for some time. 

Once again, my favourite London Gallery has staged a thought provoking exhibition that will appeal to a much wider audience than Soutine enthusiasts or people specifically interested in Jewish artists. I understand that this exhibition is an appetiser for a much larger and more in-depth survey of the Ecole de Paris, coming in 2016. I don't know if I can wait that long...

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