The artist Chaim Soutine’s still life paintings of animals, what I prefer to call his carcass paintings, can be unsettling, especially given the fact that Soutine was known to have never worked from memory, but rather used live, or dead, models for all his works.
Nearly all of Soutine’s art can be jarring to the viewer for a variety of reasons; his use of color, his lines, his brushstrokes and overall style as well as his subject matter are startling, but after our initial response what are we to make of these works? And what is it that Soutine was trying to say?
The bulk of Soutine’s carcass paintings cover a span of ten years, from 1916 to early 1927, as well as a couple of works completed around 1933, and include depictions of fish, rabbits and various fowl. They increase in their intensity and graphic content by the early 1920s before leveling off again to a calmer style.
In the scholarship on Soutine, much has been made of his use of food imagery in his still-life paintings. I’ve learned that his many years of poverty and continual stomach illness often made food unattainable; so with that in mind it makes perfect sense to have forks jutting out like arms from a plate of fish, as in an early example, Still Life with Herrings, from 1916. In addition to this, the traditions of his Jewish religion and culture relied heavily on food rituals.
The 1924 painting, Hare with Forks, also depicts a dead animal with forks on either side like a pair of arms reaching in to grab the flesh, while the more visceral Flayed Rabbit from 1921 depicts the animal without forks; yet both animals lie on white cloths like sacrificial martyrs, leading one to the conclusion that there is a greater unifying theme besides food issues to the series of works.
Referring to the Christian imagery commonly used in Medieval and Renaissance paintings sheds an interesting light on how the animals in both of these paintings are carefully posed; the flayed rabbit is in the crucified position or possibly as a St. Sebastian, tied to a tree and awaiting the many arrows. And the fact that the one rabbit is flayed points to the fate of more than one saint and also most famously the painting by Titian, The Flaying of Marsyas. Yet there is still a sense of defiance in the upraised arms and stretched legs.
In Hare with Forks, the hare lies on its side slightly curved like a fetus, with fur intact and two forks resting gently on either side of its narrow torso; while a sense of heartbreak permeates, there is little sense of violence in this painting, rather the hare looks like it is asleep, but one understands it is still a sacrifice. It should also be noted that according to Jewish dietary law, rabbits are treyf, or forbidden, food and further, the word treyf is not only used to describe forbidden food but also a bad person.
Where did these ideas come from? In my research I learned that Soutine adored the Old Masters, Rembrandt in particular, and reworked many of their paintings in his own style. So in this respect it isn’t that unusual to think he would use the imagery of the martyrs that he studied in painting after painting in the Louvre.
When reading the stories of those who knew Soutine and who witnessed his intense and at times religiously ecstatic reactions to art it also makes sense that Soutine would incorporate these Christian themes in his works, but what of his Jewishness? One may look at the carcass paintings through the above described lens and think that Soutine, born Chaim Sutin in a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement, would have truly abandoned his Orthodox upbringing as many claimed he did, or as Soutine himself stated.
And while it is true that Soutine did not practice any form of Judaism in the traditional sense after he left Belarus and moved to Paris, it is my belief that he did continue to practice his own form of the religion, with his artistic process taking on the form of religious ritual and metaphysical exploration and all the while a tug-of-war taking place between an outright defiance and embrace of Judaism and its laws.