In the book, Journey to a Nineteenth-Century Shtetl, Yekhezkel Kotik shares his memories of living in a shtetl not far from Soutine’s home of Smilovitchi in what is now Lithuania and what was once the part of Tsarist Russia that held on desperately to the edge of its borders with dirty fingernails. Of the superstitious beliefs of the townspeople, and there were many, there is this one in regard to death,
And when the body is lowered into the grave, the Angel Dumah appears beside him and asks, “What’s your name?”
To his misfortune, the unlucky deceased has forgotten his name. The Angel Dumah rips open his belly, plucks out his guts, and flings them into his face. He then turns the corpse over, strikes it with a white-hot iron rod, subjects it to excruciating torture, and finally tears the body to pieces, and so on. Everyone believed those things as though they were irrefutable facts.
As a child, Soutine was obsessed with the rituals of death, going so far as to participate with other children in the shtetl in mock funerals and burial rituals. If this particular superstition was known to Soutine, and it seems likely that it did, one can only imagine what a gruesome story such as this would do to a sensitive child who wrapped himself in white sheets and pretended to be dead on a regular basis.
Although Soutine was from an Orthodox Jewish family, he lived in a part of the world deeply influenced by the teachings of Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism and a Kabbalist whose mystical Judaic teachings stressed the primary idea that God is in everything. And while this has only been speculation by Soutine scholars, one should add to these above mentioned superstitions and teachings whatever psychic weight Soutine carried with him for breaking Judaic law by becoming an artist, something taboo to the Jewish religion at that time. Additionally, putting all speculation aside, there was the very real abuse and neglect Soutine suffered as a child as well as the rejection by his family and his community over his desire to create art.
The Angel Dumah, also called the Angel of Silence, is not an unfamiliar concept in Judaism and has more than one meaning dependent on which school of Judaism it pertains to. For instance, Dumah is the name for a city in Judah and is mentioned in The Septuagint and in Rabbinical Literature; Dumah is the name for the angel who is in charge of souls in the nether world, the one who takes the wicked souls and casts them down into the depths of Hades. But every evening, Dumah leads the souls out of their torment and into Hazarmaveth, (the Courtyard of Death and also a geographic location mentioned in the Old Testament) where they eat and drink in absolute silence.
It is also written in Rabbinical Literature that the soul cannot leave the body entirely until it cries out in confusion from its decaying body and Dumah takes it immediately to Hazarmaveth. So there seems to be a mutual working relationship of give and take between the soul and the Angel Dumah and is inherent in all of Judaism which relies on a give and take between a person and God, whether it is intellectual or mystical or in Soutine’s case, artistic.
Soutine the adult who rarely spoke of the harsh conditions of his childhood, who because of his early years of poverty and lifelong stomach ulcers viewed food as a luxury and never ate anything beyond basics like potatoes and milk, re-enacted both his childhood death rituals and food rituals in these carcass paintings, exorcising whatever fears and fascinations he held towards his religion, culture and memories. Jews were forbidden to be artists because to be an artist is to create and only God can create. Also, according to dietary laws, an animal was to be killed quickly and as painlessly as possible, with the blood carefully drained from the body. It is not to be gutted and posed nor is it to hang in a studio with regular drenchings of fresh blood, as Soutine famously did when he created his Side of Beef painting, based on the work of Rembrandt. Yet Soutine immersed himself in the act of painting, of creation, with an abandon that can be likened to religious zeal.