In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about how Soutine’s use of Christian imagery mixed with his life experiences, artistic influences and his own Jewish culture in his paintins, particularly his carcass paintings such as Flayed Rabbit from 1924. In Part 2, I uncovered beliefs and superstitions specific to the area where Soutine was raised, and how I believe they influenced his work, particularly the idea of the Angel Dumah and his fascination with death. Part 3 goes deeper into these ideas and how one painting in particular encapsulates them.
This all seems to be best expressed in the painting Dog with Forks, date unknown. Because of its subject matter, it seems appropriate to place it right around the early to mid 1920s. Sadly, the work is missing and can only be seen in black and white photos.
All the elements seen in other carcass paintings are present in this work, an animal lying on its back, limbs splayed, torso cut wide open with forks on either side. But this is no rabbit or fowl, this is nothing that one would come across in a Parisian market and take home to make soup.
In a photograph dated 1927 Soutine poses with his acquaintance Paulette Jourdain and the dog belonging to his maid and cook. According to the Soutine scholar Maurice Tuchman, Soutine loved the dog and took it on long walks, thus overcoming his irrational fear of dogs. This fear was not unusual for a Jew from the shtetl where the evil eye was used on them for protection. In the photo, the dog stands on its hind legs and its front paws are held by Soutine and friend, so that its belly is entirely exposed. It is the same shape and size as the dog in the painting.
The dates of the painting and the photograph may be unreliable but if one is to believe that Soutine never worked from memory, if one is to accept willingly that Soutine kept a rotting side of beef in his studio, occasionally pouring blood on it to keep it looking fresh, then what are we to make of this situation?
Is Mr. Tuchman correct in his belief that Soutine overcame his fear of dogs in the most normal way possible, by befriending it? Or must we think the worst? That Soutine did to this dog as he did with all the animals and all his demons? It is difficult to suspend disbelief on this issue but even more difficult to comprehend the alternative. Yet, must our artists be so safe?
It is interesting to me that while black and white images of this work can be found in older texts on Soutine, it is missing from Tuchman’s and Esti Dunow’s Catalogue Raisonné.
Nefesh…The Hebrew word nefesh is similar to Dumah in that it is a concept with several meanings, some mystical and some more grounded in the physical plane of existence. One of the Biblical meanings of nefesh is one that works best to describe the carcass paintings of Chaim Soutine. It means a living human, its breath and blood; more specifically, the breath of life given to humans by God that creates a living being or nefesh hayyah. Nefesh sustains life and when it is taken away, then bodily life has ended. As described in the Bible, death is the “going out” of the nefesh, or God’s taking away of life/nefesh. The Rabbinic (and Greek) meaning is that nefesh is the soul.
Assuming that there is such a thing as a soul, when does the soul leave the body? In Judaism, there are many ideas about this, and just as the belief that a God gives and takes away our breath, our very life, to believe in a soul that leaves the body implies belief in a greater power that has control over this process.
Soutine, so concerned with death and ritual, may have used the process of creating his carcass paintings to gain a better understanding of what nefesh is; he may have even wanted to control the process as if he was a god. The more intense works of the 1920s depict creatures that are not quite dead yet. Despite the flayed skin and the open gut, their mouths are open as if crying out and there is something about them that continues to live as if their nefesh makes them writhe on their backs and brings one to question, “what is death, exactly?”
If it is not exactly a boy in a shtetl wrapped in white sheets, alive and carried through the streets to the graveyard, if it is not exactly being beaten so severely for painting the portrait of a rabbi that one comes near death before escaping to Vilnius and art school, then is this truly death? Can death be this controlled and carefully arranged? How far could Soutine push the boundaries before returning to life?
There is an ebb and flow to Soutine’s series of carcass paintings. One can see he is pushing this boundary between life and death. He is testing nefesh. As noted, the early works which began in the mid-teens have a calmer air about them. Then they become increasingly graphic with works like Flayed Rabbit and Dog with Forks before returning again to more subdued works interspersed with his paintings of sides of beef. After a break from these works in 1927, Soutine painted two still lifes of fish in 1933.
Christian imagery, Jewish metaphysics and his personal mythology all reside within the carcass still-lifes. Soutine stripped away any pretense of traditional artistic beauty as seen in the paintings he studied in the Louvre and created visceral works that revealed pure moments of brutal honesty that stand in direct opposition to the Renaissance beauties posing as martyrs who barely express emotion as they are being tortured.
Soutine pushed himself to the darker realms of the mind with these paintings and they continue to push the viewer to do the same; he desired an intimate understanding of the moment of “going out.”