To celebrate the museum's recent acquisition of Soutine's La Soubrette, c. 1933, the exhibition, From Russia to Paris: Chaïm Soutine and his Contemporaries, unveils this important portrait, together with a small selection of work from the Ben Uri collection by a number of Soutine's peers
David Glasser, Chairman of Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art, opened the exhibition with Dr Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund; Wesley Kerr, Chair of the London Committee, Heritage Lottery Fund; Helena Newman, Chairman of the Impressionist and Modern Art division of Sotheby's Europe and Sarah MacDougall, the curator.
The artists were either born (like Chagall) within Russia, or (like Soutine himself) in countries then within the Russian Pale of Settlement. In flight from the poverty, persecution and restrictions of their native lands, they converged on Paris, the 'City of Light', in search of personal and artistic freedom, mostly (though not exclusively) in the first two decades of the twentieth-century.
École de Paris
There they formed part of the loose association of émigré artists known collectively as the École de Paris, the majority (among them Chagall, Isaac Dobrinksy, Henri Epstein, Michel Kikoïne, Isaac Lichtenstein, Jacquest Lipchitz and Soutine) living and working together in the collection of studios known as La Ruche (‘the Beehive’) near the old Vaugirard slaughterhouses of Montparnasse. Many (probably including Ben Uri’s founder Lazar Berson) also studied under Professor Cormon at the École des Beaux-Arts and exhibited (like Chagall) at the progressive salon d’automne; together they had a profound influence on twentieth-century figurative art.
This small show invokes a broad narrative, seeking simply to present work by a selection of these artists across a wide range of dates, themes and subject matter, while highlighting a number of interesting associations and juxtapositions. For example, female portraits, painted in highly individual manner are seen by four artists from three decades: the heavy monumentality of Adler’s Portrait of a Woman gives way to the weary submissiveness of Soutine’s maid, La Soubrette, c. 1933, who, in turn, contrasts with the confrontational stare of Dobrinsky’s tight-lipped Head of a Girl, anticipating his post-war series of portraits of orphaned children in the Limousin home. Finally, Kikoïne’s smiling Israeli Girl, probably painted in the 1950s, radiates the optimism of a new age and perhaps of the new state.
A number of the featured artists illustrated books: Lazar Berson’s three fine, intricate designs for the Ben Uri (which he founded in London in 1915, after several years in Paris), were probably influenced by the Machmadim (Precious Ones), a textless, Jewish art journal produced in Paris in 1912 by a number of artists including Henri Epstein and Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein spent much of his later life in the United States reviving the Machmadim Publishing House devoted to the production of artistic Yiddish books.
In 1927 the dealer Ambroise Vollard invited Chagall to produce a series of etchings (to which Le Cheval et l’âne (The Horse and the Donkey) belongs) to illustrate the seventeenth-century French poet La Fontaine’s famous Fables. The commission caused much controversy, as commentators asked why a Russian Jew, a foreigner to French culture, should be selected to illustrate a classic of French literature. Vollard responded that Chagall’s aesthetic had something akin to La Fontaine’s: it was ‘at once sound and delicate, realistic and fantastic’.
Jewish subject matter
A number of works deal with Jewish subject matter including three, rare and delightful Cubist interpretations of traditional Jewish ceremonies carried out in Paris in 1920 by Yitshak Frenkel-Frenel (who had studied under Henri Matisse) and Isaac Lichtenstein’s Blind Fiddler (1924), nostalgic in subject-matter but modern in execution, influenced perhaps by Chagall, but even more by his Cubist contemporaries, particularly the Orphism of Robert and Sonia Delaunay.Issachar Ber Ryback’s beautifully-painted still life, The Cock (1920), is a staple of the French painting tradition, but also recalls the work of Chagall and Soutine, and may also evoke the Jewish tradition of kapparot, where the sins of a person are symbolically transferred to the fowl.
Chana Kowalska’s deceptively naïve paintings evoke the fast-disappearing Shtetl, from which many of the École de Paris juifes originated. It is a tragic irony that not only this way of life but the artist herself and her husband were shortly afterwards wiped out by the Holocaust.
Although Soutine did not respond directly to politics or issues of his own ethnicity and never painted specifically Jewish subject matter, it is interesting to note that La Soubrette was painted around 1933, the year in which Hitler rose to power in Germany leading to the forced emigration of many European artists, as a result of cultural, religious or political persecution in their native lands.
Chagall’s important Jewish crucifixion, Apocalypse en Lilas, Cappricio, probably the first work he created after emerging from mourning for his late wife, Bella (who had died suddenly in September 1944), was painted, most likely in April 1945, in direct response to the Holocaust as the shocking news unfolded through press reports and newsreels. His complex imagery includes a clock, its minute and hour hands missing, to commemorate the moment of apocalypse.
Post-war work includes colourful, original graphics by pioneering painter, graphic artist and designer Sonia Delaunay, who exhibited (like Soutine) at the Galerie Bing, and whose original designs for her 1964 exhibition are seen here for the first time.
The exhibition also throws light on a number of relationships between these École de Paris artists. Soutine’s early friendship with Kikoïne dated back to the time of their early unhappy apprenticeships. At the age of 13, Soutine secretly drew a portrait head of the local rabbi breaking the Orthodox Jewish prohibition on image-making. As a result he was so badly beaten by the rabbi’s son that he spent a fortnight at the hospital and received 25 roubles in damages.
With this money, he and Kikoïne then set off for Vilna, where they enrolled at the art school and met Pinchus Krémègne, later becoming known as the ‘Expressionist trio’. Krémègne settled first in La Ruche in 1912 (he later recalled he knew only the address: Passage Dantzig when he arrived), but Soutine and Kikoïne soon joined him. Chagall (who had been tutored in St Petersburg by Bakst) had been there since 1910, as had Bakst himself. Epstein and Landau had also met as students; while Hayden later became friendly with Sonia and Robert Delaunay when taking refuge in Southern France during the German Occupation.
Soutine and modern British art
Soutine’s influence on artists as various as De Kooning, Pollock, Dubuffet and Bacon has been much discussed in recent decades. Most recently, Maurice Tuchman and Elli Dunnow in Soutine/Bacon (Helly Nahmad Gallery, New York, 2011) demonstrated Soutine’s substantial influence in Britain on the later ‘School of London’ group, particularly Bacon, as well as Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, a subject further explored in Martin Hammer’s insightful essay, ‘Soutine Mania in Post-war British Art’, which we are delighted to reproduce in our catalogue. This influence is also touched upon in the last room of the exhibition with a set of fine figurative works on paper from the collection by contemporary British masters Auerbach and Kossoff.
In conclusion, this exhibition highlights a number of subjects and themes to be revisited in greater depth in our forthcoming École de Paris survey, for which we hope this will serve as both an introduction and an appetizer.
Sarah MacDougall, Eva Frankfurther Research and Curatorial Fellow for the Study of Émigré Artists This is an edited extract from the exhibition catalogue, from Russia to Paris: Chaïm Soutine and his contemporaries.