By Stanley Meisler

Palgrave MacMillan. 238 pages. $26. ISBN 978-1-137-27880-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I’m not sure how many paintings by Chaim Soutine are in British galleries. Not a lot, I suspect, and it’s doubtful if most British art-fanciers are familiar with his work. When it comes to Marc Chagall it’s a different situation, and it’s not all that long ago that I saw a large exhibition of his work at Tate Liverpool. His paintings lend themselves to being reproduced as postcards and on posters and calendars. And the success of Fiddler on the Roof, inspired by Chagall’s art but which he disliked when he saw it performed, also brought Chagall to the attention of a wide public. Amedeo Modigliani, who also figures prominently in Stanley Meisler’s book, is rather like Chagall in that postcards and posters have spread the word about his paintings and there have, no doubt, been numerous student bedsits with Modigliani posters as decorations.

But Soutine? Somehow I can’t imagine that too many of his paintings, especially those where he showed bloody animal carcasses or decaying birds, have appealed to those who enjoy the coyness of Chagall and the muted eroticism of Modigliani. Soutine did paint portraits and landscapes, but even then he never aimed for the pretty and decorative. His use of paint, while attracting admiration from artists like Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon, could be striking, even disturbing. If you go to the Orangerie in Paris, where there is a whole room devoted to Soutine, it’s possible to get an idea of the power and urgency of his paintings. They don’t appeal to everyone and I have known people leave the room quite hurriedly, almost upset by what they have seen on the walls.

Born in 1893 in Vilna, now in Lithuania but then in Russia, Soutine made his way to Paris in 1913. He had friends there and moved into La Ruche in the passage de Dantzig. This was a large building with fifty studios designed to provide cheap accommodation for young painters, poets, and sculptors, and it was established by Alfred Boucher, who Meisler describes as “a prominent and wealthy sculptor honoured and prized by the government and fellow artists during a long career.” Among those living in La Ruche, at one time or another, were Max Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, Diego Rivera, Jacob Epstein, Ossip Zadkine, and Chagall. In later life Chagall reminisced that “These ateliers were occupied by artistic Bohemians from all over the world.”

 Meisler has some interesting things to say about how the artists and writers related to each other. The highly-competitive Chagall, for example, seems to have preferred mixing with the poets. Modigliani got along with everybody and painted or drew portraits of them. Soutine thought of himself as a permanent outsider who “seemed to ignore everything beside his work.” He had little to say about himself or his paintings: “He wrote no memoir or any other book or article. Only a few letters have survived, and they reveal almost nothing.” There is a book by the Russian-Polish artist Marevna, Life with the Painters of La Ruche, which paints a lively picture of La Ruche and has a great deal of information about Soutine, some of which appears to contradict what Meisler says about him not talking about his life before coming to Paris. He seems to have told Marevna a fair amount concerning his childhood.           

Soutine had arrived in Paris with little money, but managed to enrol in classes run by Fernand Cormon, who had taught Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh in earlier years, but he dropped out after a time. He decided he could learn far more by visiting the Louvre and studying the paintings there. But there is little or no evidence of what Soutine was doing in his first couple of years in Paris. He always had a habit of destroying work he wasn’t satisfied with and that’s presumably what he did with any early paintings.

Soutine did make friends with Modigliani, and both were rescued from total poverty through the interest of a collector called Jonas Netter who was in touch with the art dealer Leopold Zborowski. It was Modigliani who first interested Netter, and it was Modigliani who persuaded the dealer to get Netter to also provide some financial assistance to Soutine. It would take time for Soutine’s work to gain any real attention, and little of Modigliani’s work sold in his lifetime which was short and tragic. A regular user of hashish and alcohol he suffered from tuberculosis and died in 1920. Meisler says that Modigliani, who spoke fluent French, dressed well, and was sophisticated, could easily have slid into the world of the assimilated Jews and French society generally in Paris, but chose instead to socialise with the struggling Jewish artists he knew. Meisler quotes an art historian as saying that “Modigliani’s refusal to assimilate came from his self-image as an artist who was different and individualistic.” Mixing with the impoverished painters in Montparnasse satisfied his desire to feel alienated in Paris. It’s almost as if he knew that in time his life would become the subject of films and novels, and so constructed his activities accordingly. As for his art, there is the usual irony that it now sells for millions, whereas Modigliani himself earned little from it.

Soutine had also followed a bohemian life-style, and one of his acquaintances referred to him as “raving mad, constantly drunk and dirty.” But things began to change when a rich American collector, Doctor Albert Coombs Barnes, visited Paris in 1922 and came across a Soutine paintings in a gallery. Meisler describes him as saying, “It’s a peach,” and adds that Barnes’s memory of discovering the Soutine was that it was in a bistro, though most commentators have preferred the gallery as the location. It would seem that the gallery owner had a poor view of Soutine as a person, and claimed that it was “an article of faith to him that ablution is a heresy, changes of clothing a sacrilege.” All that aside, Barnes’s enthusiasm led to him buying 52 of Soutine’s canvases. The artist then being almost unknown, Barnes did obtain the paintings at a relatively low price. It’s perhaps not to his credit that in later years he told someone: “I caught him when he was drunk, sick and broke and took the contents of his studio for a pittance.” Barnes may have intuited that Soutine’ work would gain in reputation and value in due course, but he had no time for the artist himself.

The money that Soutine got for the paintings did change his life. But his new-found fame also brought problems in the shape of resentment by other artists, especially non-Jewish ones. And anti-semitic critics referred to “Slavs disguised as representative of French art,” with the word “Slav” as a euphemism for Jew. It was around this time that the term “School of Paris” was coined primarily to describe the concentration of Jewish painters in the city, though it was not widely used immediately.

Meisler emphasises the differences, as people and artists, between Soutine and Chagall. The latter’s work drew heavily on his Jewish background, whereas Soutine’s showed no influence of his shtetl upbringing. Meisler points out that various commentators have attempted to find elements of Jewishness in his paintings but have been unsuccessful. As people, compared to Soutine’s bohemian ways, Chagall dressed conservatively, behaved in the same manner, and knew how to “cultivate friends with influence.” His view of Soutine was that he was a “morbid expressionist.” There is a telling story that Meisler cites about how, in the 1940s when the Jews were being rounded up, Chagall was in a police station with others and asked for preferential treatment because he was a famous artist with highly influential friends, and not like the rest of them. They were all eventually released after registration, and Chagall was one of the lucky ones who later escaped to America.

Chagall had been in Paris as early as 1911, but having returned to Russia for a visit in 1914 he was trapped by the war and only managed to get back to France in 1923. His reputation was growing, though he was still subject to the kind of criticism that anti-semitic writers aimed at all the members of the “School of Paris.” In some ways, the term could be applied to almost any artist active in Paris in the inter-war years, even if it was generally understood to refer to those who were Jewish. But it wasn’t that they had any sense of purpose in terms of breaking new ground or painting in a specific way. They were remarkably diverse in their approaches to art. And it was significant that, on the whole, they were little influenced by art movements like Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. It’s true that the Surrealists did try to claim Chagall as one of their own, but he was far too individualistic to identify with the group. The point that needs to be stressed about the term School of Paris is that it wasn’t descriptive of a form of painting, or a theoretical analysis, and was simply a blanket phrase that covered a wide variety of artists, all of them Jewish. A look at paintings by Chagall, Modigliani, and Soutine, not to mention many others, will quickly indicate how different they were in their styles.

Anti-semitic attacks mounted in the 1930s as the Nazis came to power in Germany. There had always been a strong anti-semitic tradition in France and, in Meisler’s words, “The Jewish character of the School of Paris provoked the most puzzlement and comment and rancour in the city.” A Dutch poet, writing in the prestigious magazine, Mercure de France, referred to “a swarming of Jewish painters,” and he wondered why “this passion for paint and brushes” had suddenly hit so many Jews. It was, perhaps, almost inevitable that he came to the conclusion that they’d realised there was money to be made from art.

Meisler relates how the windfall that Soutine gained when Dr Barnes bought his paintings changed some of his habits: “Aside from portraits and landscapes, the still lifes took up a good deal of Soutine’s time and energy, especially in the 1920s.  For the most part, he was obsessed with fish, poultry and meat, after their killing and sometimes butchering but long before they were ready for cooking.  When he was impoverished, he painted emaciated herring. After Dr Barnes enriched him, he painted beef.”  Soutine had spent hours in the Louvre studying Rembrandt’s paintings, including one in particular which was of a slab of flayed beef. And he made trips to Amsterdam so he could look at the Rembrandts there. When Soutine painted landscapes it was sometimes said there were similarities to Van Gogh, but he tended to be a bit dismissive of the Dutch artist.

The onset of the Depression in 1929 affected artists as galleries cancelled contracts and collectors stopped buying. Soutine was lucky because he was taken up by a wealthy couple, the Castaings, who liked to patronise poets and painters. Soutine and Madeleine Castaing became close, but despite rumours it would appear that there was nothing sexual in their relationship. Soutine had. In fact, formed a liaison with Gerda Groth and she moved to live with him in the Villa Seurat, where he was a neighbour of the American writer, Henry Miller. When she began to tidy up Soutine’s apartment she found that he had few books (Balzac, Montaigne, Dostoyevsky), and had not kept copies of a couple of monographs written about his work or catalogues from his exhibitions. He had stuck a few reproductions of paintings by Rembrandt, Courbet, and Corot on the walls. Henry Miller thought that Soutine seemed “tame now, as if trying to recover from the wild life of other days.” If they met on the street Soutine had little to say beyond routine comments about the weather or the noise from a neighbour’s radio.

It was around this time that Soutine was diagnosed with an ulcer, probably a result of his earlier dissipations and lack of proper food. A move out of Paris was advisable, especially as the general situation in Europe deteriorated. When the French and British armies collapsed in the face of the German onslaught in 1940 Soutine’s position as a Jew was fraught with danger. He managed to avoid being rounded up by the Germans and their French collaborators, the notorious Milice, a paramilitary right-wing police force, partly thanks to help from a few sympathetic officials. But his health was worsening and Gerda Groth, who was German by birth, had been forced to move away, to a camp for aliens, when the war started. She tried to return to Soutine but met with bureaucratic difficulties in obtaining the right documents. In the meantime, Madeline Castaigne had arranged for another woman, Marie-Berthe Aurenche, to look after Soutine. She was familiar with artists’ circles, having been married to Max Ernst and consequently friendly with many surrealists. Man Ray photographed her, Luis Bunuel gave her a small part in L’Age d’Or, and it was said that Andre Breton used her as a model for the central character in his novel Nadja.

Taking on the role of caring for Soutine, a sick man who needed a special diet in a time of scarcity, and was also a hunted Jew, was certainly not easy, so Marie-Berthe deserves credit for what she did. He did eventually succumb to his various health problems (anaemia as well as ulcers) and died during an unsuccessful operation in Paris in 1943. There were suggestions that Marie-Berthe was at fault in some ways by delaying getting him to hospital, but there seems little point in running through all the arguments surrounding Soutine’s death and the subsequent details of his burial and the disposal of his paintings. Meisler does provide the necessary information for those interested.

Is it true to say that, with the exception of Soutine, Chagall, and Modigliani, the School of Paris has been forgotten? There have been various exhibitions over the years, mostly in France and the United States, and books have been written about at least some of the artists who can be said to have been identified with the group, a term that might not be completely accurate as people came and went and didn’t necessarily know or associate with each other. I recall an exhibition at the now sadly-closed Montparnasse Museum which focused on Jewish painters active in Paris before the Second World War. It saddened me to read how many of their lives ended in Auschwitz and other death camps. Meisler does say that around 20 painters associated with the School of Paris perished in the camps, but he adds that the total was possibly higher. It has been estimated that around 150 artists can be classed as belonging to the School of Paris, so it’s probable that Meisler’s 20 is too low.

So, who were some of the other painters and sculptors? Many were probably minor figures and it’s unlikely that their work will ever re-surface unless it’s in a specialised exhibition like the one I visited at the Montparnasse Museum. But others did make a bigger impact, even if their reputations later declined. Jules Pascin might be a good example. He was well-known in his day, but committed suicide in 1930. Ossip Zadkine managed to get to America before the Nazis took over, but returned to Paris after the war and died there in 1967. There is a Zadkine museum in Paris. Moise Kisling also spent the war years in the United States where, Meisler says, he had “enormous success in both New York and Los Angeles.” His studio in Paris had been ransacked while he was away, and though he initially returned to the French capital he soon settled for much of the time in Sanary in the Mediterranean. Chana Orloff was in Swizerland and returned to Paris, but frequently visited Israel, where she died in 1968. Jacques Lipchitz stayed in the United States, and often spent some months each year in Italy.   It would be fascinating to track down details of what happened to all the artists, and Meisler recommends the website ecoledeparis.org run by Nadine Nieszawer, a specialist in the art and personal histories of those she places under the heading of the School of Paris. Having looked at it myself I can testify to its usefulness.

Meisler says that it’s likely that the School of Paris might well have fragmented and lost its impetus by 1940 or so even if there hadn’t been a Second World War. Art movements tend to have a limited life. But the School of Paris was hardly a movement. A “surprising number” of the artists did return to Paris after 1945, but they lacked the cohesion of earlier days. And, in any case, other factors affected what happened. Meisler refers to post-war Europe being “too poor and dazed and involved in reconstruction work to revive the vibrant and commercial pre-war art scene.” Attention was more and more focused on America where the Abstract Expressionists were in full flow. New York and not Paris became the place to be. My own feelings are that, having seen exhibitions of post-war French art (not necessarily just those with an emphasis on Jewish painters), there was more interesting work being done in Paris than was acknowledged at the time and later. But that’s a personal impression and art historians may well disagree.

I thoroughly enjoyed Shocking Paris and Stanley Meisler manages to range over the period concerned, and the lives of the main artists he looks at, in a readable and interesting manner. He doesn’t include a bibliography, but there are ample notes which point to catalogues, books, articles, and other publications. It’s a great pleasure to see him drawing attention to Soutine whose work, as I mentioned at the start of this review, doesn’t get shown enough in Britain. And though Modigliani and Chagall are familiar names he summarises their lives effectively and puts them in context. He also offers some tantalising glimpses of the lesser-known artists and makes one yearn for a major exhibition of the School of Paris to be shown in this country. It’s unlikely, and I’ll have to content myself with the exhibition I viewed at the Montparnasse Museum, and the small selections I’ve seen at the Ben Uri Gallery in London and the Manchester Jewish Museum. And with Stanley Meisler’s informative book.