Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys Courtauld Gallery, London, until January 21
The Courtauld is missing the point.
Its Soutine show is subtitled “Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys”, like a below-stairs Downton Abbey, disguised as the mock-creaky Parisian jeu de main of a melancholic ilustre: Soutine, darling of Roaring Twenties hostesses, set up today to look slightly out of date.
That’s balderdash. Soutine’s genius transcends bellhops, cooks, etc – it could be a bourgeois or a gentleman he is painting. Goya and Madame Bovary show us that human life in all its grotesqueness can be seen in these two social classes too. The label of their trade is irrelevant.
As a young, penniless painter escaped from Smilovitchi, a town in modern-day Belarus, Soutine went to Paris and soon fell in with Modigliani, with whom he shared a dealer, Léopold Zborowski. Zborowski sent Soutine to Céret in the Pyrenees, between 1919 and 1922, where he first painted the incarnadine smocks of butcher boys. An American collector saw The Pastry Cook (not hung here) hanging in a bistro and promptly bought 50 canvases. A working tour of France’s finest hotels soon followed.
What strikes you when you look at this awful, striking rogues’ gallery, is that there is an incredible accretion of humanity here. We see a housekeeper who is so expressive that she looks beaten up. Her eye is bleeding at the duct, diagonally. The nostrils of her nose rear up at us. Her right jaw is lumped, like Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937, to create an impression of sexuality (and I think this is the key expression with Soutine).
The Pastry Cook of Cagnes seems to be a picture of a man becoming a mouse, like in Roald Dahl’s The Witches. (Dahl featured Soutine as a character in his short story Skin). The cook’s ears are that big. His dignity is intact. His black eyes fat in their sclera, the curdled red of his cheeks and the poignant dignity of his insult-forbearing, tender lips hold the face together.
We live in the descent towards war, in an age of uncertainty, where the internet has given us wings and we don’t know what we are. In the 1920s, Reconstructivism coloured the trend to create an artistic compendium of the working classes – which was for the first time piercingly subjective. Modigliani, Van Gogh and Cézanne all tried their hand. People wanted to reconstruct the fabric of a country through its working people.
As Adam Curtis said in his essential film HyperNormalisation, big business will take the place of government. As we slide, seemingly inexorably, into a new era of conflict, it is, perhaps, becoming the new fascist state. Soutine helps us still marvel lovingly at our humanity, which perdured despite the accoutrements of the 1920s hotel era. Moreover, we can laugh at its grotesqueness: its warts-and-all, rambling, somehow medieval corruptions.
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