There is little stylistic development in Chaim Soutine's work: He began as an Expressionist (albeit one cognizant of Cubist space and composition) and ended as one. And, as an Expressionist, he was an odd man out in interwar Paris, wielding a loaded brush at a time when the with-it aesthete could only be elegantly Deco, coolly geometric or perversely Surrealist. But, as his retrospective at the L.A. County Museum of Art demonstrates – by looking at and evaluating not just him but those who were looking at and evaluating him – Soutine was too compelling an artist to file away under the rubric of “other.”
The 1920s hipoisie dismissed Soutine's kind of explosive tactility as nostalgie de la boue primitivism. And that's precisely how Soutine's earliest apologists sold him, as a naif out of the East, a Hebrao-Slavic-Oriental wild child whose Yiddische soulfulness had escaped with a yawp from the confines of the shtetl. Another popular construction of Soutine was as a peintre maudit, a bohemian willing to starve for the sake of his art. His salad days (including his childhood) were plenty impoverished, but he lucked soon enough into some powerful patronage and lived comfortably off his art until the Nazi occupation blew his, and everybody's, career to hell. (And life as well: Soutine was able to avoid the camps, but died in 1943 at the age of 50 of a perforated ulcer.)
Soutine thus made quite a name for himself as the consummate outsider – although his outside was not outside society, but simply outside artistic fashion. As the juif motif got old, however, a more refined reading of his accomplishment emerged. He was reinterpreted as a new Old Master, refiguring Titian, Courbet, Goya and other loaded-brush predecessors in a virtually solo struggle to renew the traditional values of painting. This may have been closer to Soutine's self-conception, especially judging from his direct and indirect emulations of Rembrandt, Chardin and other post-Renaissance painters. His two most concentrated series of canvases, portraits of working-class people and renditions of meat and dead game, pay knowing homage to genres in European painting that have historically attracted virtuosic practitioners.
In this respect, especially, the Soutine show is the perfect warm-up to the van Gogh retro due at LACMA next January. (It's the first major show planned for the May Co. annex.) Soutine shared with the Dutch maudit a fealty to a kind of painting that, tradition or no, lends itself to distorting passion. And it's this model – Soutine (and, for that matter, Vincent) as a paint slinger transported by the fervor of the act and moment of painting – that inspired his American audience before and after his death. The Abstract Expressionists in particular regarded Soutine as a precursor, admiring not only his avoidance of Gallic refinement but the extravagant, vertiginous distortion of his landscapes – his views of southern French villages and Paris suburbs seem to be captured in mid-earthquake – and the forcefulness of contour and texture that characterize his figures and (un-)still lifes.
Primitive, realist throwback or prophet of painterly abstraction – all three are visible at LACMA, in a show as fascinating and pleasurable for portrayals of Soutine as it is for Soutine's own portrayals of ordinary life – life amplified a hundredfold by the artist's abiding hallucinatory vigor. Art shows just don't get more vital than this.