By Eleanor Linafelt
The first paintings one sees upon entering “Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint,” on view at the Barnes Foundation are Chaïm Soutine’s “View of the Village,” a distorted landscape with bright oranges, dark greens and thick, angular lines, and Willem de Kooning’s “Composition,” a larger abstract piece with large swaths of vibrant orange interrupted by sweeping multicolored brushstrokes.
These artworks are an excellent introduction to the exhibition, organized by the Barnes and Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie in Paris, which highlights the affinities between the two artists. While Soutine’s painting is smaller, darker and more figurative, the similarities between their styles are immediately clear.
“What links these two artists specifically is their use of paint and the way they are able to create these intense and tactile images,” Simonetta Fraquelli, the exhibit’s co-curator and consultant curator for the Barnes Foundation, said. “They’re almost three-dimensional objects in terms of the way that the paint is so lush and expressive.”
The stylistic connection between the artists is not coincidental; though they never met, de Kooning saw Soutine’s work multiple times, including on a visit to the Barnes in 1952, and wrote about the influence that the older artist had on him.
Soutine was born in a shtetl in the Minsk region of western Russia (present-day Belarus) in 1893 to a Jewish tailor. He started drawing at a young age and was met with opposition from his community for defying the Talmudic prohibition of graven images.
As a teenager, Soutine studied at an academy in present-day Vilnius, Lithuania, which accepted Jews, and where he learned about Russian art and avant-garde movements. In 1913, he moved to Paris where he met other Jewish artists including Marc Chagall, Ossip Zadkine and Amedeo Modigliani.
It wasn’t until 1922, when Albert Barnes, the founder of the Barnes Foundation, bought 52 paintings by Soutine for his Philadelphia collection that the artist’s career began to take off. Barnes was critical in bringing Soutine’s work to an American audience.
De Kooning first saw Soutine’s work in New York art galleries, and was particularly struck by the older painter’s landmark 1950 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The second room of the “Soutine / de Kooning” exhibition is entirely devoted to paintings by Soutine that were included in the retrospective.
“I wanted to emphasize how de Kooning would have seen these works and the kind of impact it would have had on him to see all those Soutines together,” Fraquelli said.
The following room, centered around the theme “Between the Figurative and the Abstract,” highlights one specific influence that Soutine had on de Kooning.
In the 1950s, de Kooning was searching for a way to work beyond the pure abstraction that was popular with New York artists at the time. He found inspiration in Soutine’s work, which straddled the line between the figurative and abstract, distorting the people and landscapes it depicted. The de Kooning artworks in this room, including his famous Woman paintings, also reflect this tension.
While “Soutine / de Kooning” successfully draws out the parallels between the two artists, it also maintains their differences, which are most evident in the final room. Four of Soutine’s grotesque and dark paintings of animal carcasses hang on one wall, while three large, bright, abstract de Koonings make up the rest of the room.
Throughout the show, Fraquelli made the decision to hang the artists’ paintings on opposite walls to avoid drawing overtly direct comparisons between them.
“They were two artists from different periods who were painting in a different scale and a slightly different way,” she said.
Ultimately, the paintings that Fraquelli and her co-curator, Claire Bernardi, chief curator of paintings at Musée d’Orsay, chose uphold how extraordinary both artists were in their own rights, while still making Soutine’s influence on de Kooning undeniable.
“Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint” is on view until Aug. 8.