How a Small Kibbutz Museum Got a Hold of 18 Paintings of the Great Chaim Soutine

A new exhibition is showcasing 18 works by the influential Jewish painter, who also left a mark on Israeli artists – some of whose works are on display

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From left to right: Igael Tumarkin, Homage to Soutine from the series Butchers (1968-69) / Chaim Soutine, Calf and Red Curtain ca. 1921 / Michael Gross, Slaughtered Goose, 1959
From left to right: Igael Tumarkin, Homage to Soutine from the series Butchers (1968-69) / Chaim Soutine, Calf and Red Curtain ca. 1921 / Michael Gross, Slaughtered Goose, 1959Credit: Collection of Tel Aviv Museum of Art / Collection of the Israel Museum Jerusalem, gift of Lotte and Walter D Floersheimer / The Geny and Hanina Brandes Art Collection
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

The painting “Gladioli” by Chaim Soutine fell into the hands of Yaniv Shapira, curator of the Mishkan Museum of Art at Ein Harod, in the north, almost by accident. Shapira had been looking for works by Soutine (1893-1943), the famous Jewish artist whose work is the subject of an exhibition that opened last week at the kibbutz museum, entitled “Naked Soul: Chaim Soutine and Israeli Art.” “Gladioli” was particularly important for Shapira: His show features a photograph of Soutine after his death, with a bouquet of white gladioli placed on his body.

“When I visited the Jewish Museum in New York, the curator told me about a Jewishman by the name of Shmuel Tatz who owned art by Soutine,” Shapira recounted. “I called him and said I was doing an exhibition on Soutine at Ein Harod. He said Soutine was his life.”

Tatz, a physiotherapist by profession, bought “Gladioli” about four years ago. He lectures about Soutine and periodically holds “Soutiniana” events dedicated to the artist. Tatz was excited to hear that the kibbutz museum was organizing an exhibition dedicated to Soutine; he promised to come for the opening and to bring “Gladioli” with him. Tatz also brought along a portrait of Soutine by Israeli artist Sima Slonim, who met Soutine in Paris in the 1930s. (“He wanted to marry her,” Shapira said).

Chaim Soutine, Gladioli, ca. 1919Credit: Alexander Royzman / Collection of Shmuel Tatz, New York

Shapira curated the Ein Harod show, on through March 21, together with Suria Sadekova, chief curator of the Pushkin Museum in Moscowand with Batsheva Goldman-Ida, the curator for special projects at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The exhibition features just 18 examples of Soutine’s oeuvre; none of them among his best known. The last time a show in Israel was dedicated to the Belarus-born artist who spent most of his life in Paris, was more than 50 years ago, in 1968.

Back then, as part of Israel’s 20th anniversary celebrations, and in cooperation with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, legendary curator Yona Fischer organized a show at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem featuring some 50 works by Soutine, including some of his well-known paintings: “The Pastry Chef,” “Page Boy at Café Maxim” and a painting from his animal carcass series.

Chaim Soutine, Girl in Blue ca. 1938-39Credit: Ofrit Rosenberg / Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, gift of Edwin E and. Grace Hokin Chicago

Soutine was considered to be one of the most influential artists working in Paris during the interwar years. His works, some of which have fetched millions of dollars, are today scattered among a number of important museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Pompidou and Orangerie museums in Paris, the Tate Modern in London and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Some of his paintings can be found in private collections.

For a small museum such as the Mishkan, insuring and shipping valuable works of art that are on loan from major museums abroad is extremely costly and complicated; most small institutions of this kind have neither the time, staff or expertise to deal with the procedures involved. The current show is thus centered around works loaned from Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Hecht Collection in Haifa, as well as from private collectors in Israel and abroad.

The Mishkan show is actually divided into three parts. Near the entrance is a display of art by Chaim Atar, founder of the Ein Harod museum, who himself was influenced by Soutine. To the left are paintings by Soutine, displayed in a special sterile environment for reasons of preservation. At the entrance to this gallery are paintings and sculptures by artists who were his contemporaries in Paris, among them Chana Orloff, Jacques Lifschitz and Michel Kikoine. The gallery on the lower level showcases 43 Israeli artists – three generations of them, influenced by Soutine.

Chaim Soutine Portrait-Self, ca. 1916Credit: Margarita Perlin / Collection of Tel Aviv Museum of Art bequest, of Mala Silson, New York

‘A painters’ painter’

Even if he had the option of displaying 100 pieces of Soutine’s work, Shapira said he would not have forgone the other works shown in “Naked Soul.”

“That’s the entire power of this show,” he explained. “Soutine is a wonderful artist and showing him at the Mishkan is a spiritual experience. When you stand in front of a work by Soutine, you understand something about death and something about life at the same time.

The Mishkan Museum of Art at Ein Harod, northern Israel.Credit: Gil Elyahu

“They’ve said he was a ‘painters’ painter,’” Shapira continued. “When I understood the significance of that expression, I decided to curate an exhibition that shows his influence over Israeli art. There have been exhibitions that showed how he influenced American and European artists. This show constitutes a global innovation for collectors and researchers.”

In the exhibition’s catalog, curator Sadekova describes Soutine’s life. He was born in 1893 (or 1894) in the town of Smilavichy, outside Minsk in present-day Belarus. Michel Kikoine wrote in his memoirs that immediately after he and Soutine arrived in Paris, on June 14, 1912, they rushed to the Garnier opera house to see Verdi’s “Aida” being performed.

Soutine settled in at La Ruche (the “Beehive”), a residence for artists in Montparnasse, where he was a neighbor of Chagall, Orloff and Lifschitz. He didn’t apply himself to formal studies, preferring to devote his time to studying on his own, inspired by the Louvre’s collection. In 1915, Lifschitz introduced Soutine to the Italian-Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani, who in turn introduced Soutine to Pablo Picasso and other notables. Modigliani also introduced Soutine to art dealers Georges Chéron and Léopold Zborowski, and urged the latter to promote Soutine’s paintings.

Igael Tumarkin, Homage to Soutine from the series Butchers (1968-69), restored (1992) Credit: Collection of Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Zborowski dispatched Soutine to the town of Céret, where he painted landscapes. One of them, dated 1920, has come to the Mishkan show from the collection of the Israel Museum.

In 1923, Soutine met American collector Albert Barnes, who purchased 52 of his works from Zborowski. The Philadelphia-based Barnes Foundation still owns many of Soutine’s works, along with paintings by Picasso, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas.

After meeting Barnes, Soutine had shows in the United States and Paris. Financially successful, he also traveled to Amsterdam, where he saw works at the Rijksmuseum by Rembrandt, which made a lasting impression on him.

However, with the Depression of 1929, Zborowski went bankrupt and Soutine had to find new patrons: They were Madeleine and Marcellin Castaings, whose estate near Chartres he visited in the summers of the early 1930s.

In 1937, at Café du Dôme on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, Soutine met a woman named Gerda Groth, a divorced Jewish refugee from Germany. For the first time, the artist settled into something of a regular family life with her. In late 1939, after the outbreak of World War II, however, Groth was expelled from France.

By this time Soutine’s health was deteriorating, a process exacerbated during the war years, as he wandered from place to place. In 1940, he was introduced to Marie-Berthe Aurenche, former wife of German artist Max Ernst, who became Soutine’s mistress and eventually managed to get him smuggled back into Paris, in 1943. But on August 9 of that year, after extensive surgery, he died. Among those who attended his funeral at the Montparnasse cemetery was Picasso.

Michael Gross, Slaughtered Goose, 1959Credit: Elad Sarig / The Geny and Hanina Brandes Art Collection, Tel Aviv

In 1950, the Museum of Modern Art in New York launched an exhibition of 75 of Soutine’s works, which did much to boost the influence of the otherwise reserved artist. Indeed, despite his ties with famous artists and wealthy business people, Sadekova writes, Soutine remained isolated within his own tumultuous inner world.

“He preferred a quiet, selective acquaintance with friends with whom he could engage in philosophical conversation about what he had read or seen. Until his last day, he was a recluse, absorbed in his inner world. His dislike for human company was so strong that he even avoided his exhibition openings,” the curator notes.

As the Soutine’s patron Marcellin Castaings wrote: “The presentation of his paintings was, for him, an excruciating experience. He did not want exhibitions of his work to be curated in his lifetime, he did not want to see his paintings framed, he was not interested in their mode of hanging and did not like signing them.”

Chaim Soutine, Path in the Forest with Two Children, first, half of the 20th century Credit: Shai Levy / Collection of Hecht Museum, University of Haifa

Israeli artists who were influenced by Soutine, and whose works are also on show at Ein Harod, tended to paint wild landscapes, portraits of wounded individuals and bleeding animals.

Among the first generation of those influenced by him were Menachem Shemi, Moshe Castel and Moshe Mokady, whose expressive landscapes reflect the mark the Parisian painter left on them.

Rembrandt and Reisman

The show includes four Soutine paintings related to one of his main themes – dead animals: “Calf and Red Curtain,” “Herrings and a Bottle of Chianti,” “Rabbit and Two Forks” and “Plucked Goose.” The first three were painted before 1925, when he embarked on his famous series featuring animal carcasses; the latter do not feature in the current exhibition.

In the catalog, curator Batsheva Goldman-Ida relates how Soutine painted that series: “He purchased an entire beef carcass at the nearby meat market and hung it up in his studio,” she writes.

“When the meat began to go bad, he sprayed it with fresh blood to ‘freshen it up.’ One day, inspectors from the department of health knocked on the door, intent on carting away the hazard. Soutine looked at the men and turned deathly pale. ‘Be kind,’ [his art dealer] Zborowski’s assistant, Paulette Jourdain, pleaded. ‘You see that he is painting the beef. He has to finish his canvas.’ The inspectors relented, injected the carcass with an ammonia deodorant and returned the next day to fumigate the studio.”

According to Goldman-Ida, Jacques Lifschitz recounted that “Soutine would buy pieces of meat to paint and let them become rotten, because he liked the colors. The result was such a stench that it was unbearable.”

Chaim Soutine, Calf and Red Curtain ca. 1921Credit: Ofrit Rosenberg / Collection of the Israel Museum Jerusalem, gift of Lotte and Walter D Floersheimer, Zollikon, Switzerland.

Among the works of Israelis who were influenced by him and also featured in the show are Igael Tumarkin’s 1969 “Homage to Soutine” sculpture, which is part of Tumarkin’s “Butchers” series, and Yosl Bergner’s early painting “Homage to Chaim Soutine” (1950), which depicts a carcass and a watermelon.

Also on show is an untitled work by Michal Shamir that references Rembrandt: a sculpture in the form of a beef carcass, made of gummy candies affixed to a wood structure. When it was created in 2008, it was multicolored, but the candies have aged and are now shades of black-brown.

In addition, Mishkan is exhibiting “Slaughtered Chicken” by Ori Reisman, from the 1960s; “Lea Nikel’s “Slaughtered Chicken” (1953); and “Slaughtered Goose” by Michael Gross (1959), which also graces the cover of the exhibition catalog, which is in Hebrew and English.

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