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Excavating Man from Myth: Chaïm Soutine and the Cultural Power of Apocrypha

December 11, 2022 at 1:30 pm - 3:00 pm EST

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Chaïm Soutine’s paintings hang in major art museums the world over, and yet much of what is said about the man and his work is untrue. In this salon, writer Celeste Marcus, now at work on the first English language biography of Soutine, will consider the question: does it matter that we don’t know the real Soutine? What about the other artists who are only partially understood?

It is a habit of ours to shrink cultural heroes into snackable stereotypes. We do this because it is easier to master a caricature than to reckon with the complications and inconsistencies which characterize actually existing human beings. For Soutine, as for most public figures, the myths which muddy his story often contain seeds of truth. It is true, for instance, that Soutine was the tenth of eleven children born to a mender in Smilovichi, a city outside Minsk. It is far from certain, however, that he was starved, beaten, and generally brutalized by members of his own family, though that is what is repeated in many scholarly works on the subject.

Similarly, it is true that some of Soutine’s paintings convey an agitation or anxiety, though it is hardly fact that that anxiety characterizes his entire oeuvre, or that it refers to the agonizing childhood which tormented him for his entire life. The worst indulgences of Soutine-caricaturing cast the painter as a filthy, awkward, unlettered madman, when he was actually strikingly well dressed (when he could afford clothing and soap), soft spoken, and an avid reader (he loved Balza, Gogol, Pushkin, and Doestoevsky, the last of whom was his favorite author). Should the mythology bother us? That is the question we will consider in this salon.

Please take a look at:

  • This interview with the novelist Steven Stern, which is a good example of Soutine Stereotyping
  • This portrait from c 1919, which is a good example of a dark, agitated painting
  • this painting from 1931 (after Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing in a Stream) which is much calmer and more luscious than Soutine’s earlier work

*Please note this salon will be recorded*



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December 11, 2022
1:30 pm - 3:00 pm EST
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