‘Soutine’s Portraits – Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys’, Courtauld Gallery

Heavy with the time-honoured aura of artistic patronage and its implicit requirement for flattery, portraiture is traditionally designed to relax both viewers and sitters alike, by providing a calm sense of presence and projected power. Yet the subjects of Chaïm Soutine’s huge oil paintings of the 1920s and 30s, brought together in a new show at the Courtauld Gallery, portray hotel servants, those anonymous denizens of the back-stairs who scurry around behind the powerful figures. They are the antimatter, shadow versions of Sargent’s society portraits; underfed, overworked and certainly not in any position to commission artwork themselves. They can’t expect flattery of any kind. Soutine, a torchbearer for expressionism, most famous these days for his paintings of animal carcasses, does not grant it.

Yet it’s interesting to note that all around us on the walls of the gallery, this strange and rather menacing congregation exudes a calm defiance, a certain squashed kind of confidence. It may be tentative, but it’s there. These sitters perch in the crevice between two world wars, gazing out at us from an age of social change. They won’t necessarily be servants for ever. Soutine, still a struggling artist, was as poor as the servants he painted when this series began. These very images led to a seachange in his own fortunes when a collector saw them. Were they paid to sit for him? If they were, it couldn’t have been very much.

The Little Pastry Cook has her hands on her hips, a slightly sullen look on her face. ‘Why are you even doing this?’ she seems to ask. Her pose is powerful, but at odds with a face which seems sad, tragic even. That word ‘little’ in the title may imply she is physically small, but it could equally describe her age. If it’s the face of a teenager, which we suspect it is, then it’s a teenager who’s already done a lot of running around in hot kitchens. She’s no innocent lamb.

Of all the sitters, the Butcher Boy is the most unforgivingly visceral – and closest to Soutine’s famous slaughtered animal series.  This visual precursor of Stephen King’s Carrie is literally glistening with blood. His livelihood surrounds him, reflecting on his wet skin. tinting his whole body. He too is just meat, Soutine seems to conclude.

Technically these pictures are incredibly assured. But they balance on a knife edge – in most cases those vital nuances of expression resting upon a couple of virtually intangible flicks and smudges. When it works, it’s incredible to witness the festival of splodgy stabs of essentially abstract paint which, a step or two removed, resolve themselves into gentle and sad likenesses. Yet inevitably, with such a technique, there are risks. A few of these pictures go the wrong side of caricature, while in others we feel the technique obliterates the sense of likeness completely, letting that all important emotional connection get snarled up and shredded in the painterly maelstrom.

What are these pictures about, then? They are not pictures of love, longing, envy, financial transaction or friendship – which leaves us to conclude they are mostly about paint. Soutine liked painting people. He was poor and these are people who could simply be prevailed upon to sit. The lack of an expectation on either side of the bargain provides the series with its defining feature, making for a newly unfettered kind of portraiture, rare in art history. When expectations are nil, the painter feels unbridled, unthreatened. He’s honest about his subjects to the point of cruelty, and he can push any given image til it breaks – which it often does. It’s an uncomfortable but strangely compelling viewing experience.

Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters And Bellboys, The Courtauld Gallery.
Until 21st January 2018
courtauld.ac.uk/gallery

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