Chaim Soutine met Amedeo Modigliani in Paris in 1915. Both were immigrants and both were Jews, but otherwise their backgrounds were very different: Modigliani came from a middle class, liberal Jewish family from Livorno in Italy, whereas Soutine had grown up in a desperately poor, very Orthodox shtetl near Minsk (now Belarus). The two occupied the same lodgings for a while, taking turns, so the story goes, to sleep in the only bed. More importantly, Modigliani also introduced Soutine to his dealer Léopold Zborowski.
Coincidentally (or maybe not coincidentally – I don’t know), the two artists each have exhibitions devoted to them in London this autumn. You don’t need a Jonathan Jones or an Alexander Graham-Dixon to tell you that Modigliani at Tate Modern will be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. First off, though, is this show at the Courtauld Gallery, which concentrates on the curious series that Soutine painted of serving staff from the luxury hotels and restaurants of Paris during the 1920s. It’s a small show, just twenty-odd paintings in two rooms, but it packs quite a punch.
What you get here is a remarkable gallery of types, all rendered in Soutine’s very idiosyncratic, rather melancholy, brand of Expressionism. The most sympathetic are the gawky teenaged pastry chefs with their outsized ears (Soutine must be the first artist to have used ears to anchor a composition). At the other end of the psychological spectrum there’s a marvellously sly-looking valet de chambre, positively diabolical in his dark uniform. The rest tend to be cocky, hands-on-hips, defiant; clearly, there’s backstairs intrigue aplenty going on here. If Tim Burton – or, better still, Todd Browning – had made ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’, it might have looked a bit like this.
Why were Soutine and other Jewish artists of the 20th Century – Bomberg, Kossoff, Auerbach – so attracted to Expressionism? Probably for the same reason that Soutine revered Rembrandt, famously recreating Rembrandt’s ‘Slaughtered Ox’ in his studio and driving the neighbours to distraction with the stench of rotting flesh. According to David Sylvester, Rembrandt appeals to Jewish sensibilities not just because of his Old Testament subjects but because he’s got soul.
Soutine’s waiters and bellhops aren’t really portraits in the conventional sense, more like character studies, or ‘tronies’, to use the Dutch term. We know surprisingly little about his sitters, not even their names, apparently, in most cases. Presumably they agreed to pose for Soutine in order to augment their meagre wages; if so, they paid a heavy price in the marathon sessions that Soutine’s frenetic working methods demanded. Why, on the other hand, Soutine chose to make these paintings, which, on the face of it, had no obvious commercial appeal, is rather baffling and unfortunately the show isn’t very enlightening on this point.
No doubt when Modigliani opens on 23 November all roads will lead to Tate Modern. Yes, Modigliani is sexier but Soutine was also a great painter and this absorbing show should be seen as more than just a curtain-raiser for the Modigliani juggernaut.