Home Arts Impasto masters Chaïm Soutine and Leon Kossoff face off

Impasto masters Chaïm Soutine and Leon Kossoff face off

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The French painter of Belarusian origin Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) is precisely the kind of character that we associate today with the School of Paris. Less a formal movement than an informal period, it was marked by cosmopolitanism, with modernist-minded artists from all over the world flocking to the French capital, in the first half of the 20th century, to innovate, hang out, work in the ‘darkness. , and wait for genius to emerge and fame to leap.

Rising from near-destitution to artistic stardom, Soutine – an expressionist in all but name, and a product, like Marc Chagall, of Tsarist-era Jewish life – died of a bleeding ulcer, at the age of 50, during the Nazi occupation of France. But he had an immediate afterlife in the 1950s, when he became a presiding influence for that other loose, vaguely cosmopolitan, decades-long movement, the School of London. Its members, from Francis Bacon to Frank Auerbach, were inspired by the impastos of beef carcasses and the feverish landscapes of Soutine.

In Soutine | KossoffHastings Contemporary brings together landscapes and portraits by Soutine as well as similar works by the famous School of London painter Leon Kossoff (1926-2019).

At Chaim Soutine The plane trees in Céret (circa 1920) CDiethard Leopold collection. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s

Soutine had an artistic breakthrough just after the First World War, when he created dozens of landscapes in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in a town called Céret. Presenting around twenty paintings by each artist, the exhibition will include key works from Soutine’s Céret years, such as The plane trees in Céret (c. 1920) – a “vibrant, fleshy, anarchic” painting, says curator James Russell, which appears to have been made “without plan or pattern”.

The exhibition, which rigorously separates the two artists in otherwise fluid galleries, implicitly compares Céret’s works with Kossoff’s post-war cityscapes, like the expressive, yellow-brown blur of City construction site (1961). Kossoff – like his friend and fellow Soutine sidekick Auerbach – saw the ruins and construction sites of post-war London as a sort of dynamic visual wonderland, and this painting, showing a bombed-out area nominally returning to the life, imbues its range of steel beams with a spontaneity à la Soutine.

by Leon Kossoff City construction site (1961) © Estate of Leon Kossoff

Both shared a famous love for Rembrandt, making paintings inspired by his work

There is a sense of quasi-formal continuity between the two artists, suggests Russell, who points out that Kossoff owned the Soutine catalog raisonné. And they both shared a famous love for Rembrandt, each producing paintings inspired by his work. But unlike the Dutch master, “the two weren’t interested in recording light,” says Russell. Rather, he argues, each wanted to let their paint colors themselves seem like a source of light.

This inherent artificiality is most apparent in their portraits. In The valet (circa 1927), Soutine uses “drips and splashes of color”, says Russell, to give texture to the servant’s very distinctive velvety sleeves. And Russell sees the figure’s almost abstract hands as approaching Kossoff’s near-break with figuration. Kossoff produced numerous portrayals of writer NM Seedo, in works such as Head of Seedo (1964). When asked what would happen if the curator had directly associated Soutine’s bewildered-faced 2-foot-tall valet with Seedo’s almost 5-foot-tall faceless portrait, Woman sitting (1957), Russell responds: the works “would fight against each other”.

Soutine | KossoffHastings Contemporary, 1 April-24 September

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