Don’t Overdo the Impact of Jewish Experience on the Art of Chaim Soutine

Born in a remote Russian shtetl in the vicinity of Minsk, the artist Chaim Soutine (1894-1943) spent much of his career in France, where he rubbed elbows with other Jewish artists like Marc Chagall and Amedeo Modigliani. A series of 32 still-lifes he painted of animal carcasses is currently on display at the Jewish Museum in New York. Praising the exhibit, Andrew Shea cautions against making too much of the influence of history and biography on Soutine’s art:

The organizers of [the exhibit] . . . suggest that Soutine’s morbidity was developed in response to the violence he encountered as a child and young adult. . . . As the exhibition’s opening wall text recalls, thousands of Russian Jews were killed during sporadic pogroms that took place throughout Soutine’s childhood. The tenth of eleven children, he also faced an abusive father and an at-times repressive Jewish community that frowned upon his compulsive doodling. One story has young Chaim being beaten to within an inch of his life for drawing a portrait of an old man—strictly forbidden in a religious culture that [supposedly prohibited] visual representation of the human figure.

But such biographical tidbits can reveal only so much about paintings whose concerns were, as it turns out, chiefly aesthetic. Dwelling too long on an artist’s upbringing leads one towards the occult hocus-pocus that is psychoanalysis. This trend has especially affected Soutine scholarship. The painter, it must be admitted, was a walking caricature of the bohemian nutcase: poor, antisocial, slovenly, destructively perfectionist. But fundamental misunderstandings of Expressionism, combined with Soutine’s eccentric personality, have caused critics to cast Chaim as a tortured soul whose paintings were shaped by—and, indeed, created because of—emotional instability.

Happily, [despite its opening statement], the Jewish Museum largely avoids this spurious approach. Wall texts present biographical anecdotes as explanatory background information for Soutine’s gruesome subject matter rather than as some sort of master key to the paintings’ ultimate meaning. Primarily, the texts address the visual and material concerns of Soutine’s art. . . .

Modern critics partial to the landscapes [Soutine painted between 1919 and 1922], which made him a posthumous hero in the 1950s world of gestural abstraction, have seen his later work as indicative of an emotional exhaustion caused by Hitler’s occupation of France and debilitating health issues. The paintings currently on view at the Jewish Museum suggest otherwise. Duds are to be expected by a painter so inclined to risk everything, and a few snuck into this exhibition, but the majority of these works bear the mark of an artist who, though cognizant of the limitations of his medium, wields powerfully its evocative possibilities. In this way, dead matter comes to life.

Read more at New Criterion

More about: Arts & Culture, East European Jewry, Jewish art, Marc Chagall, Pogroms, Shtetl

The IDF’s First Investigation of Its Conduct on October 7 Is Out

For several months, the Israel Defense Forces has been investigating its own actions on and preparedness for October 7, with an eye to understanding its failures. The first of what are expected to be many reports stemming from this investigation was released yesterday, and it showed a series of colossal strategic and tactical errors surrounding the battle at Kibbutz Be’eri, writes Emanuel Fabian. The probe, he reports, was led by Maj. Gen. (res.) Mickey Edelstein.

Edelstein and his team—none of whom had any involvement in the events themselves, according to the IDF—spent hundreds of hours investigating the onslaught and battle at Be’eri, reviewing every possible source of information, from residents’ WhatsApp messages to both Israeli and Hamas radio communications, as well as surveillance videos, aerial footage, interviews of survivors and those who fought, plus visits to the scene.

There will be a series of further reports issued this summer.

IDF chief Halevi in a statement issued alongside the probe said that while this was just the first investigation into the onslaught, which does not reflect the entire picture of October 7, it “clearly illustrates the magnitude of the failure and the dimensions of the disaster that befell the residents of the south who protected their families with their bodies for many hours, and the IDF was not there to protect them.” . . .

The IDF hopes to present all battle investigations by the end of August.

The IDF’s probes are strictly limited to its own conduct. For a broader look at what went wrong, Israel will have to wait for a formal state commission of inquiry to be appointed—which happens to be the subject of this month’s featured essay in Mosaic.

Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Gaza War 2023, IDF, Israel & Zionism, October 7