Missed the first comparative exhibition of Chaim Soutine and Francis Bacon? Discover the artists' shared passion and energy in our virtual tour of the major works alongside an exclusive interview with co-curator Maurice Tuchman.
The passionate brushstrokes and dark energy found in the paintings of both Chaim Soutine and Francis Bacon were shown side by side at Soutine/Bacon, the first comparative exhibition of the artists’ work, which recently took place at New York’s Helly Nahmad gallery. Conceived by its curators Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow, who are also the co-authors of the Chaim Soutine Catalogue Raisonné, the show clearly highlights the influence that Russian painter Soutine had on a young Bacon when they were both working in Paris. As well as sharing a similar technique, both artists equated oil pigment with flesh and cleverly reinvented Old Master paintings. But while many artists have been inspired by Soutine (William de Kooning famously referred to him as his “favourite artist”), the curators of Soutine/Bacon suggest that Soutine’s legendary images of beef carcasses are possibly the very reason that Bacon became an painter. Damien Hirst, writing to Tuchman, put it most succinctly: "Without Soutine there is no Bacon".
Maurice Tuchman, co-curator of Soutine/Bacon and co-author of the Chaim Soutine Catalogue Raisonné, explains the similarities between the two artists.
How did this amazing exhibition come about?
Spontaneously, in a conversation with David Nahmad and his son, Helly Nahad, who now owns the gallery, right there on ground floor of the Carlyle Hotel. Esti and I had written about the link between Soutine and Bacon, but there had never been a show to focus on the compelling affinities between these two great painters of the 20th-century. The gallery knew that the project and the catalogue would be a challenging affair, one that would draw upon their phenomenally rich resources - their inventory of great modern paintings and sculptures. Plus the tremendous costs of doing the show: transport, insurance, couriers, extra security
and even remaking the two-story gallery from ground up to effectively display 32 great paintings in a proper manner. Not to mention the curatorial fee!
Was there a specific thesis for this show?
We have written about the Soutine/Bacon link previously, but here we were provided with an opportunity to focus, and with the means to do it right. The world's great art museums were all immediately co-operative. Except in those few case where the Bacon paintings could not travel for reasons of their physical condition or a legal matter, all the responding directors and curators exclaimed, "Oh that’s a good idea", and agreed to make their treasured loans.
Further, as we took heart and dug into the relationship between the artists - and into the particulars of their personalities and biographies - the resonances of Soutine/Bacon life
experiences became compelling. For example, at Ceret, the village in the French Pyrenees where Soutine found his true artistic vision in 1919, he would pay a lookout with the little money he had to stand guard while he painted furiously in the local abattoirs. Simultaneously, in Dublin, the 10-year-old Francis Bacon was taking his boyhood friends to the local slaughterhouses: he was obsessed with them. For Soutine as for Bacon these were pivotal experiences and truly formative in their life work.
As Damien Hirst put it in a letter to me, "Without Soutine there is no Bacon."
There have been movies and documentaries made on both artists. Anything in the works regarding Soutine/Bacon?
In fact, a major creative producer of several hit mini-series came to see the show and we are developing a treatment for TV. At this point the narrative revolves around the search by an art historian to uncover the bonds between the artists across time and place. Several top stars have been to the show multiple times, and important paintings may end up in their private collections, perhaps to inspire them in their roles in such a drama!
Does the exhibition differ from others of its type, such as the current Brancusi/Serra show at the Fondation Beyeler?
Three exhibitions that link artists come to mind: Caravaggio-Bacon in Rome last year: great artists with no discernible connection. Tanguy-Calder in New York earlier this year: a fine art-historical point was made, indicating that when they worked near each other they affected each other. Nice but not earth-shattering. And Brancusi-Serra in Basel right now. The exquisite yet monumental Brancusi sculptures are mind-blowing. However, I have never seen so many museum goers wax indignant about the alleged link between the artists. The point of a two-artist show is to make each more vibrant and accessible.
How did the two artists shape up, one versus the other? What did you intend?
We intended to do just that with Soutine/Bacon. The fact that Soutine is less seen and less well known - and that his price point is a fraction of Francis Bacon's - caused most visitors to upgrade Chaim Soutine in their minds.
You took care to stress the commonalities between the artists to make the point. What about the differences between the two?
Soutine worked from life, he painted alla prima - all at one go, dawn to dusk, a hit or miss proposition. He did not draw. Bacon did not draw either, but he never painted from life (the odd portrait or two of his patrons notwithstanding). Instead like a somewhat focused magpie, he took from everywhere, anything that suited him in photographic form. Even paintings, where he preferred the image to the original: 55 paintings were inspired by Velasquez's Pope, but he never cared to see the original, even when it was readily at hand. Soutine sees life as it approaches the end, whether the subject be a person or an animal, or when the breath of life has just been excised; Bacon sees death in every portrait, animal, or subject. A scream for Soutine suggests life inchoate, while for Bacon it is a lethal warning.
Was there a special satisfaction for you in this intense project?
Working with Esti Dunow on Soutine projects is always satisfying but never more than on this one. It is a "tragedy", as David Nahmad put it, that the show closes now; it could have run as long as a hit Broadway show. The special satisfaction lies in two aspects: the amazing speed with which a complicated international project and substantial publication can be accomplished; and secondly the surprises one turns up in research. The discovery of Francis Bacon's eureka moment when he encounters Soutine's ‘Beef’, for example.
Perhaps this is special for me personally because it brings to mind my own eureka moment at Columbia University when I "discovered" Chaim Soutine thanks to my mentor, Meyer Schapiro.
What was the response to the exhibition?
It was profound. The steady stream of visitors - many coming 6 and 7 times - was wildly and wonderfully diverse: from Kofi Annan to Steve Wynn, to organized museum groups, to young painters. This all suggests that painting is back. We have now had several decades of conceptualism commanding the news; now at MOMA it is called neo-neo conceptualism. Please. As a champion of the original conceptual artists in 1968, when I was serving as Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art at LACMA, showing and acquiring Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari, Chris Burden and the New York conceptualists, I think that many artists today are mining overworked strategies. The passion I see in young artists for the demanding act of painting again is interesting indeed.
I am so happy to have amazing projects right ahead of me. Great artists such as Willem De Kooning and John Chamberlain - both with definitive retrospectives coming up, this year and next, at MOMA and at the Guggenheim. And a thematic exhibition I have been developing for many years titled Hidden in Plain Sight, which is about contemporary trompe l'oeil sculpture, worldwide, whose roots lie in Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Gober. I think this could be entrancing for Middle East venues. Also, a carefully selected exhibition about Outsider Art and Modern Artists, an update of a show I did at LACMA 20 years ago, before Outsider art was in the mainstream as it almost is now. And I am always doing something with emerging artists, especially in unlikely venues, such as guest suites at major hotels or in public spaces. From overseas, my wife and I have received an invitation from the Russian State to present Chaim Soutine - who, incredibly, has never been exhibited in Russia – and from a formidable artist in China to talk about Soutine to Chinese painters. But nothing appeals to me more than to re-stage and update Art & Technology, a huge project and publication that I organized for the United States Pavilion at Expo 70, Osaka,
and then at LACMA in 1970. Many of our most important artists emerged from that exposure to Advanced Technology, such as Robert Irwin and James Turrell, or broadened their reach as artists, such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra and Newton Harrison. An update would mean: the digital revolution and the best artists today.
Soutine/Bacon took place at New York’s Helly Nahmed gallery from May 2 – June 18, 2011