The unsung life of a famous painter

You may not recognize an artist named Chaim Soutine, but you might recognize his work, especially the portrait of a pastry chef, the one American collector Albert Barnes purchased in 1922. Barnes launched Soutine into significance. His purchase of the portrait and a load of other Soutine paintings pulled the Russian Jewish immigrant out of poverty and isolation; however, this did not mitigate his emotional suffering, as portrayed in The Village Idiot, a novel based on Soutine’s life.

In 1918, this artistic genius fled Paris to the south of France. In the story, he’s with other artists, extracted from the City of Light by their art dealer, Léopold Zborowski, to protect them from German artillery and the Spanish influenza. Eventually, Soutine, in his 20s at the time, settles alone in the town of Céret where he paints turbulent landscapes and portraits that capture the vulnerabilities of his subjects. They include the Céret hotel staff — page boys, valets, waiters, and chambermaids – who are shocked by their exaggerated features on Soutine’s canvasses. The pastry chef complains Soutine has made a jester’s cap of his chef’s toque blanche and given him an elephantine ear. “It took you all this time to make me look like a cretin?” he shouts.

Oil on canvas – Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. See The Art Story for more information.

The Village Idiot is packed with exceptional imagining — vivid drama and controversy — as Mr. Stern ignites the life of this strange artist of extraordinary talent, a man who easily fell into despair and slashed his canvasses with dissatisfied vehemence. He delves into what might have been Soutine’s interior life, a peering into his soul as Soutine peered into the souls of those he painted. This perspective is accomplished with convincing certainty and a removed narrative voice that comprehends Soutine’s genius and Jewish guilt. We feel the relentless itch of the one, the haunting of the other.

Chaim Soutine entered the world in 1893 in Smilovichi, a shtetl in the Russian Empire, today a city in Belarus. We are told his Jewish orthodox father beat him because Soutine violated the second commandment with his artistic creations. (Thou shalt not make unto thee any likeness to things on earth.) Still, driven to draw and paint, Soutine sells his mother’s Sabbath spoons to buy a charcoal pencil. He emigrates to Paris in 1913, where he’s befriended by the artist Amedeo Modigliani, who thrusts him into the historic Bohemian moment. Not only an agitator for good times, Modigliani is Soutine’s only trusted friend and support. But Modigliani dies of tubercular meningitis. It happens while Soutine lives in Céret and Modigliani is in Paris. When Zborowski travels south to check on Soutine, he finds the grieving artist half-deranged and living in “ungodly filth.”

The story then turns with the entrance of Albert Barnes, skyrocketing Soutine to fame. Memorable life events and times stand out, such as the now successful artist’s neighbors complaining about the stink of a steer’s carcass he paints in his Paris apartment; the women he fails to adequately romance; his ongoing, often crippling, gastrointestinal pain; and the kindness of his benefactors sharing their country homes. Threaded throughout these times, taunting Jewish folktale imps hound the painter’s thoughts, assailing his apostate life.

When the Germans invade in 1940, Soutine’s life becomes one of perpetual movement and a fake identity. There’s a striking scene involving a German soldier who requests Soutine – he has no idea this is the famous Soutine — paint his daughter’s portrait from a photo. It’s one of the many evocative moments inspiriting the painter, whom Mr. Stern in his acknowledgements says left no written record of his life. Soutine died in 1943 from gastrointestinal distress. During the Nazi Occupation, he could not get it treated in time.

The Village Idiot is published by Melville House. A version of this review was recorded for NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM, broadcasting throughout central Ohio.

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