Soutine and the beauty of service
By Sophie Dora Hall
Images from The Courtauld Gallery
I am standing in the tunnel that separates the slop area from the function room. The slop area consists of a make-shift trolley piled high with plates and a bucket adorned with a recycling bag surrounded by scraps of fine food, poorly missed. This is where we giggle and this is where we scrape. We, the young battle-chargers, the figures in black with university degrees and passionate pleas for art and self-discovery; we, the body that enters stage right, synchronized, ready to circle the tables and clear at once, perfected, so those deserving few know nothing of how their evening came to pass, how their glasses came to fill, how their bellies came to bulge, merely that it happened, as it should, with neither interruption nor complaint. And we will stand there in a line, on the periphery, our heads heaving with fresh anecdotes, our hands singeing with hot plates of bleeding duck and puree smudge, ready to embark upon the next act.
It was these moments that I thought about when I visited the recent exhibition - Soutine: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys at Somerset House. The exhibition is now over and though in this article I may – hopefully, sadistically – tempt you to want to see it, you will have to resort to Google search to get your fix. It may seem redundant to write of something that has closed but there is something so relevant and timeless about these particular studies that implored me to write.
I am an actor/writer and it is a story often told that such professions require a linear passage to counteract the squiggly, fraught, tyrannical path that is a career in the arts. This steady passage runs parallel to that capricious one in which we perform to three people every other year in a black cell that smells of bacon and Mr. Muscle’s scrotums. This other passage affords that luxury, enables that dream, and that passage will consist of becoming waiter, baker or candlestick maker. And Soutine smokes us out.
Chaim Soutine was born in 1893 and raised in a small Jewish settlement in what is present-day Belarus. His father was a tailor and the large family lived within extremely modest means. They also endured the persecution and discrimination so commonplace for Russian-born Jews at the time. The young Soutine would seek solace in drawing which was opposed by his Orthodox family; he was even beaten for presenting a drawing to a rabbi. The suffering he bore during those formative years shaped the complex man he would become and the canvasses he would later give life.
So he moved to Paris to be in the presence of his heroes and to pursue his art. He enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and lived in a shabby artist’s residence on the outskirts of Paris. He spent his days in the Louvre, immersing himself in the works of the masters, Rembrandt, in particular, being a huge influence. Another artist who would also make a significant impact on him was the young Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) who was introduced to the shy, socially awkward Soutine and there began a great friendship, one that lured Soutine out of his shell and would give him the confidence he needed both as a man and a creative. Indeed, Modigliani introduced Soutine to his art dealer, Leopold Zborowski, who immediately represented him.
" I too have been in the shadows, I too have felt proud, efficient, lost, neat, knackered
Despite hardship, Soutine managed to sustain himself as an artist. But it is his portraits of the underlings, the staff and the servants he spent a decade sourcing and luring from the shadows to absorb so beautifully into canvas that set his career off and it was these humble souls that I found so affecting. Over ten years Soutine passed through the luxurious quarters of hotels and households and descended into basements to seek those workers that would forever display themselves in bright rooms, under precision lamps and the watchful eyes of art experts and endless admirers.
A fragile housemaid, for example, seemingly having been stopped on her way to change a bed, eager to carry on her task; a young pastry chef, mouse-like, world-weary, delicate as the countless macarons he has just crafted; a butler who stands smug, lips almost kissing his own reflection, uniform as black and glossy as a stallion; and then on to Maxim’s where the doorman greets us, a red beacon, frothing with a list in his head of all the people to know, he cuts you with a discerning smile as you pass – he knows the debauchery you will seek tonight and he knows you will ask where’s the best party in town.
Soutine painted twenty-five portraits and remarkably twenty-three of these were assembled at Somerset House and twenty-three personalities bewitched the room. This was not the place for restrained detail, of Lords and Ladies, politicians, philanthropists, artists and writers, proclaiming a sense of entitlement and vested standing in the world, no, this was the place for wry smiles, suspicious frowns and some serious attitude.
So magnificent were these revolutionary subjects that in 1923 the American collector Albert C. Barnes, struck by one of Soutine’s early paintings of a pastry chef, thought it one of the greatest modern works he had ever seen. He demanded to see more paintings and bought some fifty works on the spot. This helped lift Soutine out of his desperate circumstances and brought him to greater prominence.
Lucky us because we are bestowed these souls, split open, just as brash and brutal as the beef carcasses Soutine was so obsessed with. Indeed, he would hang a carcass in his studio and each day would pour fresh blood over it to capture the freshness of slaughter, keeping death alive, the impact of extinction intact. The same visceral dissection is present in these luminous portraits; they were just as audacious as I walked amongst them, the room was charged, it had bite. It went beyond the brushstrokes and sumptuous palette, it was a foyer buzzing, a kitchen spitting, a restaurant crackling. There was camaraderie, bullying, chapped fingers and desolate glares. I was in good company. I know these guys. I too have been in the shadows, I too have felt proud, efficient, lost, neat, knackered. I have felt the comfort of a good shift and the sense of completion as you clock off as if you have done something gratifying for yourself not realizing it’s always all for others. I too have hidden in the stock room, hysterical, as we tore open industrial sized bags of nuts and gobbled them up in the dark. I too have felt like an automaton, unworthy, that there was no skill and a monkey could do the job just as well if he could just iron his shirt.
But I have also known (or hoped) that this was a means to end, that this was someone else’s life and I was just passing through. For these comrades, this was their pride, their joy, their metier, their grief. There was honour and rank, a right of passage to a comfortable retirement, perhaps by the sea. These were no victims, these were soldiers in their chosen field. And Soutine saw it, celebrated it. His portraits are vibrant, obscene, confident, complicated, cocky, vulnerable, proud, forgotten, unloved, loved. Their place in the world was as cogs, yes, but in a beautiful machine, and although I have felt battle weary on that particular field, I also feel my chest bulge at the thought of the majesty that is present in hard work and perseverance.