The Barnes Foundation has managed to pull off, in a year of extraordinary disruption, an international exhibition showcasing two of the great artists of the twentieth century—Chaim Soutine (1893–1943) and Willem de Kooning (1904–1997).
A number of works in the show traveled from Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, the Barnes’s partner in organizing the exhibition. A prized painting in such a museum can be lent internationally only if it is accompanied by a museum staff member on its first-class flight. With the pandemic lockdown, flights from Europe to the US ceased, and Europeans were not allowed to enter our borders, so at first it appeared the show would have to be canceled.
But thanks to the Barnes staff’s logistical workarounds—which continued almost up to the show’s opening day—the exhibition was mounted. It is most likely the only international exhibit to have opened in Philadelphia during the pandemic. A significant exhibition wherever it is shown (it will travel to Paris in the fall), Soutine/de Kooning is doubly welcome as the big new show of the Philadelphia spring, bringing with it the city’s hopes of at last shaking off the year’s cultural restrictions.
The presentation considers the ways Soutine’s paintings, with their rich color, built-up surfaces, and energetic brushwork, inspired the art of de Kooning and helped shape his groundbreaking abstract figurative works in the late 1940s and beyond. The exhibition is the first to pair a substantial number of paintings by Soutine and de Kooning and to explore the relationship between them. It is subtitled “conversations in paint,” but it isn’t exactly that. The two artists never met, and they worked in different cities and artistic schools; it is really more that we are looking at the great influence that Soutine’s work had on de Kooning’s. The climax of that influence arrived with a major exhibition of Soutine’s paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950. Fittingly, the Barnes Foundation itself also played a role: its founder, Dr. Alfred Barnes, on seeing Soutine’s work in Paris, was the first to collect and support him, buying over 50 paintings. De Kooning saw the paintings at the Barnes Foundation, at Barnes’s invitation, in 1952.
The exhibition offers 42 paintings—plenty of the painters’ best work, yet a show small enough to allow us easily to move around to see their connections. While the Barnes still owns 21 Soutine paintings, only four of these are included in the show. As most Philadelphians know, Dr. Barnes specified that his museum’s holdings could never be moved from the positions he gave them in the museum, and, though the museum itself has been relocated and rebuilt, that is still the rule today. So the only Barnes-owned Soutines in this special exhibit are ones that were in storage, not displayed.
The show is divided between the two artists, with artworks arranged in rooms to highlight their commonalities. The paintings themselves are directly, colorfully, tactilely appealing. The show reveals the vibrancy of color and the dimensional texture provided by the impasto technique (building up the paint to give texture, as well as a sense of its being a painting, rather than a mostly flat illusion of reality), as well as the freedom of gesture that both painters employed.
The painters’ lives occupied most of the twentieth century and have in common origins in Europe and youthful emigration to find opportunity.
Soutine was born in 1893 in a shtetl in present-day Belarus and moved to Paris at age 20, joining other immigrant artists such as Marc Chagall and Amedeo Modigliani in Montparnasse. He enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts but soon left academy training to spend his days at the Louvre, examining such artists as Rembrandt, Goya, and Cezanne. Inventive as he was, he felt that art must be grounded in an artist’s forebears.
Willem de Kooning, born in Rotterdam in 1904, emigrated at 22 (as a stowaway) to the US, and developed his career in New York. Like Soutine, he was influenced by his artistic predecessors, especially those from the Netherlands like Ingres and Van Gogh. He became known as an abstract expressionist. And he was a member of the “action painters” group: artists who applied paint freely, highlighting the paint and the artist’s gesture, rather than laying down color for a precise effect.
Soutine was best known as a landscape painter; the show has several examples, often of twisty roads climbing up to white-walled villages, painted with the free gestural brushwork that influenced the new generation of painters, including De Kooning. But the pictures that originally caught Dr. Barnes’s attention are the delightful portraits of bellboys and pastry chefs, particularly The Little Pastry Cook. These are recognizable people in paint, centered in the classic portrait style but interpreted expressionistically through dominant colors (now white, now red, now black), the use of impasto, and layered monochromatic paint, freely painted, that makes them modern and exciting.
De Kooning is most famous for his “Woman” series, painted mostly in the 1950s and showing a critical questioning attitude toward the subject. In the later series “Woman/Landscape,” the figure, sometimes barely discernible, is mapped onto the same rectangular space as the landscape. While the earlier series is harsh and probing in its examination, the latter group is surprisingly gentle, the line much softer, the colors downright pretty. De Kooning was fascinated with seeing how far he could take the abstraction of a figure before it became unrecognizable, and we see some of the results here.
At times the “Woman” paintings have been interpreted as intensely critical of women, or even misogynistic (sharp diamond-shaped eyes, big wolflike teeth). They reference ancient associations chiefly of fertility or civilization long understood as belonging to the feminine, such as the Venus of Willendorf (25,000 years ago) and the Bronze Age Cycladic fetishes. For de Kooning it is possible they also represented constraint, control, or challenge.
Perhaps de Kooning’s funniest work shows a woman who might be seen as the antidote to all these difficult women: curly blond hair, sweet round blue eyes, pretty smiling mouth with no teeth—it’s Marilyn Monroe, and the painter seems to satirize this too-pliant version of his favorite subject. He might well have preferred those sharp-edged mouthy women.
Soutine/De Kooning is on view in the Barnes’s Roberts Gallery from March 7 through August 8, 2021. Entrance is by timed ticket reservation. The first Sunday of each month the museum, including the exhibition, is free, but you must reserve timed tickets online.