Hunger Art (Chaim Soutine)


“Still Life with Herring” sounds like a Jewish spoof on the French fine art tradition. From the same milieu of Russian Jews in Paris, Chaim Soutine is the anti-Chagall. There is nothing dreamy about his work. There is no lift off the ground. Only dead fowl hang in the air, or a carcass of beef. Soutine was all stomach. Maybe to suit recent trends in thought and theory, his recent show at the Jewish Museum was called “Flesh.” But that misses the fundamental truth of this version of the image of animal life, table, and plate in the still life tradition. The art on view was really about meat more than flesh, and more than meat it was about “hunger.” That hunger is what makes these paintings so unsettled and not still. A poor man, the artist only wants to eat. That was my takeaway, justified by the poor fork that appears as late as the 1924 painting of the hare, having appeared earlier in a picture of the herring on a plate with a cup and in a picture with the artichoke. Resembling bent fingers, the fork signals a desperation of hungry, human interest that is inherent in this body of work.


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About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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