The Courtauld and Tate Modern Galleries London

Posted on Oct 14, 2018 by





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Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford. Dr. Johnson

Afford being the operative word.

Still. On special occasions one simply has to bite the bullet. Special occasions such as our annual joint birthday treat up to The Smoke. Special occasions such as an exhibition of paintings by the Chaïm Soutine in The Courtauld and to see the only Max Ernst painting in Tate Modern.

Just to say Soutine brings a lump to my throat. Tragic beginning. Tragic end. He had such a sad life and had so little faith in his gifts he destroyed a lot of his work saying it was not good enough even though when he had an exhibition in the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris in 1937 he was a sensation.

Soutine’s self-portraits are poignant, full of angst and self-loathing. In one he called Grotesque, he contorts his nose, lips, ears and shoulders. His eyes are full of anguish. For the background he used the acidic yellow favoured by another tortured soul, Vincent van Gogh.

Soutine’s paintings now sell for millions.

Soutine was born a Jew when to be a Jew was to be the most hated man in town, hounded from village to village, town to town, city to city, country to country because of an accident of birth. He died as he lived, hounded.

Anti-Semitism is a mystery. Through their truly astonishing achievements in music and in the arts Jews have created and are still are creating everything which makes life worth living.

I discovered Soutine when I was researching for my book Max Ernst: The Genie of Amboise. Soutine was the last lover of Ernst’s second wife, Marie- Berthe Aurenche.

Soutine met Marie-Berthe in 1940 when they were both living in Montparnasse. The  only Expressionist in Paris, his contemporaries were Cubists, Dadaists and Surrealists.

Soutine practically lived in the Louvre to gaze on works by his hero, Rembrandt. He would not have found a single painting by a Jewish artist there but found them all around him in Montparnasse, Jewish painters such as Chagall, Modigliani, Man Ray, Max Jacob and Miro.

In 1938, when the Germans arrived in Paris Soutine and Marie escaped  to Champigny-sur-Veude, a tiny, remote, village near Chinon in the Loire Valley. As a Jew, he had to hide from the Gestapo hell bent on hunting him down.

He was officially registered as Jew 35702. On the Nazi radar, he and Marie-Berthe moved from one place to another often forced to seek shelter in forests until they rented the farmhouse on the Loire.

The stress of living like a hunted man aggravated Soutine’s ulcers. In agony, he was rushed to a hospital in Chinon but needed emergency surgery in Paris. The travel and operation took over 24 hours. Soutine died of a perforated ulcer on August 9, 1943. He was fifty years old.

Soutine was buried in Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris. Marie, who was poverty stricken, had to sell some of his paintings to pay for the funeral but was criticised for putting a Christian emblem on his gravestone. She said if she had put the Star of David, Germans would desecrate it. Pablo Picasso, Max Jacob and Jean Cocteau attended the funeral to pay their sincerely felt respects.

One of his most iconic paintings is Bell Boy painted in Paris in 1925.

When Soutine, a Russian immigrant, arrived in Paris he was delighted to see pavement cafés, unheard of in his own country. He painted waiters and bellboys in their brightly coloured uniforms, many of whom had worked for the aristocracy before WWI.

Not able to cook in their rooms, either because it was against the rules or because there were no cooking facilities, necessity being the mother of invention, people ate out cheaply in bistros so small extra tables were put on the street. Hey Presto! The world famous Paris café culture was born.

Soutine’s Solo Exhibition in the Courtauld was well worth the cost of the ticket. It was impossible to look at his paintings without thinking of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud’s distorted chewing gum like portraits which were influenced by Soutine.

Then it was on to Tate Modern to see Max Ernst’s painting Celebes.

Unlike, Soutine, Ernst’s work is anything but soulful. Soutine was all heart, soul and angst. Ernst was a Surrealist, a cold, calculating, intellectual painting machine. Unlike Soutine, Ernst led a charmed life. Unlike Soutine, Ernst was born into privilege and died privileged. Marie-Berthe Aurenche could not have had such totally opposite lovers.

For fans of Surrealists, the room dedicated to them in Tate Modern is quite moving. Gathered together, just as they were in Paris all those years ago before WWII, are many of Ernst’s contemporaries. Some were lovers, some were allies, some were adversaries. Here is Salvador Dali who was furious when Max Ernst won a painting competition they both entered. Here is Roland Penrose who gave Ernst safe haven in Cornwall when the London police force was looking for him. Here is Yves Tanguy and Joan Miro with whom Max Ernst collaborated when designing sets for Ballet Russes. Here is Leonora Carrington, the love of Ernst’s life and Dorothea Tanning, his fourth and last wife. Here is René Magritte and Paul Klee and Hans Belmer, Ernst’s old cell mate in occupied France. Here too is Alberto Giacometti who inspired Ernst to try his hand at sculpture. Tate Modern has managed to unite these old friends.

You can read more about Ernst in Max Ernst and the Genie of Amboise. Available via Amazon.

The book was written to mark the 50th anniversary of The Max Ernst Fountain in Amboise in the Loire Valley.

He dedicated his masterpiece to Leonardo da Vinci, the genius of Amboise. The story, told backwards, begins with The Fountain. From there we follow Ernst to the tiny village of Huismes where he designed it; to Paris where he lived before moving to Huismes; to Arizona where he built a love nest in the desert with his fourth and last wife; to New York where he married his third wife, Peggy Guggenheim; to the Ardèche in the south of France where, with his lover the Surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington, he was in hiding from his second wife Marie-Berthe; to pre-war Paris where, as an illegal immigrant, he lived in a ménage à trois with Paul and Gala Éluard before she married Salvador Dali and finally, to Germany where Max Ernst was born.

The author, a graduate in Art History, lives in Amboise with her husband, the photographer Mark Playle. Intrigued with The Fountain they set themselves the task of unravelling the mystery of how it got there. In the process, they found out what made Max Ernst tick. Art made him tick, Surrealist art in particular, close friends such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp made him tick, but what made Max Ernst tick above all else was passionate love. This was a man who followed his heart.

Click here to see all available books

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