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The Barnes Foundation Presents Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint

World premiere of exhibition exploring affinities between the work of artists Chaïm Soutine and Willem de Kooning

March 7–August 8, 2021
Press preview: Wednesday, March 3, 9:30 am

Philadelphia, PA, December 11, 2020—In March 2021, the Barnes Foundation will present the world premiere of Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint, an exhibition organized by the Barnes and Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris, exploring the affinities between the work of Lithuanian artist Chaïm Soutine (1893–1943) and Dutch-American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904–1997). On view in the Barnes’s Roberts Gallery from March 7 through August 8, 2021, this presentation considers how Soutine’s paintings, with their built-up surfaces and energetic brushwork, served the art of de Kooning and helped shape his groundbreaking abstract figurative works in the late 1940s and beyond.

Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint at the Barnes is sponsored by Comcast NBCUniversal and the Terra Foundation for American Art. Additional support comes from the David Berg Foundation, Marsha and Jeffrey Perelman, Dietz & Watson, Robbi and Bruce Toll, Sueyun and Gene Locks, and Michael Forman and Jennifer Rice.

Co-curated by Simonetta Fraquelli, consultant curator for the Barnes Foundation, and Claire Bernardi, chief curator of paintings at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint features 42 paintings and explores key moments in the history of the reception and interpretation of each artist’s work. The exhibition is structured around a series of themes, including the oscillation between the figurative and the abstract; the conflation of figure and landscape; the artists’ mutual fascination with painting flesh; and the similarities in their working practice.

“Rooted in the rich holdings of Soutine’s work found at the Barnes and Musée de l’Orangerie, the genesis of this exhibition arose from the desire to contextualize our collections for modern-day audiences and to promote deeper study of the historical links between artists in Europe and America,” says Fraquelli. “In uniting these paintings by Soutine and de Kooning—two important figures in the history of art who never met one another, and who hailed from very different, individual universes—we witness a remarkable visual dialogue unfolding between the works.”

The expressive force of Soutine’s paintings, coupled with his image as a struggling bohemian artist living in Paris during the interwar years, imparted a particular influence on a new generation of postwar painters in the United States. Soutine was viewed by many as a herald of American abstract expressionism, and his gestural, richly impastoed canvases were presented as an antecedent for contemporary American painting. This exhibition considers how Soutine’s work had a decisive impact on the development of de Kooning’s art, especially following Soutine’s celebrated posthumous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950, which de Kooning undoubtedly visited. In 1977, de Kooning declared: “I think I would choose Soutine [as my favorite artist] . . . I’ve always been crazy about Soutine—all of his paintings.” De Kooning, more than any other artist of his generation, understood the tension between the opposing poles in Soutine’s work: a search for structure and a passionate connection to art history. De Kooning was the only abstract expressionist who continued to praise Soutine throughout his career and to credit him with being important for the development of his own work.

“Dr. Albert Barnes played a decisive role in Soutine’s career,” says Nancy Ireson, Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions & Gund Family Chief Curator at the Barnes. “In 1922, he discovered one of Soutine’s pastry chef portraits and quickly became enamored with his expressive paintings. He began voraciously collecting Soutine’s work and, in doing so, played an integral role in establishing the artist’s popularity and helping bring about a spectacular rise in Soutine’s prices, which served to protect the artist from financial hardship for the remainder of his life. Also, it is clear that a significant turning point in de Kooning’s work—evident in his lauded Womanpaintings in the 1950s—coincided not only with the MoMA’s retrospective but also with de Kooning’s visit to the Barnes with his wife, Elaine de Kooning, in June 1952. We hope this exhibition will shine a light on the importance of artistic influences over generations, which is something that Dr. Barnes himself had a keen interest in highlighting through the arrangement of his collection.”

Exhibition highlights include key paintings by both artists, including:

  • Soutine’s Hill at Céret, c. 1921 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), a well-known example of the artist’s Céret landscapes, which were singled out as precursors of de Kooning’s paintings by later critics;
  • Examples of Soutine’s portraits of bellboys and pastry chefs, such as The Little Pastry Cook, 1922–23 (Musée de l’Orangerie), which appealed particularly to Dr. Barnes;
  • Soutine’s Portrait of Madeleine Castaing, c. 1929(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), an incisive portrait of the artist’s other great patron;
  • Soutine’s Winding Road, Near Gréolières; Landscape with White Building; and Landscape with House and Tree, c. 1920–21, works from the Barnes collection that are not usually on display;
  • Woman paintings by de Kooning from the early 1950s—for which he is perhaps best known and which reveal his admiration of Soutine’s art—such as Woman II, 1952 (Museum of Modern Art) and Woman as Landscape, 1954–55 (private collection); and
  • ...Whose Name Was Writ in Water, 1975 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), one of de Kooning’s later, more abstract works, painted in the 1970s at a time when he was revisiting the art of Soutine.

Following its premiere at the Barnes Foundation, Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint will be on view at the Musée de l’Orangerie from September 15, 2021, through January 10, 2022.

This exhibition is organized by the Barnes Foundation and the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris. It is co-curated by Simonetta Fraquelli, consultant curator for the Barnes Foundation, and Claire Bernardi, chief curator of paintings at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Born Haïm Itche Zalamanovitch Sutin in Smilovitz, Minsk province, Western Russia, in 1893, Chaïm Soutine was the tenth of 11 children of a Jewish tailor. From an early age, he took an interest in drawing, encountering opposition in his community for his defiance of the Talmudic interdictions concerning images. At age 16, Soutine left for Minsk, and between 1910 and 1913, he studied at a small academy in Vilna (now Vilnius) that accepted Jews, where he learned about Russian art and its avant-garde movements.

A brilliant student, Soutine dreamed of going to Paris and, in 1913, he joined his fellow students Pinchus Krémègne and Michel Kikoïne in the French capital. He lived in La Ruche, the artists’ residence in the Montparnasse where he met Marc Chagall, Ossip Zadkine, and other immigrant artists, many of whom would later be known as the École de Paris. He enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts and studied under Fernand Cormon but quickly realized that his visits to the Louvre―where he discovered Fouquet, Tintoretto, El Greco, Raphael, Goya, Ingres, Courbet, and Rembrandt―were for him a more fruitful form of study.

In 1915, Soutine was introduced by Jacques Lipchitz to Amedeo Modigliani, with whom he formed a close friendship. Modigliani helped Soutine socialize and showed a keen admiration for his work, which at that time consisted of portraits and still lifes of food. Food was an obsessional theme for Soutine, corresponding both to its central role in Jewish ritual and to the shortage of food he had experienced during his childhood and subsequently in Paris and in Southern France. Subjects favored by him later, such as plucked poultry, alluded to the omnipresence of death in his childhood.

Soutine was foremost a landscape painter. He was sent to the Midi, France, by his dealer Léopold Zborowski in 1918, and he subsequently moved to Céret until 1922, where he painted intense gestural landscapes that prefigured the violent brushwork used by artists of the Cobra avant-garde movement and the abstract expressionists, such as Willem de Kooning. Beginning in 1925, Soutine produced a series of portraits that were markedly more attractive and serene than his early work.

Soutine shared some of the last years of his life with the German refugee Gerda Groth and, from 1940, Max Ernst’s first wife, Marie-Berthe Aurenche. His health declined rapidly with the news of the German persecutions of Jews, and he died during a surgical operation. The mixture of humor and despair, of passion and mockery in Soutine’s paintings—often inadequately described as expressionist—contributed to his stature as a modern master.

One of the 20th century’s most influential artists and leading figures of abstract expressionism, Willem de Kooning was born in 1904 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Born into a working-class family, he showed a keen interest in art at an early age, diving into studies in design and fine art. Set on living the American dream, he made his way to the United States in the mid-1920s and swiftly established himself as a commercial artist, becoming immersed in the New York art world and circle of avant-garde artists.

After the Great Depression hit in 1929, de Kooning found work in the 1930s with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and dedicated himself full-time to painting. His work was both figurative and abstract, often fusing forms and subjects and challenging ideas around gestural abstraction and figuration. In the years following, his circle grew to include contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. This group notoriously rejected stylistic norms and adopted more abstract gestures. Creating work coined as “action painting” or abstract expressionism, this group broke new ground and commanded the art world’s spotlight.

De Kooning was known among his peers as an “artist’s artist,” and he began gaining critical acclaim with his solo shows in the late 1940s. The first of these exhibitions, held in 1948 at the Charles Egan Gallery, was essential for establishing de Kooning’s reputation as a major artist. Not long after, he saw significant sales of his work and was awarded the Logan Medal and Purchase Prize from the Art Institute of Chicago.

While he embodied the image of a macho, wild artist, he was in fact dedicated to careful thought, training, and knowledge of the art historical masters that he admired. The artistic influences of Picasso, Soutine, Arshile Gorky, and others can be traced in many of his individual works and series―most notably his Woman paintings, a subject he returned to continuously throughout his career. He and his wife, Elaine de Kooning, visited the Barnes Foundation in 1952, remarking particularly about the impact of seeing the Soutine paintings in the collection. Shortly after, in 1953, de Kooning shocked the art world with a controversial group of paintings of women that were aggressively abstracted and experimental in approach. This was a pivotal moment, with the art critic Harold Rosenberg maintaining he was convinced of de Kooning’s relevance and, conversely, critic Clement Greenberg abandoning his support of the artist. De Kooning’s rise to prominence during this period would be the first of many celebrated moments of his career, which continued, unwavering, for the next four decades. His inquisitive spirit was steadfast, and he abandoned artistic doctrine as he continued to paint until 1991; he died in 1997 at the age of 92.

De Kooning’s compositions have been included in numerous exhibitions at national and international venues, such as the Art Institute of Chicago; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and Tate Gallery, London. They have also been acquired for the permanent collections of the world’s finest institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the British Museum, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Tate Modern, London; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Simonetta Fraquelli, an independent curator specializing in early 20th-century European art, is consultant curator for the Barnes Foundation. Fraquelli began her career at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, where she worked for over 20 years on a range of exhibitions. Selected highlights include Italian Art of the Twentieth Century (1989), Pop Art (1992), Africa: The Art of a Continent (1995), Sensation(1997), Picasso Ceramics (1998), Giorgio Armani (2004), and Modigliani (2006). Since 2006, she has collaborated with several leading European and American museums. Her most recent exhibitions include Picasso’s First Museum Exhibition 1932 (Kunsthaus Zürich, 2010); Chagall, Modern Master (Kunsthaus Zürich and Tate Liverpool, 2013); Joan Miró: Wall, Frieze, Mural (Kunsthaus Zürich and Schirn, Frankfurt, 2015–16); Picasso: The Great War, Experimentation and Change (The Barnes Foundation and Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, 2016); and Modigliani (Tate Modern, London 2017–18).

Claire Bernardi is chief curator of paintings at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, where she has been working since 2012. A specialist of paintings at the turn of the 19th century and early 20th century, her most recent exhibitions include Picasso. Bleu et rose (Musée d’Orsay, 2018–19), Le Talisman de Sérusier(Musée d’Orsay, 2019), Gauguin: The Alchemist (Grand Palais, 2017–18), Le Douanier Rousseau: Archaic Innocence (Musée d’Orsay, 2016), and Allegro Barbaro, Béla Bartók and Hungarian Modernity (Musée d’Orsay, 2013–14). She was co-curator of Chaïm Soutine (2012) and Apollinaire, le regard du poète (2016) at the Musée de l’Orangerie.

The exhibition is accompanied by 176-page catalogue, edited by Simonetta Fraquelli and Claire Bernardi and including contributions by Sylvie Patry, Judith Zilczer, and Lili Davenas. Co-published by the Barnes Foundation in association with the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris, and Paul Holberton Publishing, London, the book includes 50 full-color plates and numerous comparative illustrations. In addition to essays illuminating the careers of both artists, as well as Dr. Barnes’s role in collecting and promoting Soutine’s work, the catalogue contains reprints of selected writings on Soutine and de Kooning, as well as a chronology, a checklist of works in the Soutine retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950, and an illustrated checklist of paintings by Soutine on view at the Barnes Foundation.

This exhibition is sponsored by

Comcast NBCUniversal
Terra Foundation for American Art

Additional support comes from the David Berg Foundation, Marsha and Jeffrey Perelman, Dietz & Watson, Robbi and Bruce Toll, Sueyun and Gene Locks, Michael Forman and Jennifer Rice, Annette Y. Friedland, and Jane and Leonard Korman Family.

Ongoing support for exhibitions comes from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Exhibition Fund, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, and Aileen and Brian Roberts.

In addition, support for all exhibitions comes from contributors to the Barnes Foundation Exhibition Fund:

Joan Carter and John Aglialoro, Julia and David Fleischner, Leigh and John Middleton, Jeanette and Joe Neubauer

John Alchin and Hal Marryatt, Christine and Michael Angelakis, Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, Lois and Julian Brodsky, N. Judith Broudy, Laura and Bill Buck, Elaine W. Camarda and A. Morris Williams, Jr., Eugene and Michelle Dubay, Christine and George Henisee, Jones & Wajahat Family, Lisa D. Kabnick and John H. McFadden, Marguerite Lenfest, Maribeth and Steven Lerner, Victoria McNeil Le Vine, Leslie Miller and Richard Worley Foundation, Hilarie and Mitchell Morgan, Kay and Michael Park, The Rittenhouse Hotel, Adele K. Schaeffer, Katie and Tony Schaeffer, Dr. and Mrs. Eugene E. Stark, Joan F. Thalheimer, van Beuren Charitable Foundation, Kirsten White, Anonymous.

The exhibition catalogue is made possible with generous support provided by the Lois and Julian Brodsky Publications Fund.

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

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