LA RUCHE, YOUNG SOUTINE AND THE RUSSIAN JEWS
In 1913, Chaim Soutine, a young man barely 20, with thick lips, a bulbous nose and slightly slanted, Tartar-like eyes, arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris after a long and arduous rail trip from Vilna in what is now Lithuania. He soon headed for a building at 2 passage de Dantzig in the 15th Arrondissement on the Left Bank of the Seine River. At 2 A.M., with a sack on his back, he banged on the door of Pinchus Krémègne. Krémègne, an older student at the school of fine arts in Vilna, had reached Paris a year before and settled immediately at that address. Like many other youths of the era, Krémègne believed he could never succeed as an artist unless he studied and worked in Paris, whose fabulous museums and ubiquitous galleries and learned teachers and passionate critics and generous collectors and renowned artists made it the world's center of art.
Soutine and another classmate, Michel Kikoïne, had decided to follow their upperclassman's example. Kikoïne made the trip first. Then Soutine arrived in Paris intent on finding his two schoolmates in the same building. Krémègne for many years liked to joke or boast that he had arrived in Paris speaking only three words of French: "passage de Dantzig." It is doubtful that Soutine, like the others a native Yiddish speaker schooled in Russian, knew any more French than that.
The passage de Dantzig address was vital, especially to newcomers, for it marked the site of a unique French institution, La Ruche (the Beehive), which provided cheap housing to young painters, sculptors and poets. The residence, a polygonal structure of 16 sides, comprised 50 small but amply windowed studio apartments with large public rooms for the artists to meet each other. Nearby buildings housed the overflow in another 50 studios. La Ruche was the creation of Alfred Boucher, a prominent and wealthy sculptor honored and prized by the government and fellow artists during a long career. He also was a footnote to a tragic scandal, having introduced his student Camille Claudel to his friend the renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin, thus igniting a long and tormented love affair that eventually led to her madness and destruction of many of her works.
La Ruche was an act of pure philanthropy on the part of a successful artist who knew what it was like to start out with meager resources. Boucher bought some cheap land not far from the abattoirs on the Left Bank and put together La Ruche largely with materials dismantled from the 1900 Paris World's Fair. The bulk of the building came from the Médoc wine pavilion designed by the firm of Gustav Eiffel, the art nouveau wrought iron gate in front of La Ruche came from the Palace of the Woman and two caryatid statues guarding the front door came from the British India pavilion. Although a private project, the residence, which opened in 1902, was blessed by the French government. La Ruche served both as an affirmation of Paris's role as the center of world art and as an iconic and practical welcome to poor artists who came to bask in this artistic wonder of Paris.
La Ruche, which still houses artists in the twenty-first century, was an extraordinary success. Its alumni included French painter Fernand Léger and French writer Max Jacob and Swiss poet Blaise Cendrars and, among its foreign painters and sculptors, Soutine, Modigliani, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Diego Rivera, Tsuguharu Foujita, Jacob Epstein, Ossip Zadkine and Moïse Kisling. Chagall had already lived there for a couple of years when Soutine arrived looking for his Vilna schoolmates. "These ateliers were occupied by artistic Bohemians from all over the world," Chagall wrote in a memoir, describing the atmosphere of La Ruche. "While an offended model sobbed in the Russian ateliers, the Italian studios rang with songs and the sound of guitars, the Jewish ones with discussions."
Boucher had toyed with a more classic and academic name for his building but finally settled on the more commonplace and symbolic La Ruche. Boucher, who maintained a studio in the building, wanted the young artists to work as hard together as bees in a hive. He set aside a large room where most of the poor artists could draw a model that he paid for. He even incorporated a small theater in La Ruche for plays and concerts.
There is no doubt that lasting friendships were forged in La Ruche. Modigliani painted or sketched portraits of Soutine, Rivera, Foujita, Zadkine, Kisling, Jacob, Krémègne, Lipchitz and Cendrars, all friends from La Ruche. Chagall found himself drawn not to other painters but to the poet Blaise Cendrars. Cendrars provided Chagall with titles to several paintings and wrote several poems about him. The poet said the poems were as fanciful as a Chagall painting. One, "Portrait," closes with these lines:
He kills himself every day
Suddenly he does not paint anymore
He was awake
Now he sleeps
He strangles himself with his tie
Chagall is astonished to still be alive.
If artistic success depended on appearance, manners, geniality, hygiene, training and outside support, Chaim Soutine would surely have been voted least likely to succeed by the other residents of La Ruche. Yet no painter is now more identified with the movement that came out of La Ruche known as the School of Paris.
In interviews years afterward, friends and associates often referred to Soutine as "sauvage" (wild) or even "fou" (mad). But neither word seems to capture his personality. No single word, in fact, could.
Soutine was extraordinarily shy, so shy that no friend ever testified to watching him paint. He was obsessed by his work, so obsessed that he would slash his canvases with a knife if they failed, as they often did, to fulfill his hopes. He also looked on himself as the eternal outsider, too poor at first to feed and clothe and house himself. He seemed to ignore everything besides his work, anything else about himself, appearing as disheveled and unwashed as a shtetl bumpkin, at least in his early years in Paris. And he felt no compulsion to explain his work or himself. He wrote no memoir or any other book or article. Only a few letters have survived, and they reveal almost nothing.
Even the simplest facts about his life often depend on what others remember that he told them, and their memories are sometimes in dispute. Soutine was born in 1893 (the day is unknown) in the shtetl (Jewish market village) of Smilovitchi, about a dozen miles from the town of Minsk, now the capital of Belarus. The territory was part of the Russian empire in those days, but the area had belonged to old Lithuania, and many art monographs refer to Soutine as Lithuanian even though his citizenship was Russian. Smilovitchi was well within the Pale of Settlement—the vast area of Poland, Lithuania, White Russia and the Ukraine in which the czars allowed Jews to live. Jews could work or study in St. Petersburg, Moscow and the other cities of Russia itself only with special permission.
Soutine never showed any nostalgic love for the shtetl of his childhood. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Russian government reported that only 3,100 people lived in the nondescript village of gray wooden shacks. It had a small wool factory, some home distilleries, a few stores, an abandoned monastery, three churches for the peasant farmers in the area and a synagogue. "When you live in a dirty hole like Smilovitchi," Soutine once told a friend, "you can not imagine that cities like Paris exist." As an adult, Soutine learned to cherish the music of Bach, but, he said, "in my village I did not even know that a piano existed."
Chaim was the tenth of 11 children born to Saloman and Sarah Soutine. Saloman was a tailor, mainly a mender of old clothes, and there is no doubt that the family, living in the market square of Smilovitchi, was very poor. Kikoïne, Chaim's boyhood friend, described life in the impoverished Soutine family as extremely hard and sad with the father opposed to Chaim's plan to spend a lifetime painting pictures. Kikoïne said Chaim made several abortive attempts to run away and enroll in an art school outside of town.
The Russian Polish painter known as Marevna, the mistress of Diego Rivera, elaborated on this in a memoir written in the 1970s. Based on conversations with Soutine, she wrote that he was "an ugly, sickly child, who was disliked by his father who often singled him out for beating." "He went to bed hungry at night," she said, and "was often ill for lack of food." All in all, she wrote, his "childhood world was a Grand Guignol world of nightmarish shapes, grimaces, cries of protest and rebellion."
Yet Schraga Zarfin, another painter from Smilovitchi, six years younger than Soutine, downplayed the force of the family opposition to a career in painting and cast doubt on the harshness of life for Soutine. While Saloman discouraged Soutine's hopes of life as a painter, Zarfin said, he did not forbid the idea and, in fact, proudly displayed some of Soutine's drawings on a wall of the family house. Zarfin insisted that life was not "particularly miserable" in Smilovitchi.
The Soutine family, in fact, helped Chaim enter art school. When the teenager Soutine sketched a likeness of the rabbi in Smilovitchi, his son, a butcher, beat Soutine because of the supposed ban on drawing a thing or a person by the Torah's Ten Commandments. The blows were so severe that Soutine's mother filed an official complaint with the justice of the peace. The butcher paid compensation of 25 rubles (some accounts say 12), which Soutine's mother used to send Chaim to art school in Minsk.
A few years later, he and his classmate Kikoïne moved on from Minsk to an advanced art academy in Vilna. Enrollment was not easy. Soutine was so nervous that he showed up for an 8 A.M. entrance examination at dawn and spent several hours pacing the sidewalk waiting for the school to open. Soutine was asked to draw a cone, a cube and a pitcher. His fraught nerves made him flub perspective. The examiners rejected the tearful Soutine at first and then accepted him out of pity. In the end, according to Kikoïne, Soutine proved one of the most brilliant students at the academy, producing sketches that "always carried a suggestion of morbid sadness." Soutine and Kikoïne met Krémègne at the academy and plotted their future as artists in Paris.
When Soutine and the others arrived, Paris was one of the great cities of the world with a population of almost 3 million, grand boulevards, bustling department stores, elegant restaurants and an underground subway matched only by those of London and New York. The subway—known as the Metro—had drawbacks. The platforms and cars were bare and dreary, the narrow corridors for changing trains were lengthy and, ever since completion in 1900, the Metro emitted a strange metallic and acidic odor. But it was a cheap and fast way for Parisians to make their way through a vast city. Moreover, the Metro's wonderful entrances on the street were designed by the great art nouveau architect Hector Guimard. In the art nouveau style, he lavished the entrances with glass and iron coverings that looked like dragonflies and with giant metallic tendrils that held up lamps. A couple of years before Soutine's arrival, Guimard had completed a synagogue on the rue Pavée in the old Marais neighborhood. The synagogue featured an undulating facade with long slim windows and an interior graced with intricate grillwork and curving lamps. It had been commissioned by a congregation of Russian-born Jews who had emigrated to France decades earlier.
Soutine and the other immigrant artists could not escape the sight of the Eiffel Tower hovering over the Left Bank of the Seine. The tower had been erected more than 20 years earlier for the 1889 world's fair that celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. The tower had no function except to demonstrate the engineering skills of the French, a fact that encouraged a committee of 300 writers, painters, sculptors and architects to try to prevent its construction. In their unheeded letter of protest, they derided the proposed tower as "useless and monstrous." Bitterness simmered after the construction—Guy de Maupassant insisted he often ate in the restaurant within the tower so he could avoid looking at the monstrosity itself—but, by the time Soutine arrived in Paris, the Eiffel Tower, then the tallest man-made structure in the world, had become a symbol of Paris.
Soutine's friends later liked to relate anecdotes about his odd behavior during his first years in Paris. These anecdotes, comic yet painful, reflected mainly on his extreme poverty, worsened by his insistent indifference to how he looked and what others thought of him. A doctor's daughter had begged enough funds from other Jews in Vilna to finance his trip to Paris, but Soutine, unlike Chagall and others who had small stipends from sponsors, had no money at all to spend. He tried odd jobs as a day laborer but was hampered by stomach ulcers that would weaken him his entire life and by his lack of a working knowledge of French.
Soutine was so poor, in fact, that it is doubtful that he ever registered for a studio at La Ruche. Instead, he shared space in the apartments of Kikoïne, Krémègne and others. Later, when Kikoïne married and moved out of La Ruche, his daughter remembered a hungry Soutine bursting into their home and rushing to the kitchen to gorge on leftovers. Soutine marred his appearance by wearing the same paint-smeared jacket at all times.
His impoverished condition was hardly hygienic. Krémègne recalled finding Soutine and Modigliani leaning against the wall of a studio in the Cité Falguière, a neighborhood of cheap artist studios regarded as a step above La Ruche. The studio was shared by Soutine and the Russian sculptor Oscar Miestchaninoff. Soutine and Modigliani were surrounded by a trench that Miestchaninoff had molded out of clay and filled with water. Modigliani was reading Dante, Krémègne said, while Soutine was trying to read a tabloid newspaper. The barrier was supposed to protect them from advancing bedbugs. But it failed. An insect lodged in Soutine's ear and had to be removed by a doctor.
Marevna, describing Soutine in the early years, wrote, "He was not good looking. He had a short neck, high shoulders, and he stooped.... His thatch of coarse, dark hair was cropped like a Russian peasant's, but a fringe came down to his eyebrows and concealed his large protruding ears and low forehead.... He smacked his thick lips when he talked, and flecks of white foam gathered at the corners of his wide mouth." His most attractive feature was "a charming smile, which involved his whole being, drawing one closer to him." But this attractive smile also exposed unhealthy and stained teeth and gums. "His hands," she went on, "were his most striking feature—small, pink and soft as a child's."
On arrival in Paris, Soutine enrolled in the classes of Fernand Cormon in the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Cormon had established a reputation as the teacher of Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and other painters of Montmartre in the late nineteenth century. After trying to interview Soutine, Cormon sent a note to the administration: "Please enroll M. Soutine in the class. He is Russian and does not understand a single word of French."
Whenever Soutine attended a live modeling session in school or at La Ruche, he sat along the wall so no other student could see his work from behind. There is a photograph of Cormon posing in his atelier with two hundred or so students. The shy Soutine is so far back in the last row that his head is barely perceptible. Soutine dropped out of the classes in a few months, deciding he could learn far more by haunting the Louvre.
Soutine's shyness and loneliness were so pronounced in his early Paris years that they became almost clichés. Lunia Czechowska, who sat for some of Modigliani's most striking portraits, said, "Soutine was never really part of the group. He kept himself hidden in a corner, like a frightened animal." Marevna, who bedded Soutine one night, described him as "a poor lover, perhaps because of shyness."
These kinds of anecdotes lessened as Soutine matured and slowly lifted himself out of extreme poverty. We do not know much about how his art progressed because there are no paintings or drawings from his boyhood in czarist Russia or his first years in Paris. The earliest work in his catalogue raisonné is dated 1915. He evidently destroyed his immature efforts.
In one regard, Soutine was not alone in his first years in Paris. He found compatriots all around him, men and women who spoke his native language and shared his heritage. One of the great surprises of La Ruche when Soutine arrived in 1913 was the predominance of Jewish artists from the towns and shtetls of the czarist Russian empire.
At the start of the twentieth century, Boucher, the founder of La Ruche, did not expect that Yiddish-speaking painters and sculptors would contribute much to the contemporary art scene. They never had before. Orthodox Jews, in fact, believed for centuries that the painting or sculpting of realistic life was forbidden by the second commandment's injunction against making "for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth." There were no magnificent works by Jewish Leonardos and Michelangelos in the synagogues of Europe. Although this strict interpretation of the Torah was dying out in the nineteenth century, Soutine, as we noted, was a victim of it in Smilovitchi. Similarly, when Marc Chagall's great-uncle Israel found out that his young relative was drawing pictures of people, he became so agitated and fearful of God's wrath that he dared not shake hands with Chagall.