A visit to an artist’s studio

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How many times we’ve ended becalmed among the roads across the fens, that all look the same, straight as parallel rifle shots on the map but rising and falling like sea-swells when you are on them. This time we arrive without getting lost but don’t recognise the car parked by the outbuilding that used to be our friend’s studio. I want to read something into the colours of these cars, the old mustard-coloured Mercedes, or now a sleeker one in grey-blue, as if they’d been chosen like the colours in her paintings.

I had been looking forward to seeing Bette Spektorov’s paintings in a big exhibition in Cambridge in 2017.  Then she called it off.  So the only way to see the work of this artist, now in her eighties and unwilling, or in some way unable to show, was to visit her studio, which is why on that weekend in October my wife and I were back again in the Lincolnshire fens where Spektorov has lived for forty years.

What I had not expected was that, though welcoming and ready to talk about the paintings on the walls of the rambling old vicarage, she was not willing or perhaps able to go into the studio where the rest of her paintings were collected.  It was as if an iron door had come down, she said: she couldn’t go with me, and I was on my own, without a guide.

There were paintings everywhere, frozen in place like the inhabitants of the castle where a spell has fallen, stacked on chairs and against the walls, obstructed by easels and little tables loaded with tubes of paint, while underfoot, sticks of pastel were being ground into the concrete. I could see a few paintings mounted on the walls, but I couldn’t get to them over the piles that blocked the way.

Through the most distressing circumstances I was prevented from finding out anything about the paintings except what I could see: their intentions, their sequence, even their names–all were now hidden.  Thrown off stride by what I didn’t know, I didn’t notice for the longest time what a wonderfully phantasmagoric way this would be of seeing the painter’s whole life as an artist unfolding before me at once.

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I started in the furthest corner of the space—was it a desire for at least a hint of method, or desperation in the face of confusion? The big picture I fixed on was like an explosion, a rich burst of colour that was at the same time shattered by strong vertical lines which broke the surface into five divisions, like a recall of the old idea of the triptych that made one thing out of three separate parts. Here motifs were repeated from one section to the next, like characters who reappear in successive scenes, but they bumped against each other and both of them were cropped. The divisions didn’t occur logically but interrupted what was taking place, as if parts of the intended scene had been swallowed up, as by a curtain hanging in folds that took no thought of what parts of the design might be lost.

This was a functional explanation of the feeling of compression you got from the picture, which seemed to show you only a fraction of what it had to say. Here I first wondered if Kandinsky weren’t just as strong an influence as the artist’s favourite painter Matisse. Kandinsky’s work of 1909-13 provided close parallels to all the swirling tale-material that had been set loose by the initial explosion which put this picture in motion.

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Next to it was one superficially similar—divided by vertical lines—but not actually much like it at all. Here the red lines traced through blue made weaker divisions and resembled plant-stems, which undercut the force of separation.

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This one is part of a series that teaches me what blue means to this artist. It is something you sink into and are enveloped by, a colour for submitting to, and I found that the longer I looked the more compelling this trellis of flower-forms became, full of slippages and elements being swallowed up.

4 DSC03725.jpgThe next blue picture is one it’s hard to get an unobstructed view of, one which looked much bluer to the eye than it did to the camera, one that has a bouquet at the centre like one of the onion-domed towers in Kandinsky’s canvases of 1910, architecture not flowers, from a Symbolist fairy tale. A duskiness in the blue, not visible to the camera, plays a big part in making this an unfathomable picture. As I stare, it turns from an orchard into a hierarchical grouping of three divinities in ascending form. There’s a ritualised order hiding here: pattern has become a spiritual fact, and an icon has materialised out of flower-shapes.

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I turn for relief from the sequence of powerful blue pictures to a small one on an ochre ground with bold forms like Japanese characters, or just as much the forms of plants as calligraphy. This one is drastically pared down, with bold shapes and only four colours. The yellow which seems a brightening in the ochre, and a subtlety in the overarching starkness, isn’t really there, but only a reflection on the glass.

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Among a jumble on the floor is one where Matisse’s parentage is most obvious, a picture made of pictures, a languorously sloping armchair in one, lemons in another. This is a canvas you would certainly include if you were doing a complete anatomy of all of this artist’s types and stages. It interests me now for another reason, because of what is peeking out from behind it, which I didn’t pay attention to then, but only later, like a clue in a detective story that no one sees the first time around. It’s a painting that will matter later but is only a sliver now.

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Instead, I’m diverted in another direction, toward a blizzard of dots, seen very slantwise.  It caught my eye by its raucousness, but when you looked harder, it wasn’t just a blizzard of dots but a tree in blossom radiating streamers of dots which formed an aura, while a fractured section to the right was like a picture of the pile-up in the studio. When this painting was fully extracted, the pile-up loomed less large. When it was seen head-on, the picture’s proportions changed. I was altogether disconcerted by how pictures changed with the time of day or what they happened to sit next to. Kenneth Clark said hanging pictures was his favourite activity, in which you are always finding things in them which weren’t visible before.

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My next discoveries were favourites of mine that Spektorov didn’t seem to have much time for. I saw them both standing on end, where it was easy to guess the right orientation with one of them, not so obvious with the other, one of the excitements of the visit, testing pictures in different orientations. I remembered that Kandinsky was given a crucial push toward abstraction by seeing a painting upside down in his studio.

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The first of the discoveries was a Biblical scene or a tense moment in an opera, in which a bearded man waves a sword over a baby dangling from his other hand. I had finally stumbled on a narrative, in rapid, careless, confident strokes, a kind of cartoon of a serious subject. I had to disentangle it from a hysterical princess in pastel who looked vaguely familiar (something by Vrubel?) for a reason I would later discover. When I mentioned the narrative subject to the artist (I still hadn’t worked out whether it was classical or Biblical) she said ‘it must be one of my Poussins’. So I looked it up and only then realised that one of the main characters was missing and would have filled the big purple void on the left, King Solomon and his throne. But perhaps he wouldn’t, for Spektorov has pared down and focused the story.

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The other discovery was a more like a wild Kandinsky when seen on its side than when it was right side up, with a mêlée of forms and a big patch of khaki-chartreuse. Both these paintings had introduced a new set of colours that I looked around for more of.

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I often circled back and paged through stacks I hadn’t got to the bottom of before. Now something made me pull out a big picture buried deep in a pile, where I’d caught a glimpse of unfamiliar colours and big blurry forms. In fact, it wasn’t until the next day that I got a really good look at it, an occasion when my wife and Bette broke the taboo and came too. I loved the rich and dusky colours that didn’t bear down or weigh on you, the combination of looseness and density, the way forms seemed about to solidify, hinting briefly at large figures or truncated cones in a monumental landscape, then dispersed again. Even the heaviest elements seem to float, full of possibility, and little is fixed. Here for once the title is scrawled on the back, and fits with the idea of loosening one’s hold—‘Come what may’.

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The picture with a name formed a satisfying conclusion to a memorable visit to the studio, but the paintings seem doomed to remain lost in the fens. What will become of them? In her frustration the artist even talks of throwing them onto a bonfire.  A friend who is an unusually sensitive photographer has offered to help archive them, which would be a first step toward getting them shown in the kind of sympathetic setting that they richly deserve.

Bette Spektorov’s work is important for its instinctive rapport with colour as a way of being in the world, and for setting an example of throwing oneself fearlessly into the visible world in its fullest, most saturated intensity.  Her exuberant mêlée of forms depicts a world constantly breaking down and re-forming in fresh shapes, drawing impartially on plant structures, fabric patterns or key moments in the history of art, and blurring old boundaries between the world and the self.

 

Soutine and suffering

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Soutine is a neglected outlier in 20th century art, for reasons all too obvious. He constantly disturbs the calm and balance of his subjects, and does this so relentlessly that at first he seems wilful and arbitrary. Even in still lives the furniture teeters and threatens to fall, and if the vegetables don’t slide off the table, one wonders what keeps them in place. In Soutine there are no apples or pears, reliable geometrical solids, but gnarled peppers and ageing tomatoes which are losing their shape. The plates that hold them wobble, their edges indescribably vagrant.

Much worse is to come. Soutine delights in the corpses of small animals, small enough to fit on a table. There is something unseemly about bringing them into domestic settings, food perhaps, but not quite ready for the table, like the eviscerated rabbit in the Barnes collection whose posture reminds us of a human infant warding off a blow.

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Another still life at the Barnes contains Soutine’s most involuted reference to animal suffering at the table. This is one of his most deliberately awkward pictures and includes several nearly indecipherable objects—a stiff smoked herring propped against the wall or hanging from a rope and held in place by a long-handled wooden spoon (participant in many Soutine still lives), a lumpy, twisted turquoise form that might be a kind of pitcher judging by its top, which has a lip for pouring.

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But to interpret this strange form you really need to know another Soutine of a goose with a broken neck. Then it dawns on you that the turquoise monstrosity is shown upside down, with its pedestal in the air and its top dangling below, a duck’s head with open beak held onto its body by a thread, like the doubled-over goose’s head still attached to its body by its windpipe. The Barnes still life is a picture that gets grislier the more recognisable it becomes. Its most unrecognisable bit (just to the left of the upside down duck) is the misshapen form standing up in what looks like a bread basket. Is it a primitive carving of a dwarf figure, or a twisted ginger root, or a broken fragment of bread? Is there another Soutine somewhere that shows the same object from another angle and clears up the mystery? It’s only the duck that makes us think this might be the case. Or is the contorted figure a traveler in the basket-boat which is moving out of the picture?

Soutine’s magic springs from his visceral involvement in paint, deeper than almost anyone’s but largely missing from the Barnes still life, which was only able to help us (if it did) understand something about his attitudes toward his subjects. That is a kind of instruction, but the Soutine who wins allegiance revels in paint, and the rapture that this produces silences our misgivings at the idea (for instance) of an animal brought to the table with its fur intact in order to be attacked with forks, which hold it firmly in place.

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Colours change or coruscate unpredictably, a ceaseless pulsation of life, a nature morte that is defiantly alive. The table-top comes near to matching the shape of the picture space, only slipping downward to show that there is motion after all in the motionless subject. To describe every sensation of motion in the tablecloth would take a long time. The most surprising is the wave motion of the scalloped and re-scalloped edge, which flirts with the lifeless horizontal of the bottom of the canvas.

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His involvement in paint sweeps all before it in a picture like Two Pheasants on a Table, the ultimate topsy-turvy of dead objects, where anguish and pathos are submerged or concealed in giddy sensations of motion, of the spinning and teetering table, of the flailing limbs and speaking facial expressions of the birds. As often, the colours are inappropriately and almost unbearably beautiful, blue on their backs, red on their mouths, cream on the shroud and green and ochre on the wall behind. Blurring in the forms and surroundings seems to describe our unwillingness to look straight at what lies in front of us. In this whole series of images of  animals prone and animals hanging, strung up by their necks or their heels, Soutine diminishes his subject, the death (often in conditions like torture) of creatures, by choosing animals smaller than us and canvases smaller than those favoured by most of his contemporaries. This has an untoward effect, of slipping profound material past us before we realise what is happening.

Soutine once made what seems a crucial confession. He recounted an occasion in childhood (was he 8? or 10?) when he watched a butcher wring the neck of a goose. At the moment of death he had a powerful desire to scream, and at that moment the butcher looked at him and smiled, and the cry was stifled in his throat. Soutine said that all his paintings of dead animals and cuts of meat were attempts to release that strangled cry.

So in some sense many of the paintings are repetitions of a single experience. And of course much more than that, meditations on the universal facts of death and dissolution and the local experience of cruelty.

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b3 16a 20 DSC00717 copy 2.jpgMost harrowing of all the variations on these themes are a series of dangling victims strung up in the throes of death or its bedraggled aftermath. One of the chickens uncannily resembles a familiar form of ample female nude met in Hellenistic sculpture. This one also appears to crane eagerly upward via a grotesquely elongated neck, at odds with the tranquillity of the torso beneath.

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A whole series of grotesque possibilities are explored in this series. One loaded to excess with bitter ironies appears to dance, set off against a background in two shades of blue reminiscent of fabric patterns found in Cezanne and Matisse. Soutine delivers some of his sharpest shocks from within the world of painting. They are normally comforting colours but in this setting leave you with nowhere to turn, fooled by a background into letting down your guard in front of a horror, which combines an eighteenth-century minuet (in the crook of arm, wrist and ankle) with a bloody corpse (in the virulent colours of the body).

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Others are less grotesque and more surreal, like a scene from Frankenstein’s laboratory, where a stream of ghostly bubbles escapes from the tormented body caught perhaps in the final spasm of death. The feet are dematerialised, on the way to becoming fog or smoke, and eerily beautiful. Mysterious activity goes forward, the neck caught between a threatening and mesmeric piece of machinery and a black ruff of feathers left behind in  plucking the bird. It summons up Kafka’s Penal Colony, a world which writes obscure messages on its creatures. In other paintings victims are dangled head first–a rabbit stiff like the subject of a lynching, and another turkey spread eagled on an ornate chair until its head almost touches the floor. This unlikely moment gives rise to some of Soutine’s most exuberantly Baroque handling.

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Soutine first forced himself on my notice on a visit to one of the world’s great museums,  a day full of frustration.  I was turning away from Picasso’s Three Dancers which had disappointed me by its coldness and distance, by its excessive size for what it was trying to say, and I noticed a small picture facing the Picasso that wasn’t ashamed of its paint, letting it run wild across its modest surface. It was a landscape by Soutine, and I rushed toward it, captivated by its love of paint. Not that it was just a painting about paint, without any other discernable subject, but that its meaning couldn’t be separated from its material presence. It wasn’t mainly propounding an idea or proposition. It seemed nearer to living, breathing experience than the more conceptual work on every side and I was grateful to it for having appeared at just that moment.

‘Chaim Soutine: Flesh’, an exhibition of 30+ paintings at the Jewish Museum, 5th Avenue at 92nd Street, New York, until 16 September, including all but one of those illustrated here.