Expressionism in Conversation: The Barnes Foundation is Presenting ‘Soutine / de Kooning’ in Exhibition

Above image, Chaïm Soutine, French, b. Russia (1893 – 1943), View of the Village, c. 1921, Oil on canvas, 28 5/8 x 39 in. (72.8 x 99 cm), Private collection, Artwork © 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS). New York, Photo © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images 

When the Barnes Foundation got a shiny new Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects building in 2012, it decisively elevated its place in the cultural hierarchy of not just Philadelphia, but the entirety of American museums. And a much-anticipated upcoming exhibition only proves again that it will continue to challenge itself with thought provoking conceptions.

And indeed, Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint (on view March 7 – August 8) puts the two monumental yet still arguably under-appreciated 20th Century artists in dialogue with one another, via forty-five paintings meant to exhibit both the fierce individuality of each, but also the Expressionist thread that connects them. The works are sourced from the Barnes’ own collection, as well as several American and European museums.

Both artists – Chaïm Soutine was born in Belarus in 1893, Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam in 1904 – came into their own at a time when the Western art world was electrified by radical new challenges to the established hierarchy. But although that electricity was emitting from fairly defined “movements” – the experimentalism of Cubism, the provocational intent of dada, the high-conceptualizing of Surrealism – Soutine and de Kooning stood out for very much avoiding the trappings of art “isms.” Though eventually, of course, the latter’s influence would see a movement, Abstract Expressionism, veritably build up around him.

Soutine had actually been totally unknown when in 1922 he was enthusiastically discovered by Albert C. Barnes, the businessman and prominent art collector who is the museums’s namesake. And de Kooning didn’t actually come fully into his own stylistically until a solo exhibition at New York’s Charles Egan Gallery in 1948 – which contained the seeds of the Abstract Expressionist boom of the 1950s.

The show is co-curated by Simonetta Fraquelli, who has worked with the Kunsthaus Zurich, the Tate Liverpool and Schirn Frankfurt, and Claire Bernardi, chief curator of paintings at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay. We reached the former in Milan for a transcontinental conversation on the ideas and concepts behind Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint.

Willem de Kooning
American, b. Netherlands (1904 – 1997)
Woman II, 1952
Oil on canvas, 59 × 43 in. (149.9 × 109.3 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Blanchette Hooker
Rockefeller, 1955
Artwork © 2021 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights
Society (ARS), New York
Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource,

Soutine moved from the Russian Empire to Paris in 1913, and de Kooning moved from Rotterdam to New York in 1926 – both were around the same age at the time of their moves. How crucial was their emigration to the development of their styles?

I would say that both really came into their own in these new cities. Of course, Paris was the great mecca for all artists in the first decades of the 20th Century, and there Soutine came into contact with many other artists. He was able to see things that were not available to him in Russia, and he developed in that context. 

de Kooning could have gone to Paris, but he chose to go to New York, and was exposed to different methods of expression. Not to say that either of them forgot where they came from – but these new cities really shaped who they became. 

And de Kooning went on to help define a very sort of New York style, Abstract Expressionism. 

He became very much an American artist, yes – and defined a whole new way of expressing oneself, predicated on being in America. 

Albert Barnes actually played a really key role in…well, Soutine wasn’t really known before Barnes started championing his career, right?

Yeah, I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t known anywhere. He was part of a coterie of artists in Paris, he had a dealer – but he was still an unknown when Barnes discovered him in 1922 and acquired several of his works. It changed his fortunes both in France and in America.

So Soutine was popular in America as well?

Well, Barnes showed Soutine from 1923 on, and he was included in several shows in the ’20s and ’30s. 

Thinking about the art that was happening at that time, dada, Cubism, Surrealism were all very high concept. But Soutine and de Kooning both made what was much more emotional work, didn’t they?

What Soutine and de Kooning shared is that they didn’t bow down to any isms. de Kooning identified with Abstract Expressionism, but he was absolutely his own man. And in the same way Soutine was totally conscious of being part of everything that was going on, but was very much doing his own thing. Surrealism, Cubism and dada were really alien to him. 

What unites them was their capacity to remain really very individualistic in their approach. And yes, they both very much put their emotions into their art, which is what gives them that affinity.   

Willem de Kooning; (1943-1946); Oil and charcoal on fiberboard; 46 1/8 x 27 5/8 in. (117 x 70 cm); Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966

Do you think they were viscerally affected by the aftermath of WWI?

I don’t think it had much effect on de Kooning, he was much younger. Soutine was actually present in Paris during WWI, and in many ways his art embodied that horror and tumultuousness. You have to remember, you had all these foreign artists sitting there in Paris…Picasso, Modigliani. But they would not have been so effected as some of the French artists who actually went to the front, like Leger.

In the years during WWII, de Kooning was in New York, and a lot of artists in America were certainly questioning what was happening in Europe. 

De Kooning openly declared his admiration for Soutine. Does this exhibition attempt to explicate their unique sort of creative kinship?

Putting it together, I could clearly see a visual affinity between the two, and a kind of energy that I thought would work very well in the context of an exhibition. There was something about the way de Kooning was working that does seem to look back to Soutine. When you see the paintings together, they do in a way speak to each other.

Both of these artists were responding to the times they were living in, and the places they were living in. Soutine was very aware of his position in the Parisian art world. And de Kooning was interested in advertising and TV…and was also just interested in reflecting [what was happening in] New York. 

Did you discover anything new about either?

Looking at Soutine’s paintings, I was even more astounded at the way he was able to use color. And the same could be said for de Kooning, I think they were both great colorists. 

What do you consider to be the legacy of each, in regards to their continuing influence on contemporary art?

For many years there was a move away from painting. But I think there’s been a revival in the last few years – and I think these two are very much painters who other painters admire. I’m thinking of Cecily Brown, Jenny Saville. Certainly with Soutine, there’s been an incredible revival of interest in his work. And de Kooning is definitely influencing younger artists.

What would you hope that people will take away from this exhibition?

That art is not born in a vacuum – that things relate to each other, even from Europe to America. That continuum was something that de Kooning himself wrote about, this sense of artists being able to look back in order to go forward. And there’s always the joy of bringing works together – when you see them side by side they have a very different impact, and we hope to create this dialogue. 

The Little Pastry Chef. Oil on canvas, 72 x 44 cm. RF1963-98. Photo: Thierry Le Mage.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XIII, 1975
Oil on canvas, 871⁄4 × 77 in. (221.6 × 195.6 cm)
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. Katharine Ordway Collection
Image © Yale University Art Gallery, 2010

Chaïm Soutine, Woman Wading, 1931
Oil on canvas, 443⁄4 × 281⁄4 in. (113.6 × 71.8 cm) Museum of Avant-Garde Mastery
© 2021 Artist Rights Society (ARS) New York
Image © 2014 Christie’s Images Limited

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