Having read a lot around the artist set in Montmartre in the early 1920-30s, and having heard about the more famous artists at the time, I was keen to see this Soutine exhibition, held at The Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House.
Soutine’s pieces have always catched my eye and I was keen to learn more. Despite it being a small exhibition, it gives a good overview of Soutine’s favourite subject – the new class that serviced the aristocracy – portraits of cooks, bellboys and waiters. His vibrant reds, blues and white uniforms offer a stark contrast with the pale humble faces staring back at us. Really gritty, really raw.
What struck me was the sense of humility, hard work and principle in the faces and postures. The time that they made to sit for Soutine should not go unnoticed either.
Soutine’s work highlights the era’s obvious decadence at the time, and those that delivered the service that enabled the rich to lead the lifestyle they did. These paintings, more than any others of that era, gave me a sense of Paris at the time – a city full of contrasts – rich & poor, good & evil, honest & deceitful. Gritty, dark and relatable.
I loved Soutine’s portraits of the chefs, with the white and blues symbolising honesty, naivety and hardworking. In some of the paintings, particularly the red bell boys, have striking similarities to Francis Bacon – raw, visceral and sometimes shocking. The bell boys in red coats who were at the mercy of the rich, the long hours they must have been forced to do, and the sense of loneliness also came through on more than a few portraits.