Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse
by Stanley Meisler (PC Staff 1964-67)
Reviewed by Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64)
Full disclosure: Stan Meisler is one of the Peace Corps figures I have liked and admired most. As a clueless upstart in the old Peace Corps Program Evaluation Division starting in 1964, I was lucky enough to have had Stan as a co-evaluator on three excursions out to where the real Peace Corps was stumbling along. (A significant subset of people at Washington headquarters thought of the far-flung Volunteers as unglamorous supernumeraries, a kind of mud-stained boys’ and girls’ auxiliary, and the truest soul of the Peace Corps was to be found after work at Chez Francois next door on Connecticut Avenue). Stan and I went once to India together and twice to Ethiopia — both plenty real — to try to figure out how things were going for the Volunteers and for those they were trying to help out.
Even then, at an age almost as tender as mine, Stan was the consummate pro reporter and writer: informed, clear-headed, tenacious in his easy-going way, and unfailingly helpful and generous to an RPCV kid-evaluator. He was also a curious and thoughtful traveling companion, so it comes as no surprise that his latest book is partly an expert-tour-guide amble, not across Addis Ababa this time, but through the cultural and artistic Parisian landscape of the first half of the twentieth century. As such, it’s a pleasure. What’s unexpected is that the final third of the book turns into a highly suspenseful thriller, as the School of Paris painters — nearly all of them Jews born in Eastern Europe — must find ways to survive Hitler. Some make it, some don’t.
The armature around which Stan builds his cultural history is the life of the expressionist painter Chaim Soutine, who — I was astounded to learn — was a first cousin by marriage of Stan’s father. Today Soutine is less well-known in the U.S. than he is in France. There he is now as revered, as he once was chastised and even reviled, for his brash colors, distorted human faces and undulating land- and city-scapes that look like the work of somebody hallucinating. One model wanted to beg off sitting for Soutine because of her abscessed tooth and swollen jaw. Soutine was ecstatic and painted her the way she looked.
Soutine’s sad and morbid take on human existence that came through in his art had to do with his childhood in Belarus, where even in the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were supposedly free to live, anti-Semitism was rife. Even his relatives treated Soutine badly for wanting to pursue a career in something as useless as art.
Soutine and other School of Paris painters — most notably Chagall and Modigliani — were also victims of anti-Semitism at the hands of the French art establishment, which considered them boorish and uncultured outsiders. In Soutine’s case, the boorishness charge was true. He was notoriously wild-eyed and unkempt and spoke terrible French with a Yiddish accent. A great admirer of Rembrandt, Soutine emulated the master by painting beef carcasses. Apparently uncaring about the stench, he kept sides of beef in his Paris studio until the neighbors complained and the police arrived.
Poor and underappreciated in the years before and during World War I, Soutine burst into prominence in 1923 when Dr. Albert Barnes — of the esteemed Philadelphia Barnes collection — arrived in Paris, pronounced Soutine a genius, and made him a star overnight. Even the French began to come around. A show in Philadelphia, however, was ahead of its time. A critic there had plenty of company in declaring Soutine’s work “diseased and degenerate.”
Soutine’s harshest critic was himself. He regularly burned his own work that he regarded as substandard. When a friend mused that a new work of his looked like a Renoir, Soutine had a fit and slashed the canvas to ribbons.
Like Chagall and Modigliani, Soutine survived personal and financial difficulties — turbulent love affairs, poor health, the Great Depression — with the aid of wealthy French benefactors. One was Madeleine Castaing, who, with her husband, rescued Soutine from often self-inflicted disasters on numerous occasions. Remarkably, Stan interviewed Mme. Castaing in 1988 when she was 93. It’s one of the many personal touches he brings to the kind of story that is usually told from a distance. (Stan was Paris bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s. At other times he ran the paper’s bureaus in Africa and Latin America. His most recent book, before this new one, was the valuable and superbly done When the World Calls: the Inside Story of the Peace Corps and its First Fifty Years.)
Not all of the School of Paris painters (the term coined by a critic for the Jewish immigrant expressionists) survived until the rise of Nazi-ism — Modigliani died of lung disease at 35. But those who were still in France at the time of the German Occupation were in great danger. Marc (born Moishe) Chagall was beloved around the world by this time, but that didn’t help him with the Nazis. He barely escaped to Spain, Portugal and then to the U.S. Stan’s portrait of Chagall is of a dapper, self-protective, self-promoting man who wasn’t as adorable as his whimsical paintings of happy couples floating above Russian villages might suggest he was.
While lesser known Jewish artists disappeared into the death camps, Soutine hid out in French villages with the help of rich friends and the German woman who was one of his last lovers. He died, aged 50, following surgery for stomach ulcers, in 1943. Stan’s narrative of the Occupation and what people did to try to survive it is harrowing and heartbreaking.
In his introduction, the normally modest Mr. Meisler quotes a Smithsonian Magazine editor who once complimented him for his ability to write about art “without the usual flapdoodle.”
Well said. Stan does everything I know of without flapdoodle — but with keenness, flair, and with the knack of a terrific storyteller. On the occasion of the publication of his fine new book, I salute him for all that.
Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64, Washington staff 1964-67) is a former editorial writer at The Berkshire Eagle. As a free-lancer, he writes for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and other publications. He writes the Don Strachey private eye series under the name Richard Stevenson. Why Stop at Vengeance?was recently published.