“My paintings are a heap of shit, but better than Modigliani, Marc Chagall, and Kremegne. Some day I will destroy my canvases but (I am) too cowardly to do it.” — Chaim Soutine
SMILOVICHI, Belarus — Bloody carcasses, dead chickens, ghoulish faces…. Even today, having been desensitized by artists like Damien Hirst and other exponents of creepy images, we may wince at the sight of a flayed beef carcass painted with a brutal honesty by Chaim Soutine. At the same time, these works are capable of casting a spell over the viewer; we feel entranced, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the artist’s powerful vision.
Notwithstanding the morbid subject matter, Soutine’s paintings command staggering prices at auctions. In May of 2015, at Christie’s auction house, “Le Bœuf,” (circa 1923) achieved a record price for the artist — $28,165,000.
This fall, I traveled to Soutine’s birthplace — the village of Smilovichi (Belarusian: Smilavichi), located about 20 miles south of Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to pay homage to one of the most original artists of the School of Paris that briefly flourished before World War I.
The morning was grey and rainy. My fellow travellers included a married couple, Alexander Shibniov and Irina Moigis, both artists, and Nadezhda Usova, a curator from the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus. As we drove on, Irina shared a fascinating memory of her father, a native of Smilovichi.
“When I told my dad that I wanted to be an artist, he cautioned me saying, ‘They are all poor. There was an artist in our village, he was a son of a tailor, and the family was so poor, so poor…. One day he left and nobody knew what happened to him.’ It was much later that I realized who he was talking about.”
At the beginning of the 20th century Smilovichi, or Smilovitz according to the Jewish tradition, was home to a mutli-ethnic community which included Jews, Belarusians, Poles, Russians, and Tatars. Although different in their religion and culture, they cohabitated peacefully, as was typical of small settlements where everybody knew everybody. Western provinces of the vast Russian Empire were largely spared the horrors of violent anti-Jewish outbursts known as porgroms, which were the scourge of southwestern and southern provinces. A magnificent twin-towered Polish kościół and a Russian Orthodox church graced the market square then; while the latter has been recently rebuilt, only a leveled ground remains on the spot where the kościół once stood.
The Jewish population, however, prevailed. According to the 1897 census, out of 3,133 residents, 2,094 were Jews. The village had five Jewish prayer houses. Most of the residents were artisans who sold their fare in Minsk. Salomon Soutine, the father of the future artist, was one of them. He worked hard to provide for his family — a wife and 11 children; Chaim was number 10.
Despite the devastation brought by the Revolution, World War II and years of the Soviet regime that tried to eliminate all signs of the past, Smilovichi has miraculously preserved some vestiges from the days when young Chaim walked its unpaved streets. An overgrown old park and a derelict manor house, the seat of the prominent Moniuszko family, which Soutine once painted, are still there, although the manor is being renovated by a new owner and may be seen only from afar.
Following the advice of the locals, we strolled down a quaint old street lined with wooden houses dating back, if not to Soutine’s era, at least to the early 1920s.
“You’ve come to see where the artist lived?” an ancient-looking man greeted us as we clicked our cameras. He could not remember the name of the artist, but he knew why tourists were flocking to his neighborhood.
However, the most memorable sight of all was an old Jewish cemetery. It is nothing short of a miracle that it survived; very few of them still exist, defying numerous trials and tribulations of the past century. As we were driving towards the location, we saw nothing but a vast field overgrown with tall dry stalks of prairie grass. It was only when we walked into the field that we literally stumbled upon graves barely visible among the vegetation. As if on cue, the sun burst through the heavy curtain of clouds and revealed to us the hidden necropolis. Standing among these stone gravestones covered with elaborate Hebrew inscriptions, I was thinking of Soutine’s paintings in which life and death are intertwined — mysterious, macabre and beautiful at the same time.
Smilovichi cherishes the memory of its famous son. In 2008, a museum titled “Space of Chaim Soutine” opened in the building of a former boarding school; my friend Nadezhda Usova was one of the co-founders. Today it features high-quality copies of Soutine’s paintings as well as photographs, documents and artifacts from the early 20th century. Until 2012 there were no Soutine works in his native country. Today, the National Art Museum of the — “Eva,” on loan from Belgazprombank, a commercial bank that bought this canvas at the Christie’s in 2013 for $1,805,000. This work is known as “the most expensive painting in Belarus.”
We were greeted by the Museum Director Svetlana Khasenevich; having fortified ourselves with coffee, we proceeded to tour the facility.
An ancient Torah that once must have been a proud possession of a wealthy family or a synagogue is prominently displayed in the glass showcase. It was badly damaged and, therefore, rendered unusable for the prayer, but the beauty of its calligraphy is undiminished.
Two letters written in Yiddish caught my eye. Soutine’s sister was asking her brother artist for help.
“My dear brother,” one of them read, “I am destitute and you are my only hope….”
The letters was dated 1932 and 1938. Apparently, Soutine, who by then had achieved recognition and financial success, regularly sent money to his starving family in Soviet Russia and stayed informed about their life.
This connection ended with the onset of World War II. After France surrendered, the artist had to leave Paris and hide in order to avoid arrest by the Gestapo. On Aug. 9, 1943, he died of a perforated ulcer. He probably never learned that his relatives managed to escape from Smilovichi before the Nazi occupation, but many of their neighbors did not. In October of 1941, the entire Jewish population of the village — 2,000 people — were executed and buried in a mass grave. Today a memorial stela marks the spot of this tragic event.
One of the museum galleries is dedicated to another famous artist born and raised in Smilovichi — Faibich Schraga (Sam) Zarfin, Soutine’s younger contemporary. It is believed that little Schraga used to watch Chaim painting and was encouraged by his example. They met again in Paris in the 1920s and stayed in touch for several years.
Recently the Zarfin family donated to the museum a number of the artist’s textile designs along with contemporary cloth samples based on these drawings. Luminous and colorful, they resemble Zarfin’s paintings which often shimmer like stained glass windows.
However, the museum occupies only a small portion of the spacious former boarding school. The rest of the facility is taken by the studios of the Creative Center for Children and Youth. It was Saturday and the place was buzzing with activity with kids making all sorts of artwork under the tutelage of their teachers. What a contrast to the bleak childhood of Soutine who was severely beaten for his creative exploits by his neighbors, orthodox Jews, who considered any graven image a blasphemy.
It seems symbolic that the Creative Center is facing a red-brick building of a former Jewish school. Over a hundred years ago, a Jewish teenager left Smilovichi, with its old-fashioned lifestyle, to pursue his dream and achieved greatness. Maybe a bright-eyed kid whom I saw working on a collage, a painting or a sculpture one day will amaze us with a vision as extraordinary as that of his famous countryman.
Our visit to Smilovichi culminated with a exciting event — installation of a sculpture by a contemporary artist Pavel Voynitsky. Titled “Beehive” and assembled from discarded wooden beehives, it evokes the image of the famous La Ruche in Paris, a phalanstery that housed poor artists, many of them from Russia, including Soutine. We all helped to ensure that the new work stood safe and secure on the lawn in front of the Museum to pique curiosity of both visitors and young artists who may feel inspired to seek nontraditional ways to express their creative impulses.
To read more about “Space of Chaim Soutine” in Smilovichi visit www.soutine-smilovichi.by.
The Museum of Fine Arts Houston has two paintings by Soutine, “Young Girl with a Doll” (1926–1927) and “The Chicken” (c. 1926).
Story by Elena Ivanova, ISSUE contributor