22 May 2011

The recycling of Chaim Soutine’s works under Vichy and beyond

In November 1940, Chaim Soutine’s main benefactor, Madeleine Castaing, had introduced him to the former wife of Max Ernst, Marie-Berthe Aurenche, at a café in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  Shortly after he and Aurenche left Paris to find safe refuge in the French countryside, Soutine had offered Castaing one of his paintings which she then refused to purchase. Offended at the idea that his benefactress  would turn him down, Soutine issued a pronunciamento whereby she could never again purchase any future works of his under any circumstance whatsoever. Caprice? Or did he really mean it? Regardless, Madeleine Castaing continued to buy his paintings, albeit through third-parties, including his new girl-friend.

Like all Jews in Vichy France, Chaim Soutine was forced to wear the Yellow Star, something that he had never dreamed would happen to him in his adopted country, France. His status as a foreign-born Jew had also earned him house arrest in Champigny-sur-Veuldre, a small town of the Indre-et-Loire in central France where he had sought refuge.

Suffering for years from an ulcer condition, Soutine’s health worsened to the point where he had to seek medical attention at the risk of being arrested and deported. It did not help matters that he worked ten to twelve hour days. Unable to drive directly to Paris, he and Aurenche took several days to reach the capital where, on August 7, 1943, Soutine’s ulcer burst open. The bad boy of inter-war Expressionism in France, Chaim Soutine, died of a perforated ulcer at an operating table on August 9.  The following day, on August 10, his friends buried him at the Cimetière Montparnasse.

If we examine more closely the wartime ownership trail of Soutine's last paintings—a mix of landscapes, portraits, and still lifes—as always, patterns emerge:
  1. Of the 17 landscapes that he managed to execute under severe stress as a hounded Jew between 1942 and 1943, 8 ended up in “private collections”, one was acquired by Gérard Magistry, one by the Castaing family, two by the Galerie Louis Carré in Paris, one by Alain de Lesché, and one by Marie-Berthe Aurenche.
  2. Of the two Still Lifes in Soutine’s catalogue raisonné which were dated after 1940, Martin Fabiani bought one and the Galerie Louis Carré the other.
  3. Of 6 portraits produced between 1942 and 1943, 4 went to the Castaing family, one to the Galerie Louis Carré, and another into the vortex of a “private collection.”
What’s funny about all of this?

Gérard Magistry is a lawyer and the brother of Madeleine Castaing.

Alain de Lesché [Leché], a viscount and early fan of Soutine’s works, was also a first-class opportunist who dallied with the German occupiers and ended up with a rather tidy number of illegally-acquired works.  His name can be found on numerous Allied lists of art dealers and collectors friendly to the German occupiers.

Martin Fabiani, a legendary merchant in his own right, earned most of his great wealth during the Vichy years,

Marie-Berthe Aurenche, as indicated above, was the third and last girlfriend and/or companion of Soutine’s until his untimely demise. 

The Galerie Louis Carré, which opened its doors in 1938, remained open throughout the entire Vichy era, exhibited countless numbers of abstract painters (French and not Jewish), and, by some miracle or not, continued to do business despite the presence of German cultural hawks and Vichy watchdogs and censors.

The key to this riddle lies in Marie-Berthe Aurenche. Down on her luck, emotionally unstable (ask Max Ernst what he had to go through with her), one could easily argue that she had hit the jackpot with Soutine. Moreover, a powerful and extremely resourceful business woman like Madeleine Castaing made Aurenche into an easy patsy to satisfy her tastes for Soutine’s works. Was that such a bad thing? Well, it might be if the artist was opposed to such transactions.

Needless to say, Soutine died a horrible death.

Shortly thereafter, Aurenche packed up his belongings.  Since she was ‘Aryan,’ no one gave her a hard time. She brought the remainder of his works to Paris and proceeded to sell them.


Did Soutine leave a will?

If not, he died intestate.

Is it true that the girlfriend of a deceased foreign-born Jewish artist inherits his works automatically upon his death in 1943?

According to filial law which is the golden Napoleonic rule of inheritance, girlfriends have no rights.

Hence, how did the remainder of the creative output of Chaim Soutine end up in the clutches of a highly unstable but well-connected non-Jewish mistress? Those who benefited directly from this windfall were…. Madeleine Castaing, the Galerie Louis Carré, and Marie-Berthe Aurenche.

Case closed.

Postscript: When next you go to Paris, do visit the Cimetière Montparnasse.  After you enter through the main gate on Boulevard Edgar Quinet, turn right, go to the end of the alley, turn left.  Count to 10.  Look to your right next to some bushes. You will see a substantial, dark-grey, moss-covered tombstone with Marie-Berthe Aurenche's name on it.  On top of it, on a tiny square piece of white marble are etched the name of Chaim Soutine, his year of birth and year of death.  Fitting tribute for one of France's greatest artist of the 20th century?  I don't think so.

Tombstone of Chaim Soutine in Cimetière Montparnasse
Source: Find A Grave

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