23 April 2015

Two Soutines for sale have little to say for themselves

by Marc Masurovsky
Chaim Soutine

As the leading auction houses in New York and London prepare for a bonanza in art sales in May 2015, Sotheby’s is proposing two paintings by Chaim Soutine, the “bad boy” of Jewish artists from the School of Paris which was decimated during the Vichy years. one in New York and the other in London.


Soutine chose to stay in France against the advice of his artist and collector friends who urged him to escape. He eventually was forced into hiding with his non-Jewish mistress, Marie-Berthe Aurenche. In the summer and fall of 1940, the New pro-Nazi Order in Vichy had enacted anti-Jewish laws without prompting from the German occupiers. These laws made it very difficult for Soutine to function as it was for all other Jews living in German-occupied France. Soutine had developed a severe stomach ulcer which threatened to pop at any minute. He did not want to go to a local hospital or clinic for fear of being turned in as an “East European Jew” since that is all anyone would think of when treating him. Hiding out in a small village until mid-1943, Soutine’s ulcer finally burst, sending him into a tailspin. In their attempt to reach Paris in the summer of 1943, Soutine and Aurenche took endless detours which brought them into the Nazified French capital in early August 1943. By then, more than 40,000 Jews had already been deported from the Paris region to die at Auschwitz and Majdanek. A trip to Paris that should have taken not more than half a day took two days. Soutine died on an operating table at a Paris clinic on August 9, 1943.

Marie-Berthe Aurenche
Why go through these details? Well, for one, it is to explain that anything that Soutine painted during his period of self-imposed exile from Paris should make one think about how his paintings might have circulated in a market under close watch by Vichy and German censors on the lookout for anything “degenerate” or which did not conform with the new esthetic norms. Soutine definitely fit into the “degenerate” category. There were only two visible outlets for his works in Paris during the German occupation, the Louis Carré Gallery and the Castaing family. Mrs. Castaing was his chief promoter in France while Louis Carré opened its doors in 1941 and specialized in—of all things!—modern art.
Madeleine Castaing, courtesy WSJ

It is known that Soutine had taken umbrage with Mrs. Castaing and Louis Carré and demanded that his works not go to them anymore. This decision, he made at some point during his internal exile with Ms. Aurenche. We also know that his mistress did not necessarily abide by his wishes, especially after his death.

Landscape, oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm, circa 1939.
Landscape, by Chaim Soutine
Sotheby's London.

The published provenance for this work indicates that an Alfred Hecht once owned this “Landscape” in London before giving it the current possessor in 1991.

There are two questions to ask: was this “landscape” sent to Castaing and/or Louis Carré with or without Soutine’s consent? If not, what did Ms. Aurenche do with the painting and how did it go to London?

Alfred Hecht, if this is the same Alfred Hecht as the one in the provenance, officially became an art dealer in the British capital in 1947 before starting a successful art framing business which he is famous for. That tells us nothing about how Mr. Hecht came in the possession of this painting unless he had some access to the Paris art market either through intermediaries in London or through contacts in Paris galleries.
Tête de jeune fille, an oil on canvas, 34.9 x 31.4 cm.
Sotheby's New York
Tete de jeune fille, by Chaim Soutine

There is no date and place of creation. In fact, it is not even included in current catalogues raisonnés of Soutine’s works.

All we know is that Hilda (Bonnie) Weinstein came into possession of this painting in New York in the 1950s.

Using the same logic as with the “Landscape”, we are left with even less to go by. Again, nothing  nefarious here, but we are in the 21st century, Chaim Soutine died in August 1943, his works were an acquired taste especially in the United States, with the exception of Alfred Barnes and dealers like Carroll Carstairs and, to a lesser extent, Frank and Klaus Perls, in New York. So, how difficult is it to find out how this painting left France? And when? If Ms. Weinstein acquired it in the 1950s, from whom? How long had the painting been in the United States? Who were the previous owners in France?

These are some of the typical questions that you should ask at the risk of being a pest. They do not preclude the sales from taking place. In fact, these two Soutine paintings will likely sell and fetch a decent price. But we should ask ourselves why it is that we do not want to learn more about these works of art, in light of the troubled history of the artist and his times.

 We are constantly asked to accept good faith from everyone. That is not to say that these paintings possess a dubious history. However, the absence of a clear provenance and the circumstances surrounding the way in which Soutine paintings were dissipated as of 1939-1940 beg for some introspection and critical scrutiny, now and forever.