The story of immigrant artists who were celebrated as the School of Paris.
Histories of bohemian Paris usually feature Matisse, Picasso and their circle. Former Los Angeles Times diplomatic correspondent Meisler (When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years, 2011, etc.) takes a fresh view by highlighting three artistic iconoclasts who happened to be Jewish immigrants: Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and, the author’s central focus, Chaim Soutine (1893-1943). Critic André Warnod publicized them as the School of Paris, talented foreigners who emigrated, he said, with “hardly anything else in their baggage but the will to enrich their art with what they find among us.” Meisler found considerable material to document the lives and works of Modigliani and Chagall, but Soutine proved elusive. With no letters, memoirs or personal notes to draw upon, the author still puts together a vivid portrait of a difficult, irascible man, markedly unlike the gregarious Chagall or suave Modigliani. Unattractive and noticeably unkempt, Soutine’s emotional temperament emerged in his work: A predominant trait “was the thickness of the paint with its dynamic swirls, bolstering the belief that the artist must have attacked the canvas in some kind of frenzy.” When a painting failed to meet his expectations, he violently slashed it. Meisler finds recurring instances of Soutine’s “paralytic shyness, his foolish naiveté, his volatile anger and his sometimes-cursed relations with those who wanted to embrace him.” Among those were a wealthy patron, Madeleine Castaing, whom Meisler interviewed; and Albert Barnes, the eccentric collector who discovered Soutine during an early buying trip. Soutine’s works, Barnes exclaimed, “were a surprise, if not a shock….I felt he was making creative use of certain traits of the work of Bosch, Tintoretto, Van Gogh, Daumier and Cézanne, and was getting new effects with color.”
Meisler throws new light on Soutine and, more broadly, on the experiences of aspiring immigrant artists in the city that fostered their dreams.