Ugly Contorted Portraits At The Courtauld Gallery

Soutine Portraits, The Courtauld Gallery ★☆☆☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 58 months ago

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Ugly Contorted Portraits At The Courtauld Gallery Soutine Portraits, The Courtauld Gallery 1
A rubbery limbed bellboy entering an extreme manspreading competition. Copyright Centre Pompidou, Paris.

A bellboy with downcast asymmetrical eyes, faces off with us, legs going for an extreme manspread. His clothes are too loose, making his arms look all rubbery.

A cook, who looks too young to be working in the kitchen. His eyes looks down — as if embarrassed to meet our gaze — and our eyes are drawn to his immense elephantine ears.

These strange and unconventional portraits are by Chaim Soutine, a painter who followed on from the Impressionists and started taking their style more towards the abstract.

These paintings are rather frustrating due to its mismatches between the face and body of his subjects — the bellboy's stance of hands on hip and legs apart belies a confidence that just isn't visible in his timid face. This inconsistency is across many of the portraits here and it makes them impenetrable for the viewer.

One of the few portraits of women in this exhibition. Copyright Ben Uri Gallery.

It's largely men in this exhibition but the few women in the paintings here don't have this lack of consistency and are generally painted as demure and downtrodden. This leaves these paintings looking unspectacular and rather dull.

Soutine's loose painting style is at best an acquired taste that we found to be ugly and ineffective. It isn't refined enough to capture a good likeness, and it's not abstract enough to give a loose sense of the person he painted — the pictures are caught in the middle.

A head waiter in an unnatural pose.

A raw, confrontational and 'ugly' style of portraiture can work and we've seen examples of this at The Courtauld Gallery in the past with the Egon Schiele exhibition, but Soutine's portraits aren't bold enough to pull this off. The portraits just don't seem to know what they're trying to convey.

Other critics are falling over each other to praise this show, but Soutine's portraits had the opposite effect on us and we could quite happily go through our lives without seeing one of these unsightly monstrosities again.

The pastry cook. Copyright The Lewis Collection.

Luckily if you go down one floor to the Courtauld's permanent collection, there's a chance to see what brilliant portraiture looks like and it's the perfect antidote to Soutine's eyesores.

Soutine's Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys is on at The Courtauld Gallery until 21 January. Tickets are £10.50 for adults and include entrance to the permanent collection.

Last Updated 24 October 2017