Two Expressionists, Three Chickens

Here are two paintings of dead chickens on white cloths by two Expressionists, one French, the other German, both Jewish.

I keep going back and forth between these two images, trying to decide which one is bolder, more subversive, more beautiful on its own strident terms.  Chaim Soutine's eviscerated bird carcasses in Two Chickens on a White Cloth is certainly more formally daring than Ludwig Meidner's Still Life with Cock, in part because its center of gravity seems off. The image gives the impression of being sort of slopped across the canvas; the white cloth is off-center in a way that feels not quite on purpose (though no doubt is), and while the light quality reads as thoroughly flat, the tangles of darkness on the upper and left sides of the canvas imply shadows that don't quite make sense.

Chaim Soutine, Two Chickens on a White Cloth (1924/25)
The more I've studied Soutine's work, the more I've come to appreciate his weird black humor. Shot through all that excessive, existentially anguised gore, through all that death, is a frankly cartoonish exhuberance—it's in Soutine's brushwork, his color choices, and the maniacal energy that surges through his lines. These things contribute to the sense of vitality that inhabits the carcasses of most of his still lifes. Soutine's animals might be dead, but they're still kicking.

(An earlier post on two of Soutine's beef carcasses can be found here.)

Ludwig Meidner, Still Life with Cock (1966)
Ludwig Meidner's bird, on the other hand, doesn't look like it's going anywhere soon. Instead, this carcass seems at peace with death. I think this has something to do with Meidner's cool palette (especially those ice-green feet!). But how impotent this image would be if the bird's comb and its whole bottom region weren't set aflame with luminous reds and yellows.

Although on the whole Meidner's work—according to these images—is nearly as violent and dystopian as Soutine's, this particular painting is gently impressionistic. I wonder how much of this spirit of relative peacefulness—especially considering the subject matter, which is not so much a chicken as it is mortality—has to do with the fact that Meidner made this painting at the very end of his life? (He died, at 82, in May 1966; the painting is given the date of 1966 by the Judisches Museum website). Still, the Expressionist in Meidner left his calling card in the bird's white, unsettling blob of a face. 

Things I'd like to know: Did Meidner base his painting on Soutine's much earlier one? If not, what is it about dead chickens on white cloths that drew both artists to them as a subject? And if so, what was Meidner responding to in Soutine's painting that called forth such an uncharacteristically soft, even tender approach in his own painting? 

An interesting article about Meidner, "The Economics of Obscurity," by Robert Bunkin, is up on a blog called marginalmatters. And for those with an insatiable taste for chicken carcasses, a very ugly Soutine painting (imho) called Chicken Hanging in Front of a Brick Wall can be found here.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Kim!

    I've been enjoying your blog and really liked your story 'My Thoughts on Pate'.

    I wanted to add to the chickens conversation with this: http://glitterinthesidewalk.blogspot.com/search/label/Chickens

    Also, you might enjoy my fantasy about cheese in this fall's Gastronomica (http://www.gastronomica.org/issues1004.html).

    Now, what else about these past 20 years...?

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  2. Adrienne! That's too weird. Ok, excuse my facebook moment, but, Adrienne! We obviously need to continue this conversation in a different context... I love your blog, and as for the chickens, your photos—the whole lot of them—add up to something as disturbing and strangely humorous as Soutine's. I'll look for your gastronomica article...hopefully will find an issue at my local bookstore. and in the meantime, what ABOUT those 20 years?

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