An Occasional Celebration of Sea Life & The Natural World in Art
I’ve never been a great fan of the painter’s go-to nomenclature; the ‘still life’. It’s been something of a catch-all for a great disparity of imagery throughout the history of art. It seems art must be tidily shuffled into the drawers of still life, landscape, portrait and figure painting. I like a painting to breathe. Still life is the antithesis to living. And, so it is, that Chaim Soutine’s ‘Still Life With Herring’, is anything but still.
I wasn’t familiar with this image until I read a piece by the fine art critic Waldemar Januszczak. Of this painting he said “this simple plate of fish is imbued with an enormous sense of meaning. Dried herrings were the cheap and staple food of the times (1910s), but Soutine turns them into sacrificial victims. The brilliant touch here is to turn the forks into a pair of sinister hands that are reaching up to strangle the terrified fish.” Januszczak’s description sheds a fresh light on the image. No longer are we looking at the mundane remnants of someone’s fish supper. Now we see something very human and alive. I see the skeletal fingers. More, I see a belly and it is this that the hands are clawing at. And do I see a bowl-face looking mournfully down at their aching stomach? Is the body even alive? Could this be a cadaver settled in its muddy grave? Maybe, but surely there is life in those hands. The bony-fork fingers are stretching. Is this a last meal then?
Soutine is acclaimed for his free, even aggressive, brush strokes. Working in the 20s and 30s of Paris, he was an expressionist in every sense of the word. Check out his ‘Carcass of Beef’ (1925) for a clear trajectory to the tortured imagery of Francis Bacon. I’m drawn to the fish in the picture – of course I am – what strikes me most is the simplicity of brush stroke and line. In a mere few daubs, he captures the twist of pain in the fish themselves. Even these three tiny herring – gutted, dried and poleaxed – breathe a sigh of resignation.
This is no still life then. This is truly moving.
Chaim Soutine ‘Still Life with Herring’ (1916)