Sunday, January 13, 2008

Soutine's Lost Masterpiece

A wide-ranging conversation this past Shabbat began with family, moved to technology, then Philistine cities and their modern equivalents, before settling on, of all things, tattoos. (Don't ask.) I then took the opportunity to mention a story I've recently seen for the second time, Roald Dahl's "Skin." (Available in this collection.) Basically, it's about a man who discovers that his back is worth a fortune because it was tattooed by Chaim Soutine (an unknown when they were acquainted), whose paintings have skyrocketed in value after his death during World War II. A typically macabre Dahl story, I didn't supply the ending. (I did correct the plot in the Wikipedia entry; also provided handy-dandy wiki links for Jewish terms below for those who need them.)

Now, I've always known that my maternal grandfather and Soutine knew each other- they were from the same shtetl, and my grandfather used to write him, after Soutine had hit the big time in Paris, to ask him to help out his siblings back in Eastern Europe. (Soutine apparently responded generously.) We've always had a few Soutine books and prints around the house, and there's a certain hometown pride when there's an exhibit or article about him.

"Ah," I said, talking of my grandfather, "He should have asked him for a picture! Imagine what it would be worth today!"

"Oh, but he did!" my mother answered. "You don't know the story?" I didn't. It's really something.

Apparently, my grandfather, true to his later calling as a melamed, was retained, in his late teens, as a sort of tutor to Soutine, who was about the same age but, rebellious already, not to apt in his religious studies. Soutine had begun painting by this time, and my grandfather asked him if he could paint a portrait (from a photograph) of his eldest brother Leibe, who he admired greatly. (Leibe actually delivered a drasha, a discourse, before the Chafetz Chaim when the latter's yeshiva relocated to Shmilovitz- we have letters from the yeshiva's secretary attesting to this- and was known in the family as the one who, in a time and place when education typically stopped at around Bar Mitzvah age, made it further, to the "Gemara melamed.")

Soutine took the photo and painted the portrait. Later, my grandfather came to see him, and saw the portrait on the floor, leaning against the wall. He admired it, but Soutine, who was a perfectionist, said, "You think this is a good painting? Look at this! Look at that!" pointing out various (in his eyes) flaws. He then proceeded to rip the painting up.

Ahhh, a lost masterpiece. And an amazing story.

A few more random thoughts:

Speaking of young accomplished people, see this amazing story. (The first column is here.) I had a classmate in law school- actually my partner in one course- who was a World War II veteran. He once showed me a picture of himself in uniform and said, "I was, oh, about your age when this was taken." Still, as Rush and Clarence Thomas both had pointed out to them by veterans of the current war, we all do our part. I hope I am doing mine.

I just finished this book. I have to say, I began it somewhat disappointed- the author states that he's no expert in science, religion, or history, which makes it kind of tough to accept a book he writes about, well, science, religion, and history- and, sure enough, his points on the first subject are not clearly written, and his points on the second two subjects are often hopelessly wrong, often with a mistake in each paragraph on a page. Add to that a cliche-ridden style, and I was wondering if the book was worth it.

Fortunately, it really picks up as it progresses. The problems get less and less egregious and the information gets more and more interesting, so while I mostly skimmed the last chapter, I found most the rest of the book very satisfying indeed. It's a brave new world, and books and articles like this are helping us understand it well.

Now on to Jonah, I hope, whose whole book makes a point I've long argued, about the left-wing nature of fascism. I think the local bookstore is hiding it. Oh, and Zev's. I hope there's a Sefarim Sale event for it, his ideas about IBC notwithstanding. (That's the second time I've replaced an "o" in a link with an "a," by the way. Yay!)

Oh, speaking of Jonah, I had a bit of a thought recently- just a bit, mind. There's a constant refrain along the lines of "Hitler came to power with democratic elections," blah blah. (True or not, relevant or not, let's leave that aside.) Often it's used to suppress unpopular parties and the like. But the thought finally struck- so what? If that's what they wanted... (UPDATE: See above. I was wrong, of course, as I suspected.)

OK, a bit Oliver Wendell Holmes-ish of me, and maybe because I don't live in a country where people do that sort of thing. But the thought occurred to me, and I don't block that out.

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