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Buried Alive! The Strange And Extraordinary Life Of Louis Soutter

Buried Alive! The Strange And Extraordinary Life Of Louis Soutter image
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Sometimes life has a bizarre way of offering up things, events or people. I was reading n Café Conti in Paris and having a usual and modest café-creme when I read the name Louis Soutter. There happened to be an opening that very day at The Centre Culturel Suisse for the works of this late Swiss artist. How lucky could I be; he being one of my very favorites? I paid up and began walking toward Odéon but nstead of taking the Metro right away, I decided to walk toward rue de Seine and ended up by chance at Marché St. Germain in the Latín Quarter. I was browsing under the arcades of the handsome building when a book caught my eye. It was nicely bound in a maroon color. I got closer and was surprised to read "Minotaure"! {This word has very sentimental connotations for me as I used to have an art gallery called "Le Minotaure.") Of course I bought the handsome publication which was a facsimile edition of the famousTériade Minotaure published in the 1930s. (This volume was a bound copy of Minotaure issues #9 to#13.) As I was going through the precious find, what did I see? A brilliant piece about Louis Soutter. The article was written by Le Corbusier, the famous French architect. It so happened that Le Corbusier was Soutter's cousin. He had a special interest in Soutter's work at a time when very few people took it seriously. Le Corbusier wrote the piece in 1 936 and organized a show for Soutter's early work (Maniériste Period) at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. He also had plans to organize another U.S. show in 1939. Finally, I decided to make my way to my original destination. I took the Metro to Les Halles and the Beaubourg área and walked down rué Rambuteau to rué les Francs-Bourgeois and stopped at #38 at the Centre Culturel Suisse. What joy I felt as I entered the courtyard of this old building. My head was buzzing with excitement as I walked on the cobblestones. Then, there to the right of the small entrance was a photo portrait of Louis Soutter by Theo Frey, of the long emaciated figure of the artist in his handsome suit, hat, tie. Also visible was the chain to his watch. With his gloved hands in his pockets, he looked away. This photo showed that Soutter cared about his looks despite his old age. He was what the Frenen cali racé or classy. He was all skin and bones. His eyes made me think of a bird of prey. As I entered the antiquated building, which was rather modest in size, I went to seethefirsttwo periods of his work. The first period (1923-30), "Periode des cahiers" ou du "Secret imaginaire" and the second (193036), "Periode maniériste" ou des "Sans dieu." Then I looked at the third period work for which he became famous, "Peintures 1 935-1 942" and "Peintures au doigt (1937-1942)" or Periode de "La main sismographique." I admired and appreciated the skill and talent of the ink drawings of his first two periods and could see a nite movement toward the somber beauty of the last period - the finger paintings. It was overwhelming to view all of these paintings in one show, as they had never before been presented together. The early work could be characterized as refined, elegant and most of the time busy. The white space was usualiy filled with very fine and elegant lines giving at times the look of an etching. Although figurative in style, the early work was nonetheless powerful and often abstract as in "Les passions" or "La sieste." I also very much liked "L'Avare" (The Miser) with its infinite knitting lines. In general, Soutter's favorite subject matter was human beings with all of their frailties and passions. He also focused on the Bible and Christ. In these beautiful. haunting paintings, veritable "danse macabre," Soutter put all of his feelings, his life and his suffering, but also his heart and soul. The dazzling compositions show the energy and freedom of the older painter. This was his last cry, his last chance to show the world who he really was. At first glance his work showed remarkable compositional skilis. Everything was in place and if the paint dripped at times like in "II est sanglant," ("Heisbloody"), it was fora purpose. The dark masses were extraordinary as is the case in "La Sursentence, Christ 1939" or "Une Crucifixion" and "Deséente de croix." Color was used sparingly but a few spots of red or yellow gave his work a spiritual kind of light. It was truly an inspired work. One was reminded of Antonin Artaud and next to the painting "Un christ de pan de verre, 1 939" was a long quote by the author of "The Theater and its Doublé." This painting was probably the most vivid of the show, all red and black with a fauve background. Bom in 1 871 in Morges in the Canton de Vaud in Switzerland, Soutter grew up in relative luxury in a villa called Le Verger (The Orchard). He was a brílliant student, especially in music and architecture. He played violin with the best orchestras in Lausanne and Geneva. While studying music in Brussels f rom 1 892-1 895, he met Madge Fursman, an American. After a stay in Paris in 1 895, Louis and Madge wentto Manitou Springs, Colorado where they were married in 1 897. In 1898 Soutter became an art professor at Colorado College. He was very successful and in 1900 had a show of 1 7 pieces. He had some local fame but unfortunately his success was short-lived. In 1 903 Madge asked for a divorce. This so upset Soutter that he promptly resigned his post at Colorado and retumed to Switzerland for good. At the age of 32 he was physically and mentally ruined. Beginning in 1915, his family gave him a "tutor" because of his "inexperience" and "moral weakness," or rather because his eccentricity bothered their nice bourgeois Irfe. Until 1 923 he tried to survive as a violinist. In 1923, Soutter was admitted by his family to "Asile pour vieillards et nécessiteux de Ballaigues," a home for poor and elderiy people and it is there he remained until he died in 1942. Ironically, it was in Ballaigues that Louis Soutter accomplished his most remarkable drawings and paintings. Most of them are now in private lections. While at Ballaigues, Soutter, when he could, would sell these for a few francs or give them away. Soutter spent the last 1 9 years of his life at the asylum. He wrote quite often of the cruelty and lack of sensitivity shown by the religious personnel. The Paris exhibit was called "Si Ie soleil me revenait" ("If the sun carne back to me"). Soutter often talked of the sun in his letters. His name Soutter (sous terre) literally means "under ground." He was buried in a figurative, yet real sense. In a 1 925 letter to the city of Morges, Soutter complained: "II est rare que la majorité se place du coté de celui qui est seul" ("It is rare that the majority takes sides with someone who is alone"). Unfortunately "Ie soleil" never did return to him. Soutter's art was not appreciated because it did not reflect the ideas of the time. So-called experts could not take the work - of a presumed fooi who painted with his fingers - seriously. Soutter was marginalized, insulted and finally buried by bourgeois insensitivity. Soutter, who never conformed to the criteria of the establishment, like Van Gogh and Artaud, was rejected by society. These artists all suffered and were all denied their due in their lifetimes only to be glorified after death. The repetition of this phenomenon is sad. But there is more irony. When Jean Dubuffet, in 1 976, donated his collection to the city of Lausanne and inaugurated it the "Collection de l'Art Brut," he left out Soutter's work. Because Soutter had been knowledgable about culture and art history and had taught art in the U.S. at the turn of the century, his work was relegated to the "Collection Annexe" or "Neuve Invention" at that very same museum. Louis Soutter was not a Brut artist. He was only a great artist. ■ iSTJHEWKÊÊÊÊM


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