Lives of the Artists VIII

In La Ruche, that beehive of the avant-garde in Paris, Marc Chagall was neighbour to the eccentric Chaim Soutine (Хаим Соломонович Сутин) (1893-1943). Chagall thought Soutine was pitiful, tormented, ‘a morbid expressionist’, and avoided his as much as he could. Soutine did little to endear himself to his colleagues: he never bathed, and even had a nest of bedbugs in his ear. Back in Vilna, he had beaten by the sons of a rabbi because he painted, Soutine once said. In La Ruche, he painted carcasses that he obtained from a local slaughterhouse, and spent so much time over them that they rotted in his room and blood drained out onto the corridors outside. It’s a legend of the time that Chagall once saw the blood, ran out of the studio and screamed, ‘Someone’s killed Soutine.’

In 1914, when Chagall was permitted to return to Russia, Soutine offered to sublet his room. Chagall refused, tied a rope across the front door and left for home. Nine years later when he came back, the rope was no longer there, the room had been ransacked, and the paintings he had left behind were all gone, as were most of his old avant-garde colleagues. And despite having sold nearly a hundred of his own canvases to a wealthy American, Soutine alone remained at La Ruche.

From Jackie Wullschlager, Chagall: Love and Exile, Penguin, 2010.

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