Welcome to the hotel of your nightmares. This show of portraits by the great Russian-French painter Chaim Soutine casts you as the most important visitor to a luxury hotel in the south of France. All the cooks, bellboys, valets, waiters and maids have come out to greet you, a guard of honour for the exalted guest.
But the greeting creaks under the weight of the room’s tension. The staff’s smiles are cracking, their veneer of subservience slipping away to reveal impatience, annoyance, sadness, distraction. They’re fed up.
Soutine, a friend to other early twentieth-century greats such as Amedeo Modigliani and Marc Chagall, is a real twister of the human body. He exaggerates limbs, extends ears, narrows noses, warps faces. One pastry cook is half-mouse half-man, a bellboy is all coat-hanger angles and sunken eyes, a page boy is a mutant made of just eyebrows and ears.
He combines his surreal, puppet-like, deformed shapes with brilliant colours: huge slabs of blood red, deep sad blue, filthy green-flecked white. All the figures look like discarded hunks of meat, left to rot on the floor. There’s a whole trippy line of repeated portraits of the same irritated-looking valet, getting more and more tired of your shit with every look, his face a throbbing puce.
That’s Soutine’s trick: warping the person to uncover what’s within. It’s as if the jobs of his characters have moulded and shaped them. They all look crushed and distended by their servitude. They’re angry, bitter, bored: wouldn’t you be?
The best works seem to fuse the person with their emotions, spectacular little visions of the sitters that only Soutine could have had. The worst ones are flatter, blander. Two narrow portraits of women uncover too little, feel too standard and fail to expose the rippling emotions within.
But at their brilliant best, the figures he creates are all compressed and shrunken, moments from bursting out in anger. You might be a guest here, but you can’t help feeling a little unwelcome.