Still Life with Rayfish

Soutine attempts to keep the color of his first carcasses fresh with buckets of blood. The neighbors hate the stench and the flies but he continues to pour blood over the bodies until he is ordered by the police to stop. Only then does he use formaldehyde. He isn’t preserving the flesh, just refreshing it, maintaining the life-color of the carcass and painting that blood as lush. He is not emulating and there is no reminiscence. When Soutine’s last privately owned carcass painting, Le boeuf écorché, was auctioned recently, the seller expected to get something like seven to eight million dollars. In the catalog description, Christie’s lingers over Soutine’s early intense poverty and the sudden relief of that poverty when he sold a large number of paintings to a banker. Le boeuf écorché represents a point at which Soutine could afford to buy whole beef sides just to look at rather than eat. Le boeuf sold for fourteen million dollars, which I find depressing. Or it misses the point. If anyone blends the line between still life and portrait, it’s Soutine. The still life reflects portraiture without any deliberate reminiscence. Soutine’s brothers beat him mercilessly. Their cruelty became a ritual. One day when Soutine was sixteen, he approached a pious Jew to ask him to pose for a portrait. The next day this man’s son and his friends beat Soutine. It was a week before he walked again. Why is this story retold so often? I don’t think I create heroes in my portraits in the conventional romantic or poetic sense. Soutine fights against the monsters. He fights against neuroticism and fear. His portrait can be made in many ways but always the same image. Sometimes, in fact, I make the same portrait. Say Still Life with Rayfish. It could have been a fairytale. My way of making a fable from the portrait is my way of telling it. I simply told it as I did. But our hero is really there: the one in the portrait who possesses the feel of his own life. This is part of Soutine’s process also: to see the forbidden thing and paint it, to severely constrict his subject within the frame and enclose space. He imprisons the image within the image. In Chardin’s Rayfish, the ray at rest has become a ghost already, nearly translucent at the mouth and eyes. In Still Life with Rayfish, Soutine attempts a portrait of Chardin. This ray rises howling from the table, its membranous belly shuddering. Its entrails glow with warmth. Today you will eat dead things and make them into something living: but when you will be in light, what will you do then? For then you become two instead of one; and when you become two, what will you do then? Do I mean that in all our portraits we tell the same story? But I can’t say I have a special direction, although I feel a certain evolution in myself, in the ways I find of saying things. Let’s call this a transition from attention to grace. When Soutine works in serial, painting the same object again and again, the paintings convulse. Seen side-by-side, their convulsions evoke sensation. I see great possibilities by shifting the wings, moving the feathers or necks. Swirling, lacerated flesh swells against blue or red or green backgrounds. The figure of the bird, whirling fowl of penitence, beats even as darker backdrops threaten to swallow it. The body which depends upon a body is unfortunate, and the soul which depends upon these two is unfortunate. In this first portrait of the rayfish, the ray is pulled up by its wings, each wing pierced with wire hung from the stone wall behind. Or the next ray hovers over the table, ascending; it swoops midair. Soutine presents the butchered animal opened, taken to pieces, bloody, glistening, shimmering yet conspicuously dead. I devour a skin that is grotesque with demonic aura, the terror and humor of its textures. I paint a skin made from sheer white curtains blowing at windows in stark sun. I make a figure from gray feathers stuck to my neck with sweat. I build whole visions of life out of the swirling black velvet of a woman’s dress as she wades into water. That wet velvet billows, a second skin, sensual, dragging her under, pulling her out to sea. In La Dolce Vita, the soft, dark flesh of the monstrous ray is bound tightly by the fishermen’s net as the ray is hauled onto the beach. “You will make a million with this fish!” “It’s alive!” “It’s been dead three days.” Rolled onto its back, its mouth pulls open and one black eye stares back. Its slick surface resembles the protoplasmic source of all things. It insists on looking. The guardian angel of Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder quotes Meister Eckhart to the dying Jacob: “Eckhart saw hell too. He said: ‘the only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you,’ he said. ‘They’re freeing your soul. . . . If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the Earth.’” I imagine the nets around the rayfish as sutures pulled from its flesh, releasing the wings to unfold. I picture the scarred eyes of the surgeon’s attendant in Jacob’s Ladder as two layers of flesh folded over. Bones and lumps of flesh piled in the hallway, faces both vacant and badly twisted: Lyne’s “body horror technique.” The face moves with an alien speed, a filmic sensation of seizure, fit, possession, mutation. He who has known the world has fallen into the body, and he that has fallen into the body, the world is not worthy of him. The ray’s blank eye and the attending angel’s carved sockets equally terrify. Soutine’s eddies in oil capture the ray’s flesh. He structures my seeing; he imparts vision. I pamper this slight ghost—I encourage it. It takes shape slowly. It takes possession. “Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of bird and drain the blood out of it. I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat.” Soutine pats his throat and continues, “This cry, I always feel it there. When, as a child, I drew a crude portrait of my professor, I tried to rid myself of this cry, but in vain. When I painted the beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate. I have still not succeeded.”

From Rayfish (Omnidawn, 2017). Copyright © Mary Hickman, 2017. Used with permission of Omnidawn.