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“Still Life with Rayfish”, c.1924, by Chaim Soutine (METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK,   The Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls Collection, 1997)

Two early 20th-century artists have usually been considered quite separate and distinct: Egon Schiele (1890-1918) in Vienna, a follower of Dürer and Klimt, and Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) in Paris, who rejected the French Cubists and was inspired by Rembrandt and Van Gogh. But both artists were social outcasts who led scandalous lives, swam against the prevailing tides and created figurative art. Alienated from their families, they lived in degrading poverty and had little recognition in their lifetimes. They shared an extreme rejection of classical norms, a tormented vision of life and a savage view of the body in agony.

The personal suffering expressed in the paintings of Schiele and Soutine supplants the traditional mythological images in Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas (Soutine’s raw carcasses look like Marsyas after the jealous Apollo had punished him), and the gruesome religious images in Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion and Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ, where suffering is transformed into sacrifice and holiness. The tormented figures of Schiele and Soutine are Christ-like saviours who experience and express the ecstatic pain and emotional intensity of the modern world. Their grotesque, tilted, convulsive distortions emphasise the misery of the human condition and produce in the viewer what Immanuel Kant called the “negative pleasure” of vicarious suffering.

Two contemporary literary descriptions of physical torture put the pathological feelings of the paintings into a clearer perspective: the fictional Anton Ferge’s pleura-shock in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) and T. E. Lawrence’s torture in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922). In The Magic Mountain Anton Ferge describes, with excruciating detail, the surgical shock to his pleura during a pneumothorax operation:

The pleura, my friends, is not anything that should be felt of; it does not want to be felt of and it ought not to be. It is taboo. It is covered up with flesh and put away once and for all and nothing ought to come near it. And now he uncovers it and feels all over it. My God, I was sick at my stomach. Horrible, awful; never in my life have I imagined there could be such a sickening feeling, outside hell and its torments.

In Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence, captured by the Turkish enemy during the Arabian campaign, morbidly recounts how a soldier:

. . . began to lash me madly across and across with all his might, while I locked my teeth to endure this thing which lapped itself like flaming wire about my body . . . I could feel only the shapeless weight of pain, not tearing claws, for which I had prepared, but a gradual cracking apart of my whole being by some too-great force whose waves rolled up my spine till they were pent within my brain, to clash terribly together.
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