Chaïm Soutine moved paint with such unbridled energy that the art critic John Russell called his canvases “a world in convulsion.” The seeming abandon with which he used his loaded brush will be plain to see in a long-overdue retrospective exhibition, “Chaïm Soutine. Against the Current,” opening today at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, in Düsseldorf. The show then moves to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, in Denmark, and later to the Kunstmuseum Bern, in Switzerland.

Soutine with a chicken.

Soutine’s independence in both life and art, his battle to paint in his own way, was evident early on. He was born in 1893 in a Lithuanian shtetl, one of 11 children; his father mended clothing. As a boy, Soutine was beaten savagely by the son of a rabbi whom he had asked to pose for a portrait, a violation of the Orthodox Jewish prohibition against graven images. He fled to Minsk to study art, went on to an art academy in Vilnius that accepted Jews, and at 20 headed to Paris, broke and speaking only Yiddish, to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. His struggles with harsh experience are alive in his provocative paintings, as is his fine technique.

In 1939, reviewing a Soutine show in New York, Newsweek called him the “Van Gogh of our time.” No wonder. Like Van Gogh, he astonishes us with the way his art probes the depths of the human psyche yet maintains a beautiful discipline and organization. Soutine revealed furies with a formalism that suits the gilded picture frames generally used for his work. His butchered cow carcasses, however gruesome, have a certain elegance. His landscapes seem hit by tornadoes yet possess balance and grace. His bellboys and waitresses are both diminished in their servility and ennobled by the force of their powerful humanness.

The Village, 1923.

Soutine’s rip-roaring emotionalism had a huge impact on America’s Abstract Expressionists. Willem de Kooning declared, “I’ve always been crazy about Soutine—all of his paintings. Maybe it’s the lushness of the paint.” Clement Greenberg, describing the artist’s impact on Hans Hofmann, wrote that he treated “painting itself as an affair of prodding and pushing, scoring and marking, rather than simply inscribing or covering.”

Soutine’s emotional work, such as The Village Idiot, 1920, inspired Abstract Expressionists, including Willem de Kooning.

“Against the Current” is billed as an exhibition about “emigration and the permanent uprooting of people that results from it.” But when I spoke with the show’s curator, Susanne Meyer-Büser, she said, “The theme is wonderful painting, modern and inspiring.” The unique force that Soutine gave to color—“He loved beef,” says Meyer-Büser, “not only because it was beef, but a big area of red”—along with “the intensity you find in the faces of the portraits,” infuses this gathering of paintings from all over the world. —Nicholas Fox Weber

“Chaïm Soutine. Against the Current” is on at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, in Düsseldorf, through January 14

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Nicholas Fox Weber is the executive director of the Josef & Anni Albers Foundation and the author of several books, including Le Corbusier: A Life and Patron Saints: Five Rebels Who Opened America to a New Art, 1928–1943