Raphael Soyer: Back in the Day

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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Raphael Soyer (1899-1987) is labeled a social realist due to a predilection for the subject matter of ordinary people. The label, though, conjures up a degree of angst which is notably absent from his work. Rather, he brought to his paintings and prints a gentle humanism, a warmth and sympathy (sometimes tinged with sadness) that is distinctively his–compassion without sentimentality, the everyday, but without banality.

Soyer depicted working people, Bowery bums, Depression scenes, but these works were not overtly political compared to some of his contemporaries, like Ben Shahn, for example. And, Soyer said, "In front of paintings by Georg Grosz I became so dissatisfied with the mildness, the ‘sympathy,’ the unexaggeratedness of my art." Still, Soyer painted from his own temperament and his expression is uniquely his own.

Soyer was a Russian Jew who emigrated with his family to the United States in 1912. They settled in New York, with which Soyer identified himself throughout his life, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art becamehis academy, surpassing in his own estimation anything he learned in the schools where he studied. He especially acknowledged the influence of Courbet, Corot, Thomas Eakins, George Bellows, and, most of all, Degas.

By the 1930s, Soyer’s work was nationally recognized. He stayed with the realist style he had developed even as the art world turned to abstraction and realism went pronouncedly out of fashion. Perhaps with the current resurgence of interest in figurative painting, Soyer will once again gain attention for his work which is distinguished by superb draftsmanship, a subtle and refined use of color, as well as the innate dignity with which the artist invested his subjects and his sensitivity to mood and emotion.

George Krevsky Gallery is exhibiting a diverse group of 32 works by Soyer, including five oil paintings, as well as pastels, water colors, drawings and prints. The show gives a taste of the artist’s work which whets the appetite for more. There has been only one major retrospective of Soyer’s work, by the Whitney Museum in 1967. Perhaps the time is due for another.

Actress Dressing, a small oil, is representative of Soyer’s long-term interest in the female figure. If the influence of Degas is felt, it is nonetheless a distinctively Soyer work, with the plain setting, the solidly molded form of the body, the intimacy of the moment. Up close, the brush work is evident (a modernist trait, surely), but from a few steps away it disappears into the skillfully captured patterns of light and shadow, line and texture.

A portrait of Gregory Corso shows an unexpectedly gentler side (perhaps the poet side) of this rough and tumble Beat writer, companion of Allen Ginsberg, of whom there is also a portrait. The latter is strange in that it seems to have been left unfinished–a missing right eye, a partial pair of glasses. Of Corso, Soyer wrote: "I liked Gregory’s face, at once saturnine and gentle, his shaggy tufts of hair, the changing expressions from moodiness to cheerfulness."

Soyer was a prolific printmaker. There are fine lithographs on view here, including Waitresses, in their uniforms and white aprons, wiping down tables; Casting Office–two women waiting to audition, one (in full light) putting on her makeup, the other (in shadow) simply tired; Railroad Waiting Room–two women seated on a bench, one wearily holding her head in her hand, the other prim in her proper hat, the serpentine arm of the bench contributing importantly to the overall composition.

Soyer was often at his most interesting when his subjects were larger groups of figures, allowing for more complex compositions. The Mission, a 1933 lithograph of a scene in a soup kitchen, shows five men having toast and coffee. Firmly controlled, multiple intersecting planes draw the eye to the various elements of the picture while uniting them into a satisfying whole. (Soyer painted the same scene in 1935.)

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