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Torture, Madness Abound in Louis Soutter Paris Exhibition

"The Hero" (1937-41) by Louis Soutter. The painting is on view at Maison Rouge through Sept 23. Source: Maison Rouge via Bloomberg

Mad or just eccentric?

Louis Soutter’s family took no chances: They had their black sheep declared legally incompetent and, at age 52, institutionalized for the rest of his life.

Soutter (1871-1942), whose strange drawings and paintings are on view at the Maison Rouge and the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris, was a borderline case in art history.

Born into a bourgeois family in Switzerland, he studied violin with Belgian virtuoso Eugene Ysaye. After three years, he switched to the fine arts and took lessons with various Swiss and French painters.

In 1897, he moved to Colorado Springs in hot pursuit of an American girl he had met in Ysaye’s class. He married her and got a teaching job at Colorado College.

After their divorce, in 1903, he returned to Switzerland and played in the symphony orchestras of Lausanne and Geneva.

Then something went wrong. He lost his job and tried to make a living in cinemas, accompanying silent movies. Eventually, his violin was confiscated to cover his debts.

The show starts with Soutter’s early, conventional work. It gets interesting only after 1923: His internment in a retirement home sparked an explosion of creativity. By 1927, he had done more than 2,000 drawings.

Stolen Ink

Because he was penniless, Soutter worked on used envelopes, wrapping paper and ordinary notebooks. He stole ink from the local post office.

Another of his habits was to cover the pages of books he was reading with drawings.

Soutter’s subjects give us an idea of his loneliness and anxieties: The drawings abound with earthquakes, revolutions, guillotines, masks and grotesque faces, mostly of women. One is titled “The Fortress of the Mad.” Another evokes the “Torture of Isolation.”

Stylistically, Soutter’s work is close to the German Expressionists. It has nothing to do with the picture puzzles of another Swiss mental case, his contemporary Adolf Wolfli.

The drawings probably would have been thrown out with the garbage if Soutter hadn’t had a famous relative: Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known under his pseudonym Le Corbusier, was impressed by his cousin’s output.

Not only did the architect give him money to buy decent paper and ink. He also arranged, in 1936, an exhibition of about 30 drawings at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

Their friendship ended when Soutter, suffering from arthritis and poor vision, started painting with his fingers. These late works may remind you of the German “Neuen Wilden,” or “New Savages,” such as A. R. Penck and Georg Baselitz.

Some experts suggest that Soutter may have been inspired by the prehistoric rock art in Colorado’s Canon Pintado.

The exhibition at the Maison Rouge runs through Sept. 23. Information: A much smaller show at the Fondation Le Corbusier is limited to Soutter’s middle period and is on through Sept. 15. Information:

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure sections of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on arts.

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