Rouault�s Anguished World
�Miserere et Guerre� at the Musueum of Biblical Art
HAS PROVIDED WESTERN CIVILIZATION with magnificent
works of art. The great Lenten
theme of Allegri�s �Miserere� and Bach�s �St. Matthew Passion�, it fructifies
music no less than visual art. Yet for all its grandeur in successive
historical epiphanies, it seems now, somehow, out of time. Anguish, that dark
night of the soul, is eclipsed by industries created to erase it.
Georges Rouault (1871-1958), one of the most significant painters of his day, married the motif of
suffering to modernist pictorial aims. On exhibition at the Museum of Biblical
Art [MOBIA] are the 58 black-and-white, mixed media intaglio prints of his
series �Miserere et Guerre,� considered his finest achievement. Several
additional works in color provide a fuller sense of his capacities as a
|Georges Rouault, Convicts
The tenor of this body of
work, steeped in the sorrow of living, is inseparable from Rouault�s personal
history. He was born in a working class quarter of Paris during the bloody end
of the Paris Commune. France had lost the Franco-Prussian War and the city was
under bombardment by government troops determined to quell communards defying
Prussian victory. The weight of massacre and horrific destruction fell on the
working class and the budding French labor movement. The doomed Commune,
followed soon enough by the agony
of World War I, still echoes in �Miserere et Guerre.�
His father, a piano
finisher in a local factory, imparted a craftsman�s love of tools and materials
and ardent social sympathies. His grandfather, a postal clerk and a modest
collector of prints by Caillot and Daumier, encouraged him to become an artist.
Rouault�s hatred of war, identification with the poor, and love of art were
established at the beginning.
His mature work was
marked by early apprenticeship to a stained glass maker and restorer of
medieval windows. A lasting love for the medium is evident in the bold outlines
of his personal idiom, immediately recognizable and evocative. At the Ecole des
Beaux Arts he studied under Gustav Moreau, a leading Symbolist, who prompted
him to seek subjects beyond tangibles—in religion and
philosophy—and trust his own creative subjectivity.
Rouault was intimate with
the writers who formed the nucleus of the Catholic revival, that remarkable
literary, intellectual, and—to a lesser degree—artistic renewal
among France�s lay intelligentsia in the early 20th century. He counted as friends Léon Bloy, J.K. Huysmans and Jacques and Raissa Maritain, both also passionate
supporters of his work. He was close to Georges Desvalli�res,
co-founder with Maurice Denis of the Atelier de l�Art Sacr�.
The Atelier was precursor
to the Sacred Art Movement, a brief effort to reanimate sacred art which French
Catholic intellectuals agreed was in a dismal state. Huysmans wrote brilliantly
on �the hemorrhage of bad taste�
at Lourdes. Maritain similarly rejected conventional religious art as �devilish
ugliness.� Rouault shared their
disdain, fearful of admitting �sullen convention� into his work.
vision and epic sweep suited the temper of the years immediately after World
War II. MoMA gave him a retrospective in 1945 and the Tate did the same the
following year, pairing him with Braque. He exhibited at the Venice Biennale in
1948 and enjoyed a flood of exhibitions in the 1950s. France inducted him into
the Legion of Honor and, in 1958, gave him a state funeral.
Today, his work is rarely
seen. This exhibition seeks to return it to view. And there is every reason to
keep his accomplishment alive. Rouault was a graphically gifted, fastidious
craftsman sympatheticto a world
in travail. His subjects were few:
clowns, prostitutes, judges, self-satisfied pillars of society, the down-hearted, and the Passion
of Christ. Setting aside religious dimensions, his cast is similar to that of
Lautrec, the youthful Picasso, and Daumier.
A Passiontide sensibility
infuses his oeuvre with a distinctive solemnity. Isaiah�s man of sorrows, the
crucified Christ, serves as an archetype of the human condition. However devout
Rouault�s Catholicism, it is a mistake to pigeon-hole him as a devotional
painter. He used Biblical iconography—as did Max Beckmann and other
German Expressionists—as a source of recognizable metaphors. Every
generation faces its Calvary and crucifixions accompany history. The
lamentations of Jeremiah still resonate.
Rouault spent much of the
years 1914-18 and 1920-27 working on these plates, a project undertaken for his
dealer, Ambrose Vollard. He altered each one, subjecting them to as many as
twelve or fifteen successive states, until he was satisfied with the results. Heavily
outlined figures, lit from within, are worked to a luminous pitch by scoring,
stippling, blotting and wiping of the plates. He mixed soft-ground etching
techniques with engraving, drypoint, and aquatint, pushing for textural and
tonal effects that give the impression of a painted surface.
Texture is a sculptural
element that lends bulk to the drawn image. The beauty ofthe crucified corpus in
Plate 57 lies in the balance of weight thrown into low relief by the distressed
plate. Bold surface effects add steel to the tenderness of Plate 12. Mother and
child press against each other, transfigured into a single block. Inner pressure stretches the
child�s head upward, like a fledgling�s in the nest, toward the mother�s bent
face. As an image of love, human or divine, it is matchless.
Several of his bitterest
designs have a Germanic flavor. The fat-faced figure of �Far from the Smile of
Reims� sports the Prussian eagle on his helmet plate. Or is it the Holy Spirit
on a bishop�s mitre? Prussian general or ecclesiastical bureaucrat, the image
is a jeremiad against inordinate pride. The �haughty scorner� of one plate
wears the picklehaube of Kaiser Wilhelm II�s army. Pilate, an
over-fed Gruppenf�hrer, crowds the condemned man to the edge of another.
Skeletons wear an
enlisted man�s hat, signifying cannon fodder. �Winter, Leper of the Earth� is
an emblem of dispossession. A heavy-laden figure bends beneath an
indistinguishable burden, left vague to suggest the burdens of living. Pathos
lies in the axis of the pose. Ash
Wednesday brushes every plate.
Several colorful works
quicken the tempo at the end. Swift, animated strokes of translucent oil and
watercolor build poignant expressionist heads, one of Christ, the other a
clown. The final crucifixion, a Good Friday tableau made brilliant with
pigmented aquatint, hints at Easter.
By any measure, this is
an outstanding exhibition that would honor MoMA or the Metropolitan. Biblical themes are indivisible
from our cultural history and need not be relegated to an independent
institution. Yet MOBIA�s
very existence concedes a hidden starting point: that religious motifs,
demythologized by modern methodologies, are a world apart from contemporary
culture. But as Rouault and his circle understood, it is faith that demythologizes
Rouault: Miserere et Guerre� at the Museum of Biblical Art (1865 Broadway at
61st Street, 212-408-1500).
review appeared first in The New York Sun, March 30, 2006.
Copyright 2006 Maureen Mullarkey