Rouault�s Anguished World
�Miserere et Guerre� at the Musueum of Biblical Art

SUFFERING 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 painter.

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.

Rouault�s penitential 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 the world.


�Georges Rouault: Miserere et Guerre� at the Museum of Biblical Art (1865 Broadway at 61st Street, 212-408-1500).

This review appeared first in The New York Sun, March 30, 2006.

Copyright 2006 Maureen Mullarkey

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