In November and December of 2009, the Dillon Gallery in New York City mounted a show called Soliloquies which featured the work of two artists of faith: the twentieth-century French painter Georges Rouault and contemporary Nihonga painter Makoto Fujimura. The show not only provided a fascinating glimpse into artistic influence, but helped to introduce a whole new generation to the legacy of Rouault’s art. Considered by many to be the most original and powerful Christian visual artist of his time, Rouault was long deemed the equal of painters like Matisse and Chagall. But his reputation faded after his death. This interview with Makoto Fujimura was conducted by Stephen Baarendse.
Image: While you were a National Scholar studying Nihonga in Japan, you found that some of the best Rouault paintings are held in that country. In fact, he may be better loved there than in the West. What for you explains the Japanese fascination with Rouault?
Makoto Fujimura: This phenomenon is unusual, in that the Japanese tend to follow the West in terms of taste. They tend to import a form and perfect it. They’ll take something from China, for instance, and refine it. But in the case of Rouault, it’s a love affair that began very early on in postwar Japan. The Shirakaba movement—which included artists, philosophers, and intellectuals—was so drawn to Rouault that they spread the word about him and convinced some of the collectors.
Partly it was the direct correlation between calligraphy and Rouault’s lines. Japanese calligraphers celebrated his lines, comparing him with the greatest Chinese calligraphers. As one Zen master told me, “Rouault’s lines contain the weight of life.” That’s the highest accolade a calligrapher can receive.
It’s strange, because the Japanese don’t have a Christian religious background, yet they have created chapels around Rouault. To one they brought the hand-painted crucifix from his studio, to honor his faith. His museum pieces are revered. There are major exhibits almost every year in Japan; people stand in lines to get into them. It’s hard to explain; if it was Picasso you would understand, because the world celebrates him, but there’s something about Rouault that very much connects with the Japanese aesthetic.
Image: Do you see a connection between the “weight of life” that the Zen master saw in Rouault and what the Apostle Paul calls the “weight of glory”?
MF: Yes. I think Japanese art has always possessed an intrinsic reality. Chinese art is built on a long history of formulas. It’s more symbolic and representational that way. Chinese art depends on a type of mimesis, much more than people realize, and symbolic representations of life’s journeys, whereas Japanese art tends to be more abstract and essentiating of reality. Through simplifying the lines, Japanese artists looked for a way to speak to the deepest realities of life. From a biblical perspective, Japanese culture provides one of the bridges to understand the weight of glory that western art began to leave behind. After Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Rouault, only a few western artists looked for those things. But the Japanese have always felt that was the essence of art itself.
Image: Is that what explains your personal fascination with Rouault as well? Getting to what lies behind reality?
MF: I experienced Rouault as a young artist, when I was very open to influence. Even early on, his works stood out to me as uniquely multidimensional, and even teleological. They force viewers to ask deeper metaphysical questions: Where does it lead to? Is there reality behind reality?
Image: You’ve written about Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, a novella about a two-dimensional world. Do you feel that Rouault is showing the sphere entering our flat world, so to speak? Is that what’s happening in his canvases?
MF: I believe that. And the world cannot recognize the sphere entering in, because in the Flatland you only see this dot approaching you. The effect of thick paint and the radical use of color is to expose the flat reality that we have come to accept in the art world. It may take another generation to truly appreciate what Rouault did, as it took a hundred years before Rembrandt was recognized as an exceptional portrait artist. Until Mendelssohn discovered Bach, he was just another Baroque artist. I think Rouault will experience the same thing.
Image: Rouault has been all but forgotten over the past fifty years—since the 1950s when he died and was hailed in New York with multiple exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art. MOMA bought a lot of his work, which is now in storage. Would you say Pop Art and minimalism buried Rouault for a while?
MF: Yes, because he’s the opposite. His works are impossible to photograph. They are not going to translate well into virtual reality. So he’s automatically penalized for not being able to communicate in the flat visual language that Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons can today. And yet, when you think about what a painting can give to the world, he’s providing exactly what the twenty-first century needs.
Image: Is that why his reputation has seen a resurgence in the last three years? Are we returning to Rouault’s aesthetic? And what specifically is it?
MF: Yes. Last week at Sotheby’s a work of his went for triple the asking price. That hadn’t happened in a long time. Rouault is getting attention today because we’re longing for an authentic reality. The human heart cannot bear to live in virtual reality for long.
Image: We’re disenchanted with gnosticism?
MF: Definitely. With gnosticism and its offspring, which to me involves the kind of existentialism that sees a “no exit” sort of closed reality. I love thinking about the time when Rouault and Picasso were painting, Brancusi was sculpting, and Sartre was writing. The shadowy figures of Brancusi (which I love) became thinner and thinner, and Picasso began to flatten and fragment everything almost mathematically, and Kandinsky also began to flatten his imagery and become more geometric. Sartre was writing No Exit. There was a movement toward ideology, but Rouault swam against the current. That’s why his art is not popular in academic circles.
Image: I remember your article on Mondrian a couple of years ago. You said that when you stand ten feet away it looks like perfection, but when you get close you see the cracks in utopia.
MF: Yes, Mondrian’s works are literally cracking. The neatly aligned grids are beginning to break apart. These artists wrestled against tradition, creating a whole new world without cathedrals and biblical foundations. Their works are unable to hold the glory that they aspired to in their idealism. They all end up looking toward something deeply traditional and figurative. As much as we like to think that the twentieth century was an epoch of new paradigms, in some sense we lost our humanity in the process. After all this fragmentation and ideology, people are starting to ask, who’s going to synthesize it all? Who’s going to have the audacity and authenticity to bring it all together? Rouault does. He always cared about that. So he stood almost alone in the world. He thought of himself less as an artist than a medieval craftsman. He was not interested in success or fame.
Image: Can you put into words what you think in Rouault’s work resists photography and verbal translation?
MF: When you flatten the imagery (which is what photography does, especially digital photography) you lose the dimensionality, the multi-layered experience of letting your eye adjust to the work, to see what the surface is doing.
Every time I have people look Rouault’s La Fin d’Automne, I tell them to step back from it and try to fix in their minds what’s going on with the red, the earth pigments underneath, the path, figures, buildings [see front cover]. Then I tell them to go up close to it, and when they do, they’re blown away. They cannot believe that what they saw when they were standing back is what they’re looking at up close.
Everything you remember about the painting when you stood back disintegrates when you go up close. How does that happen? It’s absolutely magical and miraculous, but can you explain it in words? Can anyone explain how our eyes take in information? When you stand back, there’s less information, and your mind starts to categorize things. It seems easy to read: there’s a road and figures and buildings. You think, good, okay, I saw it. Most people just leave at that point.
But up close, your eye starts to see the hundreds of layers that Rouault painted over four years. He was working on it every day. You see all the colors that you’re not supposed to use—you’re taught in art school never to use this muddy color next to black, because it’s going to look horrible, and never to put the sun in the middle of a painting, because that would just freeze the painting movement-wise. He does all the things that you’re not supposed to do.
Color theory doesn’t work with Rouault because he’s no longer dealing with flat dimensionality. What you’re seeing is an audacious conviction of Rouault’s that the colors we see are just the beginning of the colors that we will see—that there are colors behind colors, light behind light, reality behind reality. It’s generative. It’s not just blue and red, and matching a certain kind of blue against yellow. It’s about creating a generative reality about color itself. You come away convinced that it’s true. That experience can’t be photographed; it can’t even be videographed.
Image: I had the impression that you could touch the painting with your eye. That’s a weird synesthesia, isn’t it? It’s almost like Braille.
MF: Rouault is inviting you not only to the surface of the painting, but to the sacramental vision that understands the painting as mediating a greater reality. At the end of his life Rouault was utterly convinced of that multidimensionality of eternity. By contrast, think about Picasso at the end of his life: his self-portraits get smaller and smaller and darker and darker, shriveling up to almost nothing because his ego was no longer able to give him that energy. Think about Rothko in his last days, his paintings getting darker and darker. And then look at Rouault, who was able to paint these indelible images that speak of hope, of a greater reality that he’s getting closer and closer to. There’s a kind of excitement there, a compassion. It’s an invitation to that world that he was seeing and experiencing.
What’s amazing about the later paintings at the Pompidou Center is that they are called unfinished. He worked on something like twenty of these for four to ten years. At the end of his life I think he came to the conclusion that you cannot finish a painting. It’s an ongoing generative process.
Image: After winning a court case against his dealer, Vollard, Rouault destroyed a lot of his paintings. Perhaps some of these paintings Vollard had seized were unfinished.
MF: When you’re young, you’re caught up in the market system, and you subjugate yourself to things that you later look back on and say, “Boy, that was silly. I needed to feed my family, but what am I doing to show them that this is a true calling?”
There are temptations both in repeating your successes and in compromising your vision. When I visited the Rouault estate in Paris, I was standing in the studio all by myself and feeling, “Rouault understands what I’m going through.” I have three children, and I’m living by faith to provide for my family. For Rouault making art was prayer, too. It was a daily discipline and ritual that drew him closer to God.
Image: He never was a businessman, though. He was an artist’s artist, as you’ve said.
MF: He is a painter’s painter. Chuck Close recently told me that he was heavily influenced by Rouault. Many Nihonga masters of our day have said the same thing. The beautiful thing about being an artist is that you don’t have to find affirmation among your peers if you have a sense of history. You have the Fra Angelicos, the Rouaults, and you can have fellowship with them. Flannery O’Connor was the same way: she didn’t find many peers thinking the way she thought about literature, but she was able to go back and find voices in the past and affirm her Catholic faith in a Protestant South. This is something we Protestants often forget. We don’t think about the verticality of history.
Image: In what way would you say that Rouault’s sense of otherworldliness is distinctively Christian, rather than Buddhist, say? At the time Rouault was painting, Kandinsky wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which is syncretistic. Compare Kandinsky on the spiritual with Rouault—where do you see the difference?
MF: You have to go back to the flattened perception that Rouault resisted all his life. At the end he was more complex and layered, and his paintings got thicker and thicker. He wanted physicality in his work, and Kandinsky went the other way, which is what happens with a gnostic spirituality that denies the material. Rouault’s spirituality was the fusing of heaven into our fragile earth.
Image: Compare Rouault and Matisse. They were trained in the same studio, were friends, and both used color to structure their work. But they used color in different ways.
MF: Matisse created sensual work that might even be called hedonistic. He could only trust things that delighted the senses. And they are wonderful. They have a kind of celebration and beauty that we can appreciate. But Matisse doesn’t have the substance of reality that Rouault possessed.
Image: When you study Rouault in art history, he is linked with the Expressionists. Do you think that he’s misplaced in that category?
MF: He was influenced by the Expressionists, but he wasn’t one of them. He didn’t want to express himself; he wanted to be sanctified in the process. He’s about being faithful to internal realities, but also the brokenness of the world. He was very committed to the margins of society. By identifying with the poor, with prostitutes and marginalized people, he thought he would meet Jesus—which is very much a Catholic perspective, and biblical, as exhibited in the writings of Isaiah or Jeremiah. Painting was not about self-expression for Rouault, so his lines are not screaming about himself. In some ways that accounts for the Japanese interest in his work—that he’s totally unselfish. There is compassion there, and empathy, which Zen artists talk about but couldn’t access. Rouault’s faith was incarnational, and filled with action. The Japanese admire authentic faith that taps into sacrificial beauty.
Image: Let’s get to subject matter. The prostitutes, for example, who he painted earlier in his career. There’s much disagreement about them. Some read them as viciously attacking the ugliness of these women, and others, like Dyrness, read them as compassionate. How do you look at them?
MF: I see them as authentic. Also, we have to remember that these works were painted by a young artist. When you’re younger there’s a tension within you that you’re trying to reconcile. To me, Rouault’s pieces have always been very honest. He doesn’t hide anything.
There’s anger there, too—a sense of outrage at injustice mixed with compassion. He was someone who could not objectively stand back from a situation. He was always in there, among people, and he understood the reality of dehumanization, and how it was also a part of himself.
Image: How about his use of gesture? You talked about the element of calligraphy. There’s such freedom in his line, even though sometimes he goes over a line again and again. But in some of his freer works, there’s just one stroke of a line that communicates, for example, pride—as with the woman with the haughty neck. Was that unique among artists of his day?
MF: I think so. That could have been Moreau’s influence; it’s what he saw in Rouault—the ability to capture succinct gestures. He wasn’t an expansive narrative artist. He wasn’t going to have the range of expression that a lot of students at the Salon had—the academy-trained painters. I identify with that. I feel like my gift is this slice of expression that no one else really has. It’s a gift, but it’s very small. When you’re young, you try to do everything, but I remember my teachers saying: “Your gestures capture so much. You need to trust them. You need to nurture that gift.” I think that’s what Rouault realized.
Image: You can name Rouault’s subjects on two hands. He paints clowns, judges, Christ, Veronica’s veil—and he just goes over and over them again, discovering new things in them, apparently.
MF: That’s something you can perhaps discover through other worldviews, but the Christian worldview—especially the Catholic worldview—can give assent to that. When you see yourself in the context of the entire history of the church, you feel so small. When you consider the grandeur of the cathedrals and the traditions and Dante and Aquinas and Augustine, you feel that you can only do a little thing. But if you can focus on that and do it very well, somehow you can contribute.
Image: You’ve talked about his art as a bridge between the past and the future. Rouault is traditional without being a traditionalist, but he’s also prophetic. Talk about that a little bit.
MF: I see him as the first twenty-first century artist. He is able to synthesize all these styles—from medieval and Renaissance to Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Rembrandt, and who knows what is to come. He transcends modernism. He’s not anti-modern; he’s trans-modern. That’s very rare. You don’t find too many artists who are able to speak beyond the fragmentation and have something real to say. Just by being faithful to that, he was being prophetic, because he was saying there will come a time when flatness of perception will take over. It’s almost like The Matrix: his world is the red pill. You take it and you see all sorts of ugliness, and all sorts of reality behind it, and you almost don’t want to take it, because it’s painful. But he was seeing faithfully, and therefore when we look past the matrix, we can see the substance of reality in Rouault that we don’t see in other painters.
Image: I’m amazed by the visual bombardment of New York. I wonder if Rouault, without that kind of overstimulation, saw things in a deeper way than we do.
MF: In one sense we’re not overstimulated, because technology has a numbing effect. You could say that Rouault’s paintings are totally hedonistic—that there’s all this sensory invitation to fullness of overstimulation—but we don’t think of them in that way. It’s like a rich French meal: it’s almost too rich for us. French culture definitely has that full-bodied reality behind it. What is overwhelming is the lack of focus, attention, love, that distracts us from what is real. That is what people are hungering for, even though they don’t realize it. They try to fill it with all these things—with iPhones, with neon signs, and work—and we experience life in fragments, dissected, like a Picasso painting.
Image: So when they meet an artist like Rouault they have to learn how to see?
MF: Yes, Rouault’s paintings re-humanize us to truly see again. The Rouault family was so excited to see young people come to the opening of the Soliloquies exhibition last fall. More than five hundred people attended, and the majority were young. Many had heard about Rouault but never seen his work. That’s what the Rouault estate wanted; that’s why they took the risk of doing this show and shipped all these magnificent works to the United States.
Image: G.K. Chesterton says that Christian vision is “stereoscopic”—that the Christian takes antitheses and holds them together without easily resolving them. The essence of heresy, he says, is taking one extreme to the exclusion of the other. I see a kind of stereoscopic vision in Rouault. It has to do with the aesthetic you wrote about as “a terrible beauty,” which does not shy away from the ugliness of sin, but also sees grace breaking in at that moment as light into darkness. And Rouault does this—alone, I think, of twentieth-century artists. Would you agree?
MF: I agree. Though maybe Joseph Beuys also began to think in that way. He deals with shamanism, but he comes very close to some of the social-democratic Christian ideals, and I suspect he understood what the cross was about more than a lot of artists at the time.
Going back to Chesterton, I would say that Christian vision should have not two lenses but three. We need a Trinitarian perspective. For example, we speak of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. But I don’t mean to suggest neat categories. It’s just one way to get at the deeper issues. Modernist arguments are so often dialectical, and it’s true that you can hold two things in tension, but the mystery can only occur if there’s a third, mediating reality that can look at those two objectively and negotiate between them.
Image: The show that brings together your paintings with Rouault’s is called Soliloquies—which is a strange title, because of course you’re in dialogue.
MF: A soliloquy is supposed to be a solo, but Augustine talked about how a soliloquy, a prophetic statement, can only be made when you assume that there’s consequence, somebody responding to it. You have to assume that when you give a soliloquy, it’s not just you talking. You’re in front of an audience. You are speaking in response to reality and its relationships. You assume that there are other people doing their soliloquies.
Image: Is there an image that for you is quintessential Rouault?
MF: If I were asked to pick one painting for a museum, it would definitely be La Fin d’Automne. But I like Christ in the Suburbs, too [see Plate 1]. That one is very unusual. He didn’t paint many like it. It’s not really Christ walking; it’s this farmer or father figure. That’s very hard to find.
Image: You also mentioned the “heavenly” point of view that Anselm Kiefer uses—and that Oskar Kokoschka used in his wartime landscapes—which is actually an impossible human point of view, right? De Chirico used it too, I think.
MF: De Chirico and Cézanne, although his viewpoint is deliberately ambiguous. Also Van Gogh. Artists have used this in the past, but I think not in the same way that Rouault did. In Rouault it’s almost like you are the person looking at it. It’s not just a device. So you’re forced to see it from that perspective, which gives you a level of empathy or understanding that angels may have. You’re looking at it, wondering: “Is there intervention? What am I supposed to do with this information?” It’s not this detached thing.
Image: This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but what if you had a show putting Rouault alongside Thomas Kinkade? Kinkade calls himself “the painter of light.” You could also call Rouault a painter of light. What is different in how they view the world?
MF: Thomas Kinkade knows what he’s doing. He’s an entrepreneur who created a whole new category: suburban art. Which is pretty remarkable, when you think about it. But it’s not enduring. It’s painted on cardboard. It’s going to disintegrate.
Image: He’s an impressionist, right?
MF: I wouldn’t even say he’s an impressionist, because he’s not even interested in sensory modalities. He is about an idealized utopian view; like the Russian propagandists, he’s painting a certain kind of an ideal. But I know he could do more if he wanted to. He’s capable of it, and I hope he does, because it’s a shame to see somebody not paint out of his own inner calling.
Image: If Rouault returned today, fifty years later, what would he tell a group of Christian artists?
MF: I think he would be a passionate evangelist—that he would talk about the church, what the church meant to him; his relationship with Maritain; how fiercely we need to defend our faith, our ways of life; that art is prayer; and that you don’t have to seek approval from men: do all things for God, and let the chips fall where they may; and God will take care of you, and your family, and your great-grandchildren, as this show proves.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.