William Dyrness is a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. His latest book is Poetic Theology (Eerdmans). He was Image’s Artist of the Month in June 2001. Image issue 67 features his essay on the vision of Christ in the paintings of Georges Rouault. We asked Dyrness why he is so drawn to Rouault’s work.
Image: In Image 67, you write about how Rouault’s reputation has changed since his death. For most of the last century he was misunderstood or ignored, but in the last few years there’s been a resurgence of interest in his work. Why was he dismissed before, and why has his reputation changed now?
William Dyrness: Many people think all of modern art has been hostile to religion, but this is not strictly true. Up until the mid-twentieth century a range of artists explored religious questions—important artists like Albert Gleizes in Paris and Graham Sutherland in England painted religious subjects, even Henri Matisse accepted a commission from the famous French church at Assy. During this time Rouault’s work was widely respected. But after mid-century, with the triumph of formalism and high modernism, all religious, even personal visions, were called into question. Art was supposed to be about formal, or painterly qualities, not political or spiritual values. Fortunately by the 1970s and 1980s this narrow vision was challenged and artists began (again!) to explore spiritual and religious subjects. The secularism implicit in high modernism was cracked open allowing a multitude of styles and subjects, religious themes among them, to thrive. Think of the way the popularity of Van Gogh overtook that of artists like Jackson Pollock. This opened the way for people to take another look at Rouault’s work. Along with the recent exhibitions and studies I cite in the article, I have noticed his work appearing frequently in magazine articles and book covers.
Image: Rouault painted the same subjects over and over: clowns, prostitutes, crucifixions, heads of Christ, Veronica’s veil, small groups of figures huddled in poor neighborhoods. How do you go about looking at a work of his when you feel like it’s so similar to others you’ve seen before? What do you find that’s new in the iterations?
WD: Rouault’s subjects were indeed consistent over his long lifetime. But there were distinct periods that throw different light on these themes. These periods featured different media that provide quite different experiences for the viewer. For example, early on—just after his conversion, interestingly—poor women and prostitutes were portrayed with a dark, even fearsome goauche—a kind of opaque watercolor that allowed artists to record quick impressions. This lent his early work a journalistic, almost cartoonlike quality (he was influenced by the printmaker Honoré Daumier during this time) that gave life and vitality to these fallen women. In the middle of his career these themes were more often explored through various print media, giving them a stark immediacy that often stuns viewers. In his later oils, his colors deepened and these themes take on an elegiac and nostalgic character. These later works move viewers in subtle and reflective ways. There is continuity but the emotional impact changes in ways that reflect his maturing vision.
Image: You seem to be particularly drawn to Rouault’s prints. What is it about that medium that attracts you? There’s so much that’s appealing about color, of course, but what emerges when color is taking out of the equation?
WD: Particularly during the years between the wars Rouault was engrossed in a number of projects that employed various print techniques. For the Miserere series (1914-1927), he uses intaglio etching that allowed him to return again and again to the plates and make the lines more profound and the images more striking. During this time he also explored woodcuts, aquatints and lithographs—the latter two allowing even for a stunning use of color. What is attractive to me is the stark character of the light and dark, especially in the intaglio prints, that suits perfectly the bleak character of the subjects of this period—Christ humiliated, on the cross, people huddled in a barren landscape. There is a fine coherence between the subject and the medium that is often arresting. Viewers cannot escape the impact of the subjects, by attending, for example, to details of dress or landscape. A colored lithograph, say of Christ on the cross, has the same pure and clean look to it that underlines the central thrust of Christ’s suffering and Mary and John embracing below.
This is all appealing and makes his prints attractive to me, but I am also drawn, for different reasons, to the rich colors and forms of his later work, which is largely painted in oil. That period offers a contrasting, more meditative interpretation of some of Rouault’s themes, that I referred to above.
Image: Much of Rouault’s work is tinged with sadness and grief, though it also radiates an intense compassion for suffering. Do you find that this dimension of his work is a tough sell or do people respond positively to it?
WD: For my doctoral work, I chose between Picasso and Rouault for reflecting on religious (and theological) influences on art. I was always grateful to have chosen Rouault. In 1971, at a retrospective at what was then the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, my wife and I were moved to tears when we stood in a room of some of his larger (and later) works that we had studied but never seen. I found that reflecting on his work over a period of years was spiritually enriching in many ways. For some of the reasons I note above, not everyone has this reaction to his work. Ironically during the first half of the twentieth century, though he was widely admired in the larger art world, the Catholic Church largely ignored him—his work was considered too dark. For many religious people it did not reflect the tradition of Catholic art. The situation has changed now; Catholics (and many Protestants) have come to love his work.
Rouault’s reception in America is especially interesting. After my studies in France, I was amazed to come back to the US in the early 1970s, and realize how few of Rouault’s major works were in American collections. Though this has changed some, there is still resistance to his work in this country. Americans are not inclined to prolonged reflection on sadness and suffering—they prefer the light and color of Impressionism. But Rouault was deeply drawn to the suffering he saw around him—remember he experienced the suffering of two world wars and the realities of poor neighborhoods firsthand. In some ways, like most Europeans of his era, he could not escape these themes.
But there is more to be said about the overall impact of Rouault’s work. Though it is true that suffering and sadness appear frequently, there are specific signs of hope as well—the sun and orange light in the sky, or the comforting presence of Jesus in the poor neighborhoods. Though he rarely portrayed the resurrection, students of his later work have argued that his focus on the cross and Veronica’s veil provide an implicit reference to the hope of resurrection.