A number of recent events suggest a revival of interest in the work of Georges Rouault is underway. Three in particular are worth noting: In 2008 a major exhibition, Mystic Masque, curated by Stephen Schloesser, was held at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College; a year later a joint exhibition of work by Makoto Fujimura and Rouault appeared at the Dillon Gallery in New York; and currently an exhibition of Rouault’s Miserere series of prints, from the collection of Robert and Sandra Bowden, is traveling in the United States and Canada (prints from their collection appeared previously in exhibitions at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York). In the following article, William Dyrness reflects on Rouault’s graphic work, and the Miserere series in particular.
IN A CENTURY when art and religion seemed to be going their separate ways, Georges Rouault (1871-1958) was an anomaly: here was a notable modern artist whose work was clearly religious. Ironically, he was not always celebrated either by critics as an important modern artist, or by believers as a religious artist. From one point of view, his credentials seem secure: in the 1890s he studied with Gustave Moreau in the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris; he exhibited with the Fauves in 1905; and he was soon showing work in major galleries and museums in Paris and, before he died, in New York, London, and Tokyo. But, though he studied and showed with some of the major figures of modern art, Rouault was set apart from his contemporaries—both by the “poetics of shock” that he learned from Baudelaire, and by his attraction to the Middle Ages, inspired by Moreau.
Around the turn of the century, he experienced a renewal of his Catholic faith and immediately began a series of dark paintings of nudes and prostitutes. He later wrote of this time: “When I was about thirty, I felt a stroke of lightning, or of grace, depending on one’s perspective. The face of the world changed for me. I saw everything that I had seen before, but in a different form and with a different harmony.” His faith led him to a painterly meditation on those marginalized by society and, especially, on their suffering—a focus that would be developed in his Miserere series.
This deeply felt realism made Rouault incomprehensible to many modern critics. Writing in 1945, Clement Greenberg complained about Rouault’s “conventional sensibility” and “forced manner,” and dismissed him by saying: “That Rouault, pictorial exponent of the pornographic, sadomasochistic, ‘avant-garde’ Catholicism of Léon Bloy, should be hailed as the one profoundly religious painter of our time is one of the embarrassments of modernist art.”
Later critics, who had rejected Greenberg’s formalism, found it more difficult to dismiss Rouault’s spirituality. The atheist Peter Fuller, writing in 1982, pointed out that many artists sought a dimension of depth, “something more,” in their work. Rouault’s own spirituality, Fuller recognized, was rooted in a living “symbolic order.” Those deprived of the “consolations of religion,” Fuller admitted, won’t find comfort in Rouault. But neither can they easily dismiss him: “For he forces us to ask whether the consolations of art can ever really be available to those who are not prepared, or are not able to commit themselves to illusions more radical than the merely ‘aesthetic.’”
After his death, apart from a retrospective in the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 1971, Rouault’s work has not been shown in major exhibitions or studied by scholars until very recently (after my own 1971 monograph only one other monograph has appeared in English, Rouault in Perspective, by Soo Yun Kang, in 2000).
If mainline critics had trouble seeing Rouault as fully modern, religious writers also mistrusted him. His work simply did not appear Christian in the traditional sense. Too much of it seemed overly gloomy and depressing. Indeed for most of his life the church resisted the darkness of his work. Even when the Dominican fathers at the review L’Art Sacré came to appreciate Picasso and the surrealists in the 1930s, Rouault was ignored. Finally in 1945 Rouault was commissioned to do windows for the church at Assy, and in 1953, five years before his death, he was honored by Pope Pius XII. Subsequently Rouault’s acceptance in the church and among Christians generally has been growing, even as his reputation in the larger art world has declined.
The recent interest in Rouault reinforces both his importance to the development of modern art and the necessity of appreciating his religious sensitivities. It was particularly in his printmaking that his religious vision took shape. Rouault began his Miserere series during the somber days of World War I and had finished it by 1927. He first drew the images in India ink and later reproduced them as engravings, reworking the plates over the years—scraping deeper with a file or sanding with emery paper—until the series of fifty-eight plates was finally published in a limited edition in 1948. (Mechanically reproduced versions began to appear shortly afterward, beginning in Paris in 1950 and soon after in many other countries.) During much of this time he was also working on the prints that finally appeared in another important series, the Passion, published by Ambroise Vollard in 1939, with short accompanying texts by Rouault’s friend André Suarés. During the 1920s, in fact, he was almost exclusively engaged with his printmaking and rarely exhibited his work. Only after 1927 did he return to painting large-scale works.
How did Rouault come to his anguished view of the human situation? And how was he able to discover the hope of salvation there? From a small window in his Paris studio, he would watch the unfolding human drama on the streets below. These glimpses from his apartment, and what he saw during his limited travel, moved him deeply. “One is never finished seeing and watching,” he would say. “Our eyes are the door of the spirit and the light of the mind.” He was always on the lookout for some new range of human experience. As he wrote to Suarés, “An ever more loving and precise observation of nature will bring me to a more vibrant art…. It is impossible for me to isolate myself from the events of the day.” The walks he took while on vacation with his friend Claude Roulet consisted of long minutes staring into shop windows and prolonged pauses as he stopped to pick up some object on the street. Roulet wrote in the introduction to his reflections on the artist: “Rouault was one of the real ‘spiritualist’ painters of his time, who thought with his hands and in the material, pondering with his eyes.”
But the key to his faith, and a major theme of the Miserere, is the hope he was able to find in the suffering that he saw around him. In a 1939 article he reflected on the desperate situation in which so many people live, what he called the “old district of long suffering.” Given this suffering, he wondered, why do we not despair? Because, Rouault wrote: “Deep down inside the most unfriendly, unpleasant, and impure creature, Jesus dwells.” Here I believe is the key to his faith and also the source of the evident power of his work: in the deepest suffering, Jesus is present. But how does Rouault succeed in showing this?
One must remember that Rouault was a painter, not a theologian. And for evidence of an artist’s faith, we must look at his work. “All I seek,” he confessed, “is the plastic transcription of my emotions.” And so the prints in the Miserere and other series have become transcripts of his feelings; they record his distress over what, in one plate’s caption, he called the “hard business of living.” He seemed to understand all this from the inside, as it were, as a participant in life’s difficulties, not simply an observer. As he explained: “I carry within myself an infinite depth of suffering and melancholy, which life has only served to develop and of which my paintings, if God allows it, will only be the flowering and imperfect expression.” This led him to a deep identification with the poor and marginalized. In one print, a father reaches down to encourage his son: the caption reads, “take refuge in your heart, vagabond of misfortune.” In another, an anguished woman stands in a windblown landscape. In another, refugees flee their homes with what they can carry, their backs bowed. In the plate captioned “In the old district of Long Suffering,” a little family huddles beneath a tree that offers small comfort [see Plate 5]. His images are often distressing. As his friend Jacques Maritain said, art often must de-form to get at the nature of things. What is striking in Rouault’s portrayal of this human struggle is his sense of the social situation—the ecology of suffering, its causes and effects. He knew the role of bleak suburbs of Paris, the poor districts on the outskirts near the factories.
Rouault was able to see these dreary figures without pity or despair because he saw beyond the surface of things. These lonely figures were part of a larger story; he was able to look into their suffering and see Jesus. In many ways Rouault’s religious faith consisted of a life-long meditation on the incarnation of Christ. What gave him hope was the presence of Christ in the midst of life’s vicissitudes. Of his 160 religious paintings, virtually all of them include some image of Christ—and most of these reflect on Christ’s humiliation and pain. The opening image of the Miserere is an outsized bowed head of Christ, with its crown of thorns, captioned “Jesus despised….” This seemed to capture for Rouault the heart of what happened on the cross—Jesus was dishonored and spurned, like us! This is why so many of his images of Christ—always in a white tunic—show him in solidarity with his disciples, or the poor and lonely. In the 1920-24 painting Christ in the Suburbs, Christ walks along with those trapped in this poor neighborhood [see Plate 1]. At the same time Rouault would bristle at the thought that rich or powerful folk automatically had God on their side: he was incensed that “The upper-class lady believes she holds a reserved seat in Heaven” (as in the caption of one of the Miserere prints). And he seemed disgusted at the enigmatic image of some bishop who seems so distant, as in another print, “Far from the smile of Rheims.” (Rheims is the most famous and beautiful of the French cathedrals, and this reference may help account for the dismay his work initially caused the hierarchy of the church.) Both the bishop and the lady have their heads held high—a gesture of pride that Rouault contrasted with the humility of a bowed head. (Rouault frequently uses gesture and posture to suggest depth of emotion.)
For Rouault, the identification of Christ with human misery is seen centrally in his death on the cross. In the plate “Love one another,” Christ’s head is bowed in death as John and the two Marys cover their faces in anguish below. The caption seems like a strange comment on such an event, until one remembers that this awful sacrifice was at the same time the supreme expression of God’s love. This point is made powerfully in the final plate of the Miserere series, where a head of Christ encircled with thorns appears on a cloth and bears the caption (from Isaiah 53:5): “It is by his wounds that we are healed.” Notice the exchange Rouault is proposing: Jesus takes our wounds, we receive his healing. For Rouault, this is the secret of the atonement. It is underlined in that this face of Christ echoes a virtually identical image from earlier in the series, one captioned “And Veronica, with her soft linen, still passes along the road…” [see Plate 6]. This refers to the medieval legend of a woman who wiped Jesus’s face on the way to the cross. Her cloth miraculously took on the imprint of his face, and she herself was mysteriously transformed into an image of Christ (that is, into a “true image”—the traditional etymology of “Veronica”). This veil of Veronica appears or is referenced in five prints, and it ties the Miserere series together. Just as Christ took on our likeness, Veronica (and potentially all of us) can take on his. So there is an invitation implicit in these images: as Christ identified with the suffering of the world, you, me, and all of us are called to go into the darkness. In 1939, Rouault wrote these lines:
His friends were fishermen
Understood in the best sense;
Clearly he could do no other,
In taking on our suffering,
Than going where it was most severe.
If we follow Jesus, this is where we will go as well. We are called to be like the figure who carries Jesus’s cross in the aquatint from the Passion. This call is expressed most clearly in a plate captioned “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world…,” where Rouault zooms in, as it were, on the torso of Christ hanging on the cross. The phrase comes from Pascal’s commentary on Matthew 26:36-46, where Jesus asks his disciples to stay awake while he is in anguished prayer; they sleep. Pascal’s sentence continues: “…and we must not sleep during that time.” Do not sleep while Jesus suffers.
The calling that results from the exchange of images is emphasized also in a plate captioned “We…were baptized into Jesus Christ, were baptized into his death,” which shows John baptizing Jesus as the Spirit descends in the form of a dove. The words come from Romans 6:3, and the reference offers an additional aspect of our identification with Christ. For Paul goes on in this passage to say: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” For Rouault, even if the resurrection is seldom a direct subject, the cross always implies that hope. In another plate, “He who believes in me, though he be dead, shall live,” a room filled with skulls opens to a niche with a cross standing on—piercing—a skull (a reference to John 11:25).
That Rouault intended to include a resurrection image in the Miserere is evident from the cancelled print captioned “Resurrection” or “In every heart well-born, Jesus rises again.” There Christ comes out of the grave with his hands raised, his face lifted up to heaven. The plate “Arise, you dead!” offers an interesting take on the medieval danse macabre, where living persons cavorted with skeletons—in anticipation of their own death. Here, the dance is one of life. The reference is clearly to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones, where the prophet calls for the skeletons to come to life, as a sign of the promise that God offered his people in exile. We too are exiled, Rouault wants to say, but there is hope for us, even beyond the grave.
Rouault seldom portrayed the resurrection directly (the cancelled image is one of only two such images I know of), but in another sense the reality of the resurrection is central to his work, especially his later pieces, whose surfaces seem to burst into flame. Critic Jean Grenier has argued that almost all of Rouault’s later images of Christ express his resurrection more than his passion—as in the vivid 1938 aquatints from the Fleurs du Mal, where the face expresses a deep confidence, or where, in a torso of Christ on the cross, his head is held up, in the fashion of an Eastern Orthodox icon, expressing the victory over death won on the cross. But perhaps the clearest example of this Christ of resurrection is the 1936 lithograph of Christ on the cross [see Plate 3]: in this lucid image John and the two Marys no longer cry out, rather they seem to be worshiping—they kneel or look up at the drama unfolding. And, typically, the hope they feel is reflected in the orange-yellow sky behind the cross.
Though color was important to Rouault throughout his life, it became more vivid and striking later—always enhancing the emotional impact. The deep and dark blues in his early work gave way to the reds, oranges, and warm flesh tones of later pieces [see Plate 4]. Often the light in the sky contrasted with the shadows below.
One final image, I think, summarizes what Rouault is saying in these series. In various ways, his images lay out the human situation of suffering and a savior who shares this suffering. But not everyone recognizes Jesus for who he is. He can be missed. Many look at the poor and outcast and see only despair; they do not see Jesus. Many others look at Jesus and fail to see his suffering love. And it is not always the powerful who see clearly. In a plate captioned “Sometimes, the blind man consoles the seeing,” Rouault ironically portrays a blind person leading a sighted one. In a similar plate, it is a blind person who truly sees: he reaches out to touch the Lord, saying, “Lord, it’s you. I recognize you.” How is Jesus recognized? By an interior certainty that is intuited rather than known; by the Spirit’s work in the heart of the believer. From a very different tradition, John Calvin describes this same encounter. In the Institutes, he writes in words Rouault would affirm: “In Christ we receive the fullness of God. The believing soul recognizes the presence of God indubitably and, as one may say, touches him with his hand.”
In all these prints, Rouault seeks, as he says, “a plastic transcription of his emotions.” His religious vision of human suffering led him to his dramatic style of light and shadows, and to his vivid colors. His style developed in pursuit of this spiritual vision. Interestingly, it was precisely this pursuit of emotional content that critics like Clement Greenberg could not understand. Why, Greenberg wondered, could Rouault not follow Matisse, Picasso, or Mondrian, artists “who work at style in order to achieve content”? Rouault could not go this way because there was something more important to him than the pursuit of formal qualities. This artisanal working of color and paint, for him, was the narrow way that leads through darkness to life.