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  • Writer's pictureJay Abel


Updated: Feb 16, 2023

A few years before George Rouault died in 1958, after a lifetime of modest labor, his star was ascending. Interviews were published, museums were bidding for originals, and over the next 30 years a dozen color monographs were printed by all the big names, Abrams, Rizzolli, Skira.

George Rouault- Joan of Ark, 1951

Rather suddenly, all the fuss abated and nobody mentions Rouault anymore.

That is a shame.

He was the last great religious painter, but his Christianity is far too real and honest and tragic for some believers. Flying out the window, and straight to heaven, with a sanitized, movie star Jesus, who preaches the gospel according to Rush Limbaugh, has become a compelling idea of spiritual transcendence. Of course, the debasement of faith is nothing new, not since the days of warrior popes and god-fearing arms merchants.

Rouault was the troubled, thinking man’s Christian, the real thing, but Art History now regards him and his imagery with deep suspicion. When I was 19 he was the first 20th century artist to really impress me, with his crude, archaic integrity. 20th century French Expressionism was never so dark, or as existentially serious as the Teutonic stuff, but Rouault was the exception to Matisse's feel-good Gaelic charm. Rouault should have been a German, except for he wasn’t. He went to school with Matisse and both of them were mentored by Gustave Moreau, the most open-minded of academic teachers, much loved by his students. They mourned Moreau's death in 1894 as one would a father. All the same, Moreau's fussy, overcooked mythological concoctions whereby “even the elephants sport watch chains” (remarked the acidic Degas), had little impact on either of them.

Rouault and Matisse liked one another and Matisse was very supportive of his classmate, but they shared nothing by way of temperament. Rouault, son of an ordinary woodworker, was deeply spiritual, self-effacing, philosophical and socialist. (back when serious followers of Jesus embraced left-wing social ideas). He identified with the poor, the outcast, the miserable, and with the blood of the savior. Such concerns define the bulk of his work.

Matisse, the joyful expressionist, consciously banished dark and troubling ideas from his visual repertoire, and that was easy because he never had any to begin with. But spiritual travail and the acute awareness of human suffering obsessed Rouault, who hardly made a decorative image in his all of his 87 years. His life was spent finding a voice to express the depth of his conscience. When his student days were over he virtually locked himself away in a dingy upstairs studio and worked obsessively, in near isolation, and some of his most profound work came out of his last years.

This is encouraging to us post-retirement geezers, who dream of better days to come.

Religious art was an unpopular subject with the French avant garde after 1905, smacking as it did of hidebound tradition and soapy cliché. Indeed, by the late 19th century it had disintegrated into glossy, pious claptrap and its conventional iconography never left that sugar-frosted comfort zone. Rouault wanted to reclaim the primal essence of spiritual understanding. For that he would build a new language of expression, self-consciously archaic, encrusted, labored, whereby every scintilla of refinement or phony sentiment had been hammered away, leaving only the scar tissue of torturous effort. Unlike the Germans however, Rouault rejected self-indulgence and topicality. He conceived of himself as a humble believer and for all of his life he was just that. As a young man he worked a job restoring medieval stained glass windows. The black leading, emphatic color and devout, anonymous workmanship impressed him deeply. References to the ancient glass are to be seen in nearly all of his work.

His paint denies any flashy exhibition of facile brushwork. It was a laborious, shifting crust of magma . Much of his best work was done late in life, when the painter was in his 70s and 80s. The paint layer becomes as turgid and volcanic as the images are simple and iconic.

Rouault's expressionism is unique in that it is seldom, if ever, about Rouault, but rather about some larger world of spiritual or physical travail.

He said "A lot of artists are obsessed with being themselves, Sadly, that is all they can ever be".

Modern Christianity could use Rouault, but would never, currently, accept his art or his ideas. (A hand full of contemporary Christians, who actually live up to the tag, may be excepted).

As for art history, it's far less without him. As Robert Hughes once remarked “In the 20th century god died, and artists weren’t feeling too good”. One might follow that with an observation from August Rodin, “If there were no god the artist would have to invent one”. Both quotes confront the same idea. Art without a larger context is just topical self-indulgence or wall-paper. Rouault was neither, but a greater context is hard to find, and harder to accept, these days.

The 21st century didn’t know what to do with him. JDA

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