By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published August 30, 2013
It has been a long, hot summer, a summer marked by extremes in both the environment and human nature, and as a new academic year begins, many of us will look again to the solace of the arts.
For most of my life, I have turned to art in times of trouble, and though much 20th century aesthetic philosophy argues against art’s association with the traditional attributes of beauty and emotion, Keats was right: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” When we need comfort, when we need healing, when we need to revive our sense of the spiritual in the everyday, it is to art—even modern art—that we can go for insight and renewal.
The priest and philosopher Jacques Maritain argued in his book, “Art and Scholasticism,” that “we must above all be careful not to disengage and isolate Christian art from the great movement of contemporary art.” Maritain knew that the Christian artist could not dissociate himself from the spirit of his times; in fact, Maritain argued that the best Christian artists immersed themselves in their own age, and in doing so, rediscovered the eternal and mystical attributes of belief that the modern age had seemed to abandon. God had not disappeared, after all, argued Maritain; the Christian artist simply needed to look for God in different places and in different ways.
For Maritain, one essential Christian artist of the 20th century was the French painter Georges Rouault, the artist who was a central influence upon the writing of “Art and Scholasticism,” and who in many ways represents the ideal Christian artist Maritain describes in that work. Indeed, Maritain even wrote a short book on Rouault’s paintings, and the two shared a meaningful friendship.
Maritain said of Rouault, “What he sees and knows with a strange pity, and what he makes us see, is the miserable affliction and the lamentable meanness of our times, not just the affliction of the body, but the affliction of the soul, the bestiality and the self-satisfied vainglory of the rich and the worldly, the crushing weariness of the poor, the frailty of us all.”
Maritain was describing the principle subjects that Rouault painted, among them prostitutes, grotesque harlequins and portraits of a mocked and weary Christ, and yet, as Rouault said of his own role as artist, his greatest purpose was to “celebrate all living things.”
Rouault was born in Paris in 1871, and as a boy he apprenticed as a stained glass painter. Shortly before his 20th birthday, he decided instead to paint on canvas, and following a relatively short period of formal instruction, he won a prize for his painting “The Child Jesus Among the Doctors.” Throughout his early years, he frequently painted religious subjects, some dealing with the Old Testament but most with the Passion and death of Christ. By the early 20th century, he was painting clowns and prostitutes in paintings that exhibited aspects of primitivism and fauvism; though he was fascinated with showing the depravity of street life and carnival life, he also sought to reveal its essential beauty. Rouault identified with Christ’s own empathy for the poor, the sinful and the downtrodden. In one of the most difficult aims of not just the artist, but any complete human being, Rouault saw the essential beauty in all people, even those whom the world labeled ugly or deformed.
In his early career, Rouault rarely exhibited his work, but his paintings were the subject of occasional retrospectives. Much of the conventional art world derided both his secular and religious works, and failed to see the connection that Rouault intended between his worldly and sacred subjects, even when the two were perfectly blended as in the wonderful “Christ in the Suburbs,” which alludes literally to the Emmaus story and more mystically to the presence of Christ even in the bleakest of industrial landscapes.
By 1948, when Rouault first exhibited his large collection of pictures that constitute the masterwork “The Miserere,” his reputation had grown. “The Miserere” itself was intended to be a gallery of 50 pictures related to a prayer for mercy juxtaposed with another 50 paintings on the theme of war; though Rouault never finished the project he had initially conceived, what appeared in the public exhibition solidified the controversial reception that shaped the rest of his life.
In 1951, for example, the French Center for Catholic Intellectuals organized a tribute to Rouault, while the Catholic convert Leon Bloy argued instead that “if you really were a devout man you would not paint such horrible canvases.” But for most modern Catholic artists and intellectuals, Rouault’s work had a profound resonance. The filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock admired Rouault’s ideas as well as his paintings; in fact, one of Rouault’s “La Suaires” hung in the foyer of Hitchcock’s Bel Air mansion, and Flannery O’Connor remarked that anyone who didn’t appreciate Rouault as being a religious artist was “pure nuts.”
Near the end of his life, Rouault had also at last found favor with the modern art establishment, and he had major retrospectives in New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. At his death in 1958, the French government gave him a state funeral. Though eulogies were offered by public officials of the arts and education, the best epitaph to Rouault’s life might be his own words: “The experienced painter in whose mind every image is so well imprinted, will he realize at last that at the end of the long road Our Lady of the End of the Earth stretches out her arms to the poor devil?”
Perhaps not surprisingly, because of his deep religious faith and his expression of that faith in his work, Rouault is not very well known today. His contemporaries, the great modern painters such as Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, are far more recognizable to contemporary audiences. Certainly scholarship and exhibitions related to their work dwarf that about Rouault.
Yet looking at a Rouault painting, even when the viewer does not know the artist’s work, results in a striking sense of identification and recognition. The viewer feels as though he knows these works, even if he has never seen them before. This remarkable effect is exactly the quality that Maritain praised; we know what it is to suffer, and yet we also hope in redemption from that suffering.
In addition to the works previously mentioned, look too at Rouault’s marvelous series on the events of the Passion, “Head of Christ,” and “The Holy Countenance.” These paintings, like “Veronica,” “The Flight Into Egypt,” and the numerous pictures of Christ and his disciples, represent a kind of modern iconography. They compel a reverent, and even awed, recognition of the endurance of the mystery of faith even in our own troubled age.
“There are no rules,” wrote Maritain, “for giving an art object a value of religious emotion.” In exposing the fallacy of traditional religious art—that it belongs solely to a place far removed from our own experience—Rouault created a new appreciation for both the sacred and the persistent intervention of the sacred, even in the profane. His work is, fittingly, Catholic and catholic; it belongs to us all.