Georges Rouault: Thoughts at the End of an Exhibit (1/11/2009)

This was a blockbuster exhibit that was one of the art world’s best kept secrets. Boston College hosted what may well have been a once-in-a-lifetime retrospective of works by Georges Rouault, August 30 to December 7, 2008. Did anyone notice? Did anyone care?

Fifty years ago Rouault was celebrated as one of the great artists of his age. When an exhibit of his works appeared at the Museum of Modern Art, the philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote from Princeton, words highlighted by the art critic Leo J. O’Donovan in a superb essay in Commonweal (October 10, 2008), that Rouault’s Apresent glory is the purest glory a great painter has ever known in his lifetime.

Rouault was an important figure in my own spiritual development. As an undergraduate at Harvard College in the nineteen-fifties I was introduced to his images of clowns and of the Christ figure at University Lutheran Church, Cambridge. As one who had grown up with representations of the Christ figure like Sallman’s Head of Christ (a friend of mine once called that the image of Deus Businessmanus), I was overwhelmed by the power of Rouault’s Christ — and clown — figures. They helped to keep my faith, such as it was in those days, alive and growing. Rouault was also a favorite of Paul Tillich, with whom I took several courses during my undergraduate years. Tillich was a great interpreter of art, especially of existentially challenging imagery such as often appeared in Rouault’s works.

Today very few even know Rouault’s name. That an exhibition of this import was held at — where? — Boston College and not at the MoMA or some comparable institution (no disrespect to B.C. intended; kudos only), tells its own tale, as does the fact that this blockbuster event was a kind of esthetic one-night stand, not a traveling exhibit intended to introduce a major voice in twentieth-century art to seekers or to the just-curious in a variety of settings.

Why was this one of the art world’s best kept secrets? O’Donovan observes that, after Rouault’s mid-twentieth century public accolades, Rouault’s approach to art during his own lifetime he was called, with scornful intent, As the last romantic gave way to Pop and Op Art, to Conceptualism and Minimalism. In other words, Rouault’s works went out of style. Which, of course, is a commonplace of art history.

But I think that that was only part of the story. The audio commentary on the exhibit by its curator, Stephen Schloesser of Boston College, is most revealing in this respect. Schloesser interpreted this exhibit as a kind of dialectical unfolding (my terms) of two aesthetic perspectives, realism (e.g. Daumier) and symbolism (as in the French poets known as symbolists and in some of their painterly followers, one of whom was a teacher of Rouault). Sometimes, Schloesser told us, Rouault’s works were more realistic, sometimes they were more symbolistic, and sometimes they found a way to integrate the two perspectives That was, in many ways, an illuminating interpretive stance to take.

I had expected something more, however, signaled by the exhibit’s theme, also the title of the exhibit’s companion volume, Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), edited by Schloesser. Several essays in that volume, as a matter of fact, explore or at least refer to Rouault’s spiritual heritage.

But the experience of the exhibit itself was something else, both as the exhibit was organized and as it was introduced to museum-goers (very few of whom, in all likelihood, were going to part with eighty dollars for the companion volume). This was Boston College, mind you, a historic center of Catholic learning. Strikingly, Schloesser never even mentioned that Rouault was baptized as an adult or that Rouault’s art is suffused with perennial themes of Catholic spirituality, above all the suffering Christ and the suffering poor. Think of the case of St. Francis who was marked by the signs of the Cross and who ministered to the Savior in the persons of the poor. In this sense, call much of Rouault’s painting iconic, even christological. That is a historical fact. But if Boston College cannot bring itself to introduce Rouault’s creations to the public in those terms, who will? And if what is arguably the creative center of Rouault’s life-work, his profound christic mysticism, is no longer of interest to those most responsible for framing the discourse about artistic expression, the critics and scholars themselves, is it any wonder that the entirety of Rouault’s achievement has more or less been shelved, as far as the public mind is concerned?

Not that Rouault’s spirituality must be welcomed by everyone. But it should at least be publicly acknowledged. (I find the same thing going on in popular and scholarly interpretations of Vincent Van Gogh’s works; but that is another story.) If scholars, to begin with, will not talk publicly about Rouault’s iconic spirituality, whether because of esthetic fashion or personal taste or academic parochialism is a secondary matter, how are the eyes of all the rest of us who care about art to be tutored in a way that will allow us to encounter the animating power of works by artists such as Rouault?