Rouault at Boston College
Post #1263 • December 4, 2008, 10:41 AM • 3 Comments
I have been going back and forth on Rouault for a long time. He wanted to make printmaking and painting function like a stained glass window, with heavy black outlines filled in with pure, luminous color. Van Gogh similarly tried to adapt cloisonné to oils, and perhaps nothing tooled by hand is as inherently beautiful as stained glass, so the choice would seem promising in more than one respect. In execution, those black outlines, sometimes as thick as tree branches, limned the full woes of expressionism in all its pathos and unsatisfying drawing. Except where it doesn't, and here I become unsure. Sometimes the drawn elements are surprisingly fluid and accurate, and the tone is bouyant.
Rouault ran on a fuel of sincerity and emotional fervor. He identified with the lowest rungs of society, wanderers, prostitutes, and saltimbanques, whom he depicts with consummate sympathy, while his rendering of Nietzsche's übermensch is a frame-filling, fat-necked homunculus, a blocky wall of warmongering idiocy. His pictures of Jesus show him mocked or crucified, excepting a protracted series of heads, recalling the Buddhist practice of painting Bodhidharma, showing resignation and bottomless peace brought about by crushing suffering. Among many other virtues of Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault, a dozen or so of these Christ heads hang together on the two-story wall in the McMullen.
With sincerity of this caliber, one could argue that everything else is a technical problem. Indeed, I'm inclined to look past a lot of the shortcomings in the images' construction, as their awkwardness, for the most part, stopped grating on me after seeing a few rooms of it. Filling in a drawn outline is a dumb way to put a painting together - humanity invented oils to get around precisely that problem - except that it can work beautifully, which goes to show you how much judgments like that are worth in the end. For any number of flaws, they deliver an enormous cargo of feeling, as if the artist had loaded a horse-cart with paving stones and made it win a road race against an Aston Martin. I think of the rougher bits as notes left for Beckmann: "Max, see if you can do something with this - Fondly, G."
Point in fact, I found a ton of stuff to steal. Simple willingness to let the lines curve solves the problem of the figures looking like they've been built from fence posts, thereby enabling a huge vocabulary of imagery ranging from caricature to Fauvist elegance. Colors can look damn good next to black. Perhaps best of all, those of us whose artistic proclivities don't intersect with irony at all have Rouault as a beacon. It's hard to think of a contemporaneous artist, to say nothing of a contemporary one, whose work so resoundingly issues the dictum to love with all your heart.