Back in May, New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, commenting on a coincidence of exhibitions of paintings by George Rouault at the Metropolitan Museum and a New York gallery, noted “George Rouault is back in our sights.” Rouault, a 19th century French painter associated with Fauvism and Expressionism, is best known for his bold, often dark and melodramatic paintings of clowns, prostitutes, dancers, and Jesus Christ. He is one of the most Catholic of modern painters, and therein may reside one secret to his relative obscurity among great artists.
Michael Kimmelman cited the “sanctimony and sincerity” of Rouault’s figurative art as possible reasons his paintings slipped from favor after World War II, when contemporary art took a decided turn toward the abstract, the secular, and the ironic. Though you can see Rouault’s stylistic influence on a painter of similar theatrical subjects such as Walt Kuhn and possibly even on the more recent generation of Neo-Expressionists (I see it locally here in Maine in the work of my friends Charlie Hewitt and Matt Donahue, both of whom grew up in Catholic mill towns), the religious nature of his work seems to have been a limiting factor on Rouault’s reputation and the market for his work.
Stephen Schloesser, S.J., a Jesuit and an associate professor of history at Boston College, has focused much of his academic career on Catholicism in modern French cultural history. Schloesser is the author of Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919-1933 (2005) and he is now the curator of Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in George Rouault, 1871-1958 at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art (through December 7). BC’s Rouault exhibition is a major undertaking, bringing together some 180 works by the French master, some of which have never been seen in North America and many of which come from the Fondation George Rouault in Paris.
Schloesser notes that “our exhibition is a very significant one, but I want to underscore that it is really part of a much larger movement.” He cites a huge retrospective Rouault exhibition in Strasbourg in 2006-2007, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris that featured Rouault-Matisse “Correspondences,” the installation of a collection of 100 Rouaults at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and a current exhibition at the Pinacotheque in Paris as examples of the renewed interest in Rouault.
The Mystic Masque theme of the McMullen Museum show refers to the complex ways in which Rouault’s paintings play with the tension between appearance and reality. Not only did Rouault see the world as a tragic comedy of errors, in which people were rarely what they seemed, but he ultimately painted the apparent while aiming for the transcendent, the sacred in the profane, outward appearances obscuring deeper, hidden realities.
“This irony – a sometimes bitterly satirical one – was often glossed over by a conventional piety in the presentation of his work from the time of his death in 1958 until the centenary of his birth in 1971,” writes Schloesser.
Ironically, given a major exhibition by a Catholic artist at a major Catholic university, Mystic Masque does view Rouault’s religious “sanctimony and sincerity” as the reasons for his fall from art historical grace. Rather, in one of 30 essays that comprise the glorious 603-page exhibition catalogue, historian David Quigley attributes Rouault’s dismissal from the canon of modernist greats to the ascendancy of New York over Paris as the center of the art world, and, consequently, the assertion of Abstract Expressionism as the orthodoxy American idiom.
“His declining, even disappearing reputation,” writes Quigley, “reflected a local urban culture narrowing down its own sense of the recent past, as one particular form of modernism was legitimated and other recent voices and traditions were crowed out from view.”
Well, folks, George Rouault is back in all his former glory. Go see for yourselves.
McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, Devlin Hall, 140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill, MA, 617-552-8100.