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Georges Rouault's Miserere et Guerre
LUMA - Loyola University of Chicago Museum of Art
In these dark panels which seem to glow with dim light are devotion, deep suffering, images of brash worldliness, and the hope, at times tender, at times strained and pleading, for redemption in the face of man's willful folly. LUMA's exhibition of Georges Rouault's Miserere et Guerre provides a rare opportunity to experience Rouault's important twentieth-century print cycle in its entirety. Begun in 1914, completed in 1927, the events concurrent with its making spanned the World War that would remake Europe entirely, and the distress of the hard years of economic recovery which followed. Bleeding through into Rouault's images are the misery and affliction, the lunacy and despair of those times, and the hope for spiritual salvation, as poignant a message today as they were eighty years ago. Fifty-eight prints, the complete print cycle, are on exhibit. Each print, a dark aquatint rich with tonal shading, is a powerful freestanding image. Taken as a whole, the sequential series vibrates with suppressed emotion, a complex appeal to devotion and a harsh criticism of worldly pursuit, and war.
The series consists of two sections, Miserere (Mercy), a personal plea for God's mercy in the face of catastrophe, opposition and folly, and Guerre (War), in which bourgeois madness, pompous military figures, and a skeletal figure personifying Death bear out Rouault's reference to a classical quote from Plautus: Homo homini lupus -- Man is a wolf to man. Though initially conceived to illustrate a two-volume poem by French poet André Suarès, the verses were never completed. Rouault's evocative titles stand in their stead, the spare, expressive phrases shifting the cycle's impact to the visual experience, a worthy twist of fate for these moving images. In their combination of individual, self-contained fullness and poetic, sequential order, with each image contemplative in itself and yet the sequence rhythmic in repetion of specific elements, Miserere et Guerre carries the feel of a devotional journey to be experienced overall, one picture at a time. This is also emphasized by the size of the prints, each approximately 23-1/2 by 17 inches, which draws interest from a distance but rewards as well a close, personal viewing.
Miserere takes its title from the opening of Psalm 51: Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam, "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness". The psalm is a heartfelt, penitent plea for God's charitable mercy in the face of sin and suffering and its earnest appeal is taken up in Miserere right from the title page. On this initial page, a solar face smiles benignly over an arched niche in which appears the figure of Christ as suffering servant, head bent and eyes downcast in resignation to His fate. Laurel leaves beneath the smiling sun imply Christ's ultimate victory: but not without sorrow, as the following plate recapitulates the head-bent image of the suffering Savior, solitary now and with the empty upper third of the page emphasizing His loneliness; spiky strokes of black invoke the crown of thorns about His brow. This figure of the 'man of sorrows' reappears throughout Miserere as if in poetic refrain. Sometimes Christ Himself, at other times a mortal male, the figure appears in a posture expressive of gripping doubt, to which the only recourse is beseeching the heavens. Rouault's thick black contour lines carve out the well-built musculature of the male figure, giving a sense of taut physical strength that only underscores his helplessness in the face of doubt and condemnation. An expressionistic elongation fo the figures adds both grace, and vulnerability.
From what does he suffer? From his own sins, as Rouault clearly indicates through the many poses of downcast eyes or beseeching gestures; but as well, from worldly circumstances and individuals around him. If this sorrowing figure, 'the good man', is naked and sorrowing, he is at least aware and communicating with the divine. Against him lie falseness, hypocrisy, and ignorance in the form of kings and prostitutes, so self-conceited they are unaware of their own spiritual bankruptcy. The jarring transition between plate VI, Ne sommes-nous pas forcats? (Are we not slaves?) and plate VII, Nout croyant rois. (Believing ourselves kings.), pits the sufferer, face lifted to heaven as if seeking succor, against the fat figure of the king, eye and ghastly grin both horribly alive with self-interest. Further on are prostitutes and society ladies, the half-mad quality the artist gives to their fashionable worldliness reflecting Rouault's bitter social satire, as well as a supercilious lawyer caring not a jot for his condemned client's fate. Compounding these perils are a series of dismaying and lonely places offered as metaphoric locations. The Rue des Solitaires (Street of the Lonely) presents a barren sidestreet of empty, howling doors and windows, a deceptively still image of unbearable tension tightly bound; even more grim is Au pays de la soif et de la puer. (In the land of thirst and terror.), not for any distinct reason, but for the ominousness of its unrelieved dimness, a gray, cheerless land in which two shadowy figures in a boat, and even the inanimate hut on the darkling shore, are objects of unutterable dread.
Despite the repeated leitmotifs of straying and sorrow, plate XXXIII, the final print of Miserere, holds out the promise of redemption. Entitled Et Véronique au tendre lin, passe encore sur le chemin... (And Veronica is still among us with her veil of compassion...) it is a closely-focused image of Christ's face upon a square of cloth. Legend maintains that Veronica, a pious passerby witnessing Christ's Passion, wiped the sweat from His brow as He carried the cross to Golgotha, and in return, the veil received the imprint of His features; the name 'Veronica' has as well been translated as 'Vera Icon', or authentic (true) image. The face here is among the most lifelike of all Rouault's portrayals in Miserere, the underlip in particular rendered full and tender with delicate crosshatching; Miserere closes on this note, the portrait of a compassionate Savior.
Guerre restates both this image, and the title page of plate I of Miserere. A double border divides the plate into frame and niche; the Veronica image crowns the upper portion with kind features and beneficent radiance. But in the niche below is a fearful figure whose eye is a dark, black hole, whose wrinkled, decaying cheek is that of a corpse; its head bends in dark contemplation or mocking obeisance. Its simply-rendered features yield complex readings; it seems redolent of both fear and pity, rank with the promise of slaying and death, yet melancholy at such duty. The print's title is a lament of obliteration, a quote from the poet Lucan speaking of the Roman Civil wars, bleak in its suggestion of destruction so complete, nothing remains: "And even the ruins have perished."
Guerre takes on a different tone, more bound to earth, more involved in the personalities of war and the sufferings of the gentle. The humane Christ that appeared in Miserere is replaced in Guerre by the recurring figure of a living skeleton, an image used as a personification of Death since Medieval times. In the Dance of Death, a common Medieval theme, Death appears to king and commoner, priest and peasant, heralding the end of their mortal span. Rouault's Death as an energetic figure, active and mobile as any soldier, appearing in plate XXXVII, Homo homini lupus. ("Man is a wolf to man.") in a modern military cap as he heads out with all appearance of cheerful zest to take command of the desolation around him. Rouault's satire focuses on military figures as pompous and arrogant, as well as on the rich, mad, ignorant bourgeousie whose wealth either derives from the war, or puts them safely beyond the reach of it. The 'good man' here is a soldier. When he dies, and is laid out in Plate XLVII, "De profundis..." ("out of the depths..." [have I cried unto thee, O Lord] (Psalm 130:1), a shallow foreground depicts his corpse, laying still in a grim, gray area, relieved by the Veil of Veronica radiant above him. In a narrow slit of distant view at the left rear, his goods are being methodically looted by a well-dressed man commanding several others.
Still Guerre is not without its hope, distant though it may be. Plate LVI, En ces temptes noirs de j'actance et d'incroyance, Notre-Dame de la Fin des Terres vigilante. (In these dark times of vainglory and unbelief, Our Lady of the Ends of the Earth keeps watch.) suggests that in far-off places some good may still be preserved in an image of tender, radiant beatitude employing Rouault's most even, glowing tonality, in which both the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child seem bent in heartache at the fate of man. Ultimately, and mirroring Miserere, Guerre also concludes with the image of Christ on the veil of Veronica, plate LVIII, "C'est par ses meurtrissures que nos sommes guéris." ("And with his stripes, we are healed.") (Isaiah 53:5). The face is darker and more remote this time, the expression deeply inward, contemplative, as if the Savior weighs the price of His continual intercession against mortal folly.
The prints show an impressive range of effects, particularly the impressionistic washes and luminous wiped strokes more reminiscent of watercolor or ink painting than intaglio printing. Other areas are heavily worked with texture that mimics stone, calls forth velvety richness, or carves out strong sculptural modeling; still further incorporate shading within the contour lines in a way directly drawn from stained glass and evoking the way glass's shadowed edges yield into the glow of a lambent center. Key to the devotional feel of the series is this stained-glass styling, Rouault's signature draftsmanship sketching out figures and scenes in large, simple masses bounded by heavy black contour lines. Rouault's earliest apprenticeship was in a stained glass workshop; he carried this stylistic quality of thick delineating lines throughout his body of work. The heaviness gives the figures a monumental quality, anchoring them with the decisive weight of the stroke and carving them out firmly from the stark gray backgrounds.
At the same time the thick strokes of these remarkable prints are far freer and more spontaneous than normally associated with intaglio printmaking, a freehand quality derived from the artist's working method of beginning the image as an ink sketch. This was subsequently transferred to printing plate by means of the photoengraving process, in which a photographic negative of the original is used in place of a resin ground in preparing the plate. The painterly quality of the original work was thus retained intact as the underlying foundation of the image. Rouault then worked over the transferred image with a variety of techniques, primarily aquatint, a process by which the plate is dusted with rosin before being subjected to the acid baths of its various states, and highly conducive to the complex gradated tonal effects that give these prints their special glow. That the artist worked through twelve and even fifteen 'states', or workings of the plate followed by intermediate printings, reveals his devotion to achieving perfection.
A thought to close with is the timeliness of this presentation. Eighty years have not dimmed the relevance of Rouault's exhortations and pleas, his messages of warning, his hope for redemption, toil-filled as the endeavor may be. If anything, the conflicts we face on our own world stage merely underscore the importance of Rouault's perceptive criticisms, the necessity of having one artist hold forth. Miserere et Guerre remains a penetrating vision of spiritual response in the face of war, suffering, and the travails of existence. The complete print cycle of Georges Rouault's Miserere et Guerre is on exhibit, dark yet lambent aquatints of superb technique and expression, resonant with insights as fresh today as at the time of their making.
LUMA's downtown location at 820 North Michigan Avenue is one of Chicago's newest museum spaces, inaugurated in 2006. LUMA is devoted to art of the world's religions and that touching on spiritual concerns. Running concurrent with Georges Rouault's Miserere et Guerre is another comprehensive exhibit, Science and Faith Between Observance and Censorship: Rare Books from the Libraries of Campania from XVI to XVIII Centuries, on exhibition February 17 - April 29, 2007.
--Katherine R. Lieber
Editorial Note: Miserere et Guerre has recently been published in Georges Rouault's Miserere Et Guerre: This Anguished World of Shadows (Museum of Biblical Art (January 2006)). This, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the link above.