In his recently published Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, Peter Gay defines that late-19th- and 20th-century movement in terms of religious heterodoxy and the practice of “principled self-scrutiny.” Although Gay’s voluminous book covers a lot of ground, his criteria for modernism make it hard to distinguish modernism from the romantic period that preceded it. Moreover, Gay’s preoccupations force him to see religious modernism — as found, say, in the later poetry of T. S. Eliot — as self-contradictory.
Like many contemporary authors, Gay wants to celebrate the different, the shocking, and the offensive. But his admiration for the iconoclastic comes up short when he encounters religion in an unexpected form. There is an instructive irony in his inability to appreciate religious modernism simply because it fails to conform to his own pre-established notions. A new exhibit at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art on 20th-century French painter, George Rouault, explodes Gay’s dubious categories.
Rouault’s work prompts a rethinking not just of modernism but also of religious art. In fact, rigorous reflection on the nature of religious art began during Rouault’s lifetime. Rouault was a longtime friend of Jacques Maritain, one of the towering figures in 20th-century Catholic thought, and Maritain penned a number of pieces for Rouault’s public exhibits. Maritain was one of the few thinkers involved in the great revival of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas to give sustained attention to art. No doubt this was in part due to the influence of his wife, Raissa, who was raised in a Hasidic Jewish household, was a friend of Marc Chagall, and became an accomplished poet in her own right.
Committed to the classical thought of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, Maritain sought to bridge the gap between medieval-classical principles of beauty and modern art. Maritain argued that the scholastic axiom that art imitates nature should not be construed to suggest that art merely re-presented what nature had already presented. “Nature was not a model to be slavishly copied.”
Indeed, the art of the medieval Catholic world could hardly be called realistic in any modern sense. In the iconographic tradition, Christian artists embraced the exaggeration or distortion of natural forms in order to bring the viewer into an encounter with the deeper realities suggested by its treatment of the subject. Moreover, modern Christian art — Grünewald’s Crucifixion, for example, and numerous paintings of El Greco — had already demonstrated the pedagogical power of what we might otherwise term disfigurement.
Rouault’s Catholic modernism is dramatically on display in “Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault: 1871–1958.” Put together by McMullen Museum director Nancy Netzer and Boston College Rouault scholar Stephen Schloesser, S.J., the ambitious exhibit covers a wide range of Rouault’s work across his entire career.
One set of works, some of them inspired by Baudelaire’s infamous poetry collection Flowers of Evil, offers rather grotesque and unsettling depictions of prostitutes and clowns. Some of his contemporaries accused Rouault of wallowing in the ugly and the despicable. While Rouault eschewed moralistic explanations of his art, this does not mean that, like some other modernists, he advocated amorality or immorality. Art is not about imposing a moral vision, but rather about seeing clearly and depicting what one sees — in this case, what is in fact grotesque, degraded, and demoralized.
His portrayals of clowns, prostitutes, and judges underscore the theme (indicated in the title of the exhibit) of the mask, of the way in which individuals — as Eliot’s Prufrock puts it — “prepare a face to meet the faces” that they meet. Beneath or behind the mask is a cauldron of passions. For those in the upper classes who exercise authority in society, these are often passions for revenge, recognition, and honor. For the outcast members of society, those who remain homeless in this world — including both traveling circus performers and prostitutes — the dominant passion is sorrow.
Rouault repeatedly turns to the line from Virgil’s Aeneid where Aeneas encounters Carthaginian temple images of the fall of Troy and sadly exclaims: “There are tears of things and mortal matters trouble the mind.” What unites heroic, Rome-founding Aeneas with the marginalized characters Rouault depicts is the experience of devastating and irrevocable loss. The sense of civilization in crisis, the sense of loss, and the longing to recover, if not the past, at least a way of going forward, is a popular theme in modernism — and one virtually ignored in Gay’s analysis.
Rouault unmasks the arbitrariness of justice in a world where wealth and prestige are ultimately hollow. Pascal, a great influence on Rouault, once quipped, “justice is just as much a matter of fashion as charm is.” Adopting a stance against the conventional order of authority is a modernist maneuver, as is Rouault’s penchant for stylistic experimentation. His style here is often rough, even coarse. His vibrant use of color and his penchant for abstraction, for clean shapes whose juxtaposition violates classic rules of perspective, call to mind the works of Cezanne and Matisse, even as his subject matter recalls Toulouse Lautrec.
So, Rouault is preoccupied with modernist themes and techniques. But what about his religious sensibility? The modernist sense of loss and longing at least occasionally gives rise to a quest to discover something to affirm. Indeed, without such a quest it is hard to see how the modernist impulse can fend off nihilism, rendering art itself meaningless. Rouault’s recovery of Christian iconographic motifs and techniques involves a distinctively modernist move — the move toward primitivism, in this case the “primitive” art of the early Church.
As Rouault’s career progressed, he moved beyond mere negation and social commentary by inscribing the characters of the judge, the prostitute, and the clown within a Christian narrative: Christ’s association with prostitutes and tax collectors, his love of the poor and outcasts, the judgment of Christ by Rome, and the mocking of Christ as if he were a clown. “Inscribing” might be too strong a word, since often the connection operates by way of juxtaposition and symmetry, as when Rouault paints an image of Christ that mirrors in its shapes, color scheme and angle of the face a painting of a clown.
Doubling or masking is not just a way of presenting a false face to others; it is also a way of avoiding self-knowledge. “We hide and disguise ourselves from ourselves,” Pascal said. Prostitutes and clowns have a slight advantage over more well-to-do members of society in this regard: they are aware that they put on masks, even as they are aware of their own misery. The possibility of self-knowledge also opens up the possibility of recognition of one’s need for redemption, for encountering in the image of the scorned, mocked, and crucified God a face that sees us as we are and through which we can see God.
Rouault gives dramatic visual testimony to the sentiment of Pascal — the proclamation of a religion of a humiliated God finds a welcome reception in the hearts of those who “seek with groans.”
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.