By Maia Mattson '13
Natural light pours through the high, vaulted skylights of the starkly-furnished Barrington Gallery, reflecting off the lacquered pine floors and creating an ethereal, meditative space, a space complementing the deeply personal and reflective work of French artist Georges Rouault (1871–1958). Yet this light, tranquil atmosphere also forms an ironic backdrop to the haunting nature of the engravings, which feature figure in various attitudes of despair, depravity, and confusion.
Showing the suffering of both the holy and abject, the mood and meaning of these images are highlighted by the accompanying text of Andre Suares, a poet and friend of Rouault’s. Even within the serene space of the gallery, it is hard to remain a removed observer when confronted by Rouault’s evocative portrayal of man’s suffering and Suares’ deft articulation of that situation. A sullen clown, set down in thick, morose lines of black and grey, asks his audience “Qui Ne Se Grime Pas?” (Who does not Wear a Mask?), while in another frame, a forlorn and receding figure overtaken by unforgiving waters, promises that “Demain Sera Beau, Disait Lenauf Ragé” (Tomorrow will be Beautiful, Said the Shipwrecked Man). Using painterly lines of black ink, set amidst deepening shades of aquatint, Rouault’s desperate forms show both sensitive articulation and yet also disfigurement. Rouault cultivates the complex tension of human existence within his work. We see this tension between frailty and hope in “Il Serait Si Doux D’Aimer” (It Would be so Sweet to Love) capturing both frailty and hope, as a maternal figure looks down lovingly at a child. While comfort is found in the mother’s tender embrace, Suares’ words alongside the print’s density and darkness leave the viewer disquieted.
It is funny contemplating Rouault’s work in such a spacious area, in such a safe environment, considering that his time was one of such intense trauma and suffering. Rouault began this featured body of work, a collection of 58 plates known as Miserere, in 1912, after the death of his father and shortly before WWI. It was not until 1948 that Rouault finally published his plates. The terror and destruction of both world wars and its effect on society deeply informed his work and process. These prints do not only illustrate personal pain, but the collective angst of man.
Staring at the engraved forms, I am struck by the weight of Rouault’s hand, desperate to express his own turmoil and confusion at the wreckage around him. Rouault’s forceful and honest articulation of human existence is both impressive and inspiring. What is especially impressive about Rouault’s content is the nuance and depth he brought to his prints. Though pain and sadness are amply shown, there are also images devoted to the celebration of Christ and His promise of salvation. Rouault acknowledges both the agony of man’s existence as well as the beauty of our lives once given over to God. As man continues to wrestle with his inheritance of suffering, Rouault’s work remains relevant today. His work serves to remind us of Christ’s own humanness.
As I made my way through the exhibit, the show’s title only became more real. Within Rouault’s shadowed and heavy images, I saw the character of Christ. Rouault’s dialogue with life and faith is remarkably refreshing and challenging. His work exemplifies the tension within our life- the tension between sadness and exaltation, despair and renewed hope. I left wondering, will my marks be so sincere and vulnerable? Am I willing to respond to the brokenness in my own life and of those around me? And am I able to hold that brokenness, while also clinging to joy and thanksgiving? These questions are somewhat uncomfortable, considering how much energy and discipline are required to cultivate deliberate and truthful mark making. But I comfort myself recognizing Rouault’s long journey with his work, the many processes he employed and years he experienced to achieve such depth, authenticity, and feeling.
Maia Mattson (pronounced May-ah [like the month]) is an art major with a concentration in printmaking. Maia enjoys creating things, whether that be art, food, forts, etc. Currently she is restoring an abandoned dollhouse she found on the side of the road. She loves This American Life and broadcast journalism.