Magazine article The Christian Century

'Greatest Religious Painter of 20th Century' Receives New Interest, Rare Exhibit

Magazine article The Christian Century

'Greatest Religious Painter of 20th Century' Receives New Interest, Rare Exhibit

Article excerpt

What can a nearly forgotten set of 58 masterful etchings by a man once called one of the great artists of the 20th century tell us about the state of religious art in America?

At a rare showing of Miserere et Guerre (Mercy and War), a series by Georges Rouault, the pious and the curious will have a chance to judge for themselves. Rouault completed his expressionist landmark in the 1920s. New York's Museum of Modern Art, among other top-notch museums, owns one of the 450 initial copies of the work and repeatedly celebrated an artist it called "the greatest religious painter of the 20th century."

Yet the Parisian artist's reputation has faded drastically in the course of a few decades. His last big American museum exhibit was in 1979. Not one of MOMA's many Rouaults is up on its walls. Rouault's entry in the standard text Janson's History of Art has shrunk from a page and a half in 1971 to nothing by 2007.

Some see this as a consequence of the contemporary art world's distaste for explicit religious images.

St. Louis University's Museum of Contemporary Religious Art shows its copy of the series every four or five years. The complete series of etchings will be on display until May 8.

Although St. Louis University is a Roman Catholic school, displays at the museum--founded by Terrence Dempsey in 1993--have been eclectic, featuring Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist works, among others, as long "as it's not a satire or a critique, but a genuine engagement" with faith, Dempsey said.

The school's Jesuit identity, however, was the reason it was given a set of the Rouault series in 1956 by a brother of a Jesuit priest.

The two-foot-high etchings march down eight walls, showing the poor and downtrodden: the dreary dead-end grind of Paris's industrial suburbs that Rouault, who was from the working-class redoubt of Belleville, called "the old district of Long Suffering."

He portrayed threadbare laborers, hard-pressed families, and the sick, the jollity of itinerant clowns and prostitutes, as well as a stream of refugees--from where, it is never clear. The trauma of World War I appears retrospectively in the form of skeletons with soldiers' hats.

Although Rouault's subjects are stripped of vanity, he gave them great dignity. A contemporary called him "a vivid and brutal draftsman, infinitely rich despite the closely spaced variations of his selected themes." Apprenticed to a glazier in his teens, Rouault translated the thick lead outlining of stained glass into a powerful, muscular line and invented new etching techniques to make his compressed black and white figures glow from within.

None glow more so than Jesus, whose image recurs, in foreground or background, 16 times in the series. Not Jesus triumphant, but Jesus mocked and debased, often on the cross, his downward gaze echoing that of the poor. …

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