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 “Mercy and War,” a bleak but compelling series by the idiosyncratic French modernist Georges Rouault, the pious and the curious will have a chance to judge for themselves through May 8.
Rouault completed his expressionist landmark in the 1920s. New York’s Museum of Modern Art owned one of its 450 initial copies and repeatedly celebrated an artist it called “the greatest religious painter of the 20th century.”
Yet the Parisian’s reputation has faded drastically in the course of a few decades.
His last American big-museum exhibit was in 1979. Not one of MOMA’s many Rouaults is on its walls. Rouault’s entry in the standard text “Janson’s History of Art” shrank 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.
The one place you can go to form your own opinion is St. Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, 3700 W. Pine Blvd., which shows its copy of the series every four or five years.
Although St. Louis University is a Roman Catholic school, the museum, founded by the Rev. Terrence Dempsey in 1993, is eclectic, having exhibited 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 2-foot-tall etchings march down eight walls, a cavalcade of stylized sorrow interspersed with austere hope. The work’s great topic is the poor and downtrodden: the dreary dead-end grind of Paris’ 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 painted 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.
But 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.
According to William Dyrness, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, the work originally included a Resurrection plate. But Rouault canceled it. The finished series’ final image is of Jesus’ head crowned with thorns, labeled by Rouault, “It is through his wounds that we are healed.”
But there are some signs that, for whatever reason, interest in Rouault and his “Mercy” (“Miserere et Guerre”) is rekindling.
Jean-Yves Rouault, the artist’s grandson and chairman of the Georges Rouault Foundation, writes from Paris, “There are definitely more Miserere exhibitions than 20 years ago.” In the U.S., he reports, the foundation communicates with several collectors who bought Rouault works “in the last few years. We are confident that there will be more activity in the near future.”
It may be that Rouault’s long decades of art world exile are over. Dempsey certainly hopes so. Offering a non-Dolorist testimony to the Miserere’s relevance that might please Pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit with a pronounced social conscience, the museum director points out the appropriateness of Rouault’s acute social vision at a time when “there’s so much suffering on the global scene. All I can think of when I look at his refugees is those Syrian migrants coming in from Turkey and Greece.”
St. Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 for adults and $1 for students and children. The museum is at 3700 W. Pine Blvd., on a pedestrian mall on the campus. Maps and parking directions are available at mocra.slu.edu or by calling 314-977-7170.