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”Revelation: Georges Rouault at Work”

Plenty of artists have honestly believed that their work could transform human consciousness. But Georges Rouault painted to save souls. True, the painter, born in Paris in 1871, received confirmation as a Roman Catholic in his mid-20s, but his devoutness alone doesn’t account for the miraculous powers he credited to the painted image. Instead, his convictions speak to the shared expectations for the visual arts in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century—expectations that may be impossible for the contemporary viewer to recover, making any show of Rouault’s charged offerings likely to conjure obscure feelings of remoteness and loss.

Nonetheless, the Phillips Collection’s “Revelation: Georges Rouault at Work” focuses less on the meta- than the physical. The show was conceived when conservators discovered that two oil paintings by Rouault had actually begun their lives as works on paper and had been mounted on canvas at some late stage of development. Furthermore, conservation fellow Marla Curtis and paper conservator Sylvia Albro determined that in creating at least one of these pieces, Rouault had painted over one of his own prints, making some subtle changes in composition but otherwise remaining faithful to the earlier image—even allowing some of the original printed marks to peek through the thickly impastoed surface.

Filling one small, square upstairs room, the exhibition is as modest as its premise. The two rediscovered works are shown alongside the prints that serve as their templates and a representative assortment of smaller prints and paintings for a total of 38 pieces. But despite its small scale, “Revelation” clearly illustrates the big bang of early modernism, when painting claimed so many apparently incongruous notions for its truth and lifeblood: through cubism, embodiment of the mass of everyday things; through futurism, motion and dynamism befitting the Machine Age; through post-Symbolism, the reinvention of the world, a way to make images with a higher reality than our brute, declining Western notions of rationality and secularism.

Indeed, much painting of this period is indebted to half-understood—and supposedly superior—ancient traditions, from Gauguin’s emulation of cloisonné to Picasso’s borrowings from his own sizable collection of African objects. But Rouault’s visual language resulted neither from aping craftwork nor from cross-cultural sampling. In his teenage years, the artist was trained to work with stained glass—hence those omnipresent black outlines in his work. That, plus the overriding influence of Rouault’s disarmingly sincere Catholicism, make his oeuvre so thoroughly modern that it sometimes seems medieval.

The artist’s strange sensibility is evident in his countless paintings of harlequins, which he regarded as parodic Christs offering themselves up for derision and humiliation. In Circus of the Shooting Star (1938), a series of 16 color etchings, aquatints, and woodcuts, each clown or acrobat appears alone on a stage drawn in Rouault’s rapid, calligraphic hand, bits of curtain peeking out in the upper left- and right-hand corners. These figures, dressed in solid primary colors and ruffled white collars, crowd the edges of the picture plane, typically resting their arms or standing directly on the boundary of the printed image, like saints in Gothic manuscripts, cheekily indicating the artificiality of the window into which the viewer looks—or, more likely, insisting that the boundary between image and reality is artificial. Rouault once stated that his greatest ambition was to “paint a Christ so moving that those who see him will be converted.” To accomplish this, he placed his images as close to the viewer possible.

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In Christ and the High Priest (ca. 1937), Rouault’s vigorous linear marks imply hands, recessed eyes, and bodily contours, always with economy and incompleteness, no matter how many successive restatements have been amassed on top of one another. The high priest himself seems to have wandered in from a Francis Bacon canvas, with his squirming, plasticized flesh and improbable bright-orange triangular nose. The background shifts under your eye; pastel-blue shapes that appear to be the vague manifestation of the Holy Spirit rise behind the savior, emerging against a background of red and black slashes in one corner, orange and turquoise clouds in another. The two carelessly gestural central figures manage, for all of their willed flatness, to communicate weight and substance. Yet they vacillate mysteriously, both advancing from and receding into a haze of mystical indeterminacy.

Just as the Gothic mind for centuries demanded mystical modes of vision, so did Rouault. Because of this, it would seem that certain genre subjects eluded him. In Afterglow, Galilee (ca. 1930), ribbons of thick, unmixed color create a cloudscape of violets, reds, and greens bizarrely married to large quantities of leaden, scruffy black. It limns the shoreline, clumsily frames the muddy-ochre sail of a ship, and gets pushed into the vague shapes of buildings and shadows. Brilliant color and implacable, literal ugliness here make a jarring combination, and the result is a painting that manages to be both overworked and underrealized. Yes, the title indicates that this image is meant to be iconic, but the piece sits uncomfortably between worlds, smacking of urgent sensation while clearly meant to indicate no mere physical encounter.

The signs of bourgeois materialism also sit strangely with the language of otherworldly transcendence. Bouquet No. 1 and No. 2 (1938), both executed on metallic foil, depict a vase filled with flowers. The fluid lines and egg-shaped dollops of saturated color that indicate each flower bring to mind both late and postimpressionism, as well as later American abstraction: Pollock’s networks of interlaced drips, Brice Marden’s meandering natural contours. But the silver-gray border suggests that these freely constructed images should be considered in the same manner as Rouault’s icons, as a focus for contemplation. This is, after all, what St. Augustine insisted on: that we must love not the object itself, but the truth that it can communicate through symbols, and that we should regard art as an opportunity to exercise reason and rise out of the physical world.

“Revelation”’s two featured pieces—the discoveries—speak the most about the intentions and successes possible for Rouault’s version of the early modern. In Verlaine (ca. 1939), the artist truly drove his work to the point of glorious failure. Paul Verlaine sits in profile, in front of an abstracted painting of the Madonna and child. The face of the celebrated Symbolist poet has been built in multiple slathered layers of waxy pigment; it is so uneven a surface that likeness was surely impossible to achieve. Yet the painting is muscular and complex. There is no stained glass here, no filling in of shapes with color—only solitary color strokes that push and pull against the composition’s contours, threatening to dissociate. Each singular, sturdy mark strives to make a world, and each is testament to the difficulty of the task.

Verlaine holds a book in his hands—this much is clear in the lithograph on which the painting is modeled—but in the painting, the book is lost. It becomes spatially indistinct from the figure of the painted Madonna that hangs behind. She, in turn, is as physically present as the poet himself, pushing into the foreground, rendered in the same saturated colors and insistent black lines. Rouault admits no spatial illusions—only persistent material facts. The message couldn’t be clearer: The spiritual world isn’t hidden, but before our very eyes, a thing like all other things.

And finally, there is Woman in Profile (ca. 1939). Here again is the fluid, economical line, freer and more suggestive. Here again is the magic trick of Rouault’s gestures: We see line acting as both figure and ground, linear limit and modeling tool. The projected crudeness conceals great subtlety and persistence of intent. Marks from the original print underneath are still visible in places, almost indistinguishable from the accumulated layers of paint. Everywhere there is the appearance of instantaneousness.

Chardin engaged in a similar sort of misdirection, giving his paintings a finish that suggested great ease of realization yet secretly working terribly hard to achieve the effect. For Rouault, however, the approach was far more than trickery: The artist’s very soul was at stake. He conveyed the idea of immediacy without necessarily engaging in it, but more important, he insisted on his ability to access a new, transcendent world with as much claim to reality as our old, earthly one. This, more than any feat of conservation or any insight into artistic process, is a compelling reason to look again at Rouault’s work, as unlikely in his own time as it is in ours.CP