Georges Rouault: Miserere et Guerre

Georges Rouault, "Obedient Unto Death ...," 1926.
Georges Rouault, "Obedient Unto Death ...," 1926.

Georges Rouault ( 1871-1958 ) is an isolated figure in twentieth-century art, a man who remained outside of the group movements and manifestoes that dominated the century, and was possessed of a fixed and persistent artistic vision. A devout Catholic, Rouault’s faith informed his work, which at times seems to serve as a vehicle for moral judgment and retains vitality and relevance today. Rouault himself said, “All of my work is religious for those who know how to look at it.”

One of the highlights of MOCRA’s collection is a complete set of Rouault’s series of etchings titled Miserere et Guerre. The entire set was first shown at MOCRA in 1994, then in 2000 and again in 2003. Individual prints have been included in other exhibitions, including MOCRA’s two fifteenth-anniversary exhibitions, Pursuit of the Spirit and Good Friday.

Rouault’s project was originally conceived as 100 huge etchings to illustrate two books, Miserere (“Have mercy”) and Guerre (“War”), to be written by poet André Suarès. The books never appeared, but under the strenuous demands of the artist’s publisher and dealer, Ambroise Vollard, Rouault composed the majority of the images between 1914 and 1918 and continued to rework the plates in succeeding years. The 58 images (which can be seen here and here) were finally published in 1927 in an edition of 450 copies, and the copper etching plates were canceled. However, because of Vollard’s untimely death in 1939 and legal struggles with his heirs, the etchings were not exhibited until 1948.

The etchings are landmarks in expanding the technical and expressive range of the print. Rouault’s initial ink sketches were photoengraved onto copper plates. He then engraved, used sandpaper, files, edged rollers, scrapers, and painted with acid to achieve amazing effects. He would often work his plates through as many as twelve and even fifteen states to achieve as much depth, variety and richness as he did in full color paint on canvas. Yet always, technique is subordinated to expression in Rouault’s art.

Georges Rouault, "This Will Be the Last Time, Father!" 1927.
Georges Rouault, "This Will Be the Last Time, Father!" 1927.

Miserere presents a gallery of scenes and characters. Many of them—clowns, kings, and prostitutes—are familiar inhabitants of Rouault’s paintings, joined in the Guerre section by soldiers, generals and war profiteers. Rouault admits some tenderness into Guerre, as with his image of a gothic Madonna and child echoed in a war widow cradling her son.

But the central recurring figure is that of Christ, from the first title plate that resembles some ancient death monument with the bowed head of Christ in the bottom half, to the image of the Man of Sorrows on Veronica’s Veil in the last plate. Rouault’s caption for this plate, “It is by his stripes that we are healed.” (Is. 53:5), suggests that all the suffering, all the blindness and loneliness, all the wish for love and the fact of war, all that has gone before is compassed in the broken body of Christ. For Rouault the divine face reflects suffering, compassion, and finally hope.

Born out of the unprecedented violence of the First World War and Rouault’s intense compassion for the marginalized and underprivileged, the Miserere stand as a singular achievement in the realms of printmaking and religious art. They speak as forcefully and as poignantly today as when they were first printed nearly 80 years ago.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

Taking a breather

Pursuit of the Spirit, the first of MOCRA’s two fifteenth-anniversary exhibitions, closed on Sunday. Now for a couple of weeks of decompression and holiday break before installing the second anniversary show, Good Friday, scheduled to open on February 8, 2009.

Pursuit of the Spirit had good attendance and positive feedback from those who visited. Among my personal metrics for gauging the success of an exhibition are the amount of time visitors spend in the museum, and the amount of time they spend with individual works. On both counts, this exhibition scored high marks.

I don’t have the opportunity to talk with individual visitors as much as I would like, to find out how they have responded to particular works or to the exhibition overall. When I do, invariably I receive a new insight into works that I thought I knew pretty well.

So it’s great to discover that at least one visitor has blogged about his experience at the exhibition. Read what Chris King has to say about Seyed Alavi’s Noli me tangere.

You can also read Chris’ ruminations on the Pursuit of the Spirit opening reception, replete with sketch of MOCRA’s Director, Terrence Dempsey, S.J.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

Body and Soul

MOCRA’s second exhibition, Body and Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, opened on October 24, 1993, and ran through the end of the year. Some audiences may well have been asking, why was a contemporary art museum featuring a retrospective of a dance company?

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater," at MOCRA, 1993.
Installation view, "Body & Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater," at MOCRA, 1993.

The key is in the company’s namesake and founder, dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey. “It is evident that religion had a profound impact on Alvin Ailey’s life,” MOCRA Director Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J. wrote in a press release for the exhibition. “Spirituality is pervasive in his work. Some of Ailey’s greatest dances were his spiritual dances.”

Body and Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was organized by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts with the cooperation of the Dance Theater Foundation, Inc., and private collections. The exhibition was a celebration of (then) 35 years of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and its exceptional contributions to contemporary culture.

Ailey and his dancers have entertained and educated the public by bringing to the stage lyrical and energetic works inspired by the African American experience. He saw his company not only as a place in which to present his own works but the works of other aspiring African American choreographers as well. Furthermore, he felt an urgency to create a permanent company so that the great dances of earlier African American choreographers could be preserved.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater," at MOCRA, 1993.
Installation view, "Body & Soul: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater," at MOCRA, 1993. Note the famous dress from "Cry" at left.

Above all, Alvin Ailey affirmed the dignity of all humanity. Dempsey told The University News, “One of the reasons for bringing this show here is that Ailey was one of the great bridge builders between the various races.” “Ailey celebrated the Black heritage, but his dances are not exclusive. He wishes to include all of humanity, and somehow we are all touched by the power of his dances.”

At the time of the exhibition, Ailey’s company had appeared in over 65 countries and performed before 13 million people. Now in 2008, as the company celebrates its 50th anniversary, that number has grown to 21 million people. The anniversary has been an occasion for reminiscences about Ailey, and for a gala tribute performance.

Ailey died in 1989, but his rich legacy lives on in a vibrant company that continues to thrive under his successor Judith Jamison, one of America’s greatest dancers.

The exhibition traced the development of one of America’s most important dance companies through the costumes, original drawings by Romare Bearden, videotapes of the major dances (including Cry, Blues Suite, and Revelations), and over 200 archival photographs.

Along with the exhibition, MOCRA offered a number of related programs. Performances were given by the St. Alphonsus Rock Choir and the Katharine Dunham Junior Dance Company.

James Truitte, Patricia Jacobs, and Danny Clark.
Panel discussion titled, "I Remember Alvin Ailey," at MOCRA, 1993. From left: James Truitte, Patricia Jacobs, and Danny Clark.

Two special evenings featured people closely related to the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. The first, “I Remember Alvin,” was an evening of reminiscences about Alvin Ailey with Patricia Jacobs, Director of the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey; James Truitte (d. 1995), choreographer and original member of the Ailey company; and Danny Clark (d.1997), a dancer with the company at that time.

Katherine Dunham reflects during her lecture at MOCRA, 1993.
Katherine Dunham reflects during her lecture at MOCRA, 1993.

Most wonderful was “An Evening with Katherine Dunham,” on November 5, 1993. This a dance legend discussed the famous “Dunham Technique.” She provided valuable insights into Ailey the man, and her influence on his career. Dunham, who died in 2006, moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1969 and founded the Dunham Dynamic Museum, through which she brought the power of dance to the children and adults of the community. Dunham’s life and work are chronicled in the exhibition Katherine Dunham, currently on display at the Missouri History Museum.

Katherine Dunham and a young admirer, at MOCRA, 1993. Dunham's legacy lives on in new generations of dancers.
Katherine Dunham and a young admirer, at MOCRA, 1993. Dunham's legacy lives on in new generations of dancers.

Preconceived Notions

Roughly two years ago, I decided to do a solo gallery walk around Grand Center and other areas of St. Louis. I compiled a list of galleries and museums through a Google search. There was one venue that stood out amongst names such as The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, The Sheldon Art Galleries, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Saint Louis University Museum of Art and Bruno David Gallery. That venue was MOCRA, the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art.

Outward Movement, 1948. Oil on canvas.
Oskar Fischinger, "Outward Movement," 1948. Oil on canvas. © and Collection of Fischinger Trust.

I was worried about what I would see in a museum of strictly contemporary religious art. Visions of Werner Sallman’s Head of Christ almost prevented me from walking through those doors, but, as a student of art, I decided it was in my best interest to venture into uncomfortable territory.

The exhibition on display was Oskar Fischinger: Movement and Spirit. As I made my way through the side chapels turned galleries, a calmness took over. The museum had low light levels and was quiet… it sounded like an empty church (MOCRA is housed in a building that was once a chapel). There was a meditative presence in Fischinger’s technique… you could see that each line was painted one at a time with a steady hand. It was clear to me the man who painted these works was patient and deliberate.

In particular, the painting Outward Movement struck me as a tremendous example of Fischinger’s technique. There must be hundreds of gridded squares made with thousands of individual lines. They are placed one on top of the other and give a true illusion of outward movement from the center of the canvas. Fischinger used no stamps or silkscreen techniques when creating this work. He placed each line in position with a brush… one at a time… carefully spaced… producing a painting that captures your attention.

The connection of that exhibit to MOCRA’s mission was not obvious, but it was there. The act of creating paintings for Oskar Fischinger was a form of meditation, which is a common practice in most religions. And, because the religious connection was not “in my face,” I walked away with a better understanding of the spiritual as MOCRA presents it to its visitors. It is not sentimental. It is not aggressive. It is not obvious. It is something else entirely.

–Bob Sullivan, Museum Assistant

[According to the Fischinger Trust, Fischinger’s original title for Outward Movement was Manhattan.]

“Pursuit of the Spirit” closing Sunday

Frederick J. Brown, "Madonna and Child."
Installation view, "Pursuit of the Spirit," at MOCRA, 2008. Foreground: Jeff Miller, "The Holy Spirit"; background: Frederick J. Brown, "Madonna and Child."

MOCRA’s fifteenth-anniversary exhibition Pursuit of the Spirit closes this Sunday, December 14, 2008. MOCRA is open now through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a long-time patron, this exhibition has something to offer. It includes works spanning a wide range of media and subject matter, and represents over 40 artists who have been exhibited at MOCRA in the past 15 years.

If you are in the St. Louis area, we hope to see you between now and Sunday!

“Pursuit of the Spirit” reviewed; questions raised

MOCRA’s fifteenth-anniversary exhibition Pursuit of the Spirit was featured in the Sunday, December 7, 2008 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reviewer David Bonetti praises MOCRA’s “vigorous program” and highlights a number of works in the exhibition. At the same time, he voices some common questions and objections about what MOCRA aims at in presenting contemporary art that engages the religious and spiritual dimensions. For instance, how does one identify the “spiritual” in art if a traditional iconography is lacking?

We invite you to read Mr. Bonetti’s review and then share your own thoughts about the questions he poses. Have you visited MOCRA to see Pursuit of the Spirit? How does your experience compare with his?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Read David Bonetti’s review of Pursuit of the Spirit.