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.
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