Skip to main content

Myriad Parisians, returning home from work, rushed about in the square in front of Gare de Lyon station. “He would have been able to see Seine river,” Gilles Rouaut told me, and pointed to far horizon where the newer buildings now block the view. He stroked the chair his grandfather would have sat, and showed me a photo of Georges Rouault with Marthe, wife of over fifty years, to the opposite end of the window. Georges Rouault (1871 - 1954) was a keen observer of people, and he must have enjoyed watching the square from his window. He painted figures and portraits as “a fit object of grace, while more visibly born in and for suffering.”1 He sought out the marginalized poor, prostitutes, clowns, politicians; to him Kings and homeless were equally significant as his symbol of brokenness. But ultimately they, especially the misfits, were celebrated as God’s chosen manifestation of light into darkness. I asked Gilles if this area was popular area for artists to live, having just walked about the gentrified “creative zone” nearby filled with design studios, art students, and cafes. “No,” Gilles told me, “back then this area was not very popular among artists.” Gare de Lyon area does not have the charm of Montmartre, where Rouault once painted with late-impressionsists like Degas, or the intellectual rigor of St. Andre-des-Arts, where Sartre and other existentialists would have discussed philosophy; no, what you see, and must have been from Rouault’s studio were scenes of ordinary people mingled about in a theatre of life.

We should expect Georges Rouault to live where no other artists would live. His work, and his life seem distinct from the conventional creative forces of the time. Picasso, Braques, Brancussi, Matisse and others would have walked about the streets of Paris then, as well as Cezanne if not for the light of Provence in southern France to have lured him back. Georges seemed to live and work from a different sense of time and calling. When the French state began to close down monasteries and ban Bibles from schools, Rouault turned to Catholicism as a result, knowing that such decision would put him at odds with the authorities. He was not a person who accepted conventions at face value; he probed deeply into both the malaise and despair of those around him, and at the same time held to a deep abiding reality of greater hope.

Though he was not overly social, those who knew him, they got to know him well: and they testify to his trustworthiness as a friend. When the French salon master and teacher Gustuv Moreau died in 1898, it was Rouault who was asked to manage and run the estate. But he never seemed to seek attention, to demand the world around him, including the elite society, to pay homage to him. He seemed content to see himself as a craftsman or an artisan, given the task to capture the monumental struggles of a common person.

Rouault was born on the day the ended Prussian-French war. As the casualty mounted for the French Commune, and with no hospital to go to, his mother gave birth to him by herself in the basement shelter. ’I believe […] that in the context of the massacres, fires and horrors, I have retained (from the cellar in which I was born) in my eyes and in my mind the fleeting matter which good fire fixes and incrusts’,2 Georges later recounted. His early memories included being taken to Victor Hugo state funeral march in Paris when he was 12. His “ground zero” began at the cellar of his Belleville home, and expanded as he saw the devastation and the fragmentation that would confront him them, and haunt him later as France faced the shadows of Nazis invasion, and then the ideological fragmentation that Modernist intellectual milieu would march forth for the remainder of his life.

He never felt comfortable in such a schism, and struggled with depression: the darkness or the broken realities would insist upon him to depict the oppressiveness as is, making some of the early paintings almost unbearable. But eventually his palette would find colors streaking through the somber darkness via the clown’s faces, and blemishes of cheeks of the prostitutes. They were becoming his existential statement, as if to force back the darkness, or perhaps more accurately, give grace a chance to shine in the margins of stark and bold lines. Early on, he found refuge in the colors of the stained glass windows that he apprenticed to create, and in the prints that his grandfather, a postal worker, showed him of Manet and Rembrandt from Paris market influencing the young Georges.

In turn, today, Rouault has influenced many. As a student in Tokyo, I once asked a zen master of calligraphy who among the western masters he admired the most. He replied “Georges Rouault…because his lines contain the weight of life.” And in many conversations among artists and intellectuals, especially in Japan, Rouault’s name pops up as a major influencer for them. Recently I had the privilege of spending some time with contemporary American great Chuck Close3, and he told me of his high admiration for Rouault. “I wanted to buy one of Rouault’s prints as a student at Yale,” he said, “but just could not afford it.” For an art student to even consider buying an artwork, would be the greatest show of admiration.

With such respected following among artists, one would think that Rouault would be positioned among the greats, such as Picasso, or Matisse, who was a close friend of Georges. But his reputation never found such foothold, as he continues to confound the critics, never seeming to fit into the neat categories of modernists, abstract expressionism, or, despite exhibiting with them, the Fauves. Why? Rouault’s paintings are not ideologically driven, like the modernists, or of pure abstraction, like some of the expressionists, nor hedonistic, like the Fauves: Rouault paintings are faithful depiction of the broken realities of his time, eloquent testimonies of color in fragmentation and graceful reminder of faith in an agnostic, and increasingly atheistic era.

Georges Rouault’s paintings are a portal that peaks into the ages past, and then, magically, invites us into a journey toward our future. They transport us to a past beyond the fragmentation of Modernism into the enchantment and mysteries of medieval aesthetic: Before rationality was segregated from passion, and our hearts divorced from faith. Like the stained glass windows he grew to have a “passionate taste”4 for their colors, Rouault’s world is principally determined by colorist space and not dependent upon traditional formula of illusionistic space. They create in-between space within layers of paint, what contemporary art historian James Romaine called “Grace arenas.”5 No, they are more than Modernist or Classical, Rouault’s paintings “Trans-Modern paintings, “6 synthesizing bold and calligraphic colors, humble view of humanity, and a prophetic visage of a forgotten reality.

Like the Rembrandts that he valued and imitated as a youth, and Cezanne he celebrated in his letters and poems, Rouault paintings capture not a mere reflective, descriptive light, but Light behind the light, Reality behind reality. They are generative, and seem to grow more and more pregnant as they age. Rouault may yet prove to be the first Twenty-first Century painter, bringing synthesis out of an age of fragmentation. They stand in complete contrast to the path the other modernist artists took, like Picasso and Mondrian, to delineate and dissect reality into flat cerebral spaces. Takashi Murakami, a recent incarnation of his post-Modern visual language states in his “Superflat,” essay that flatness is the essence of artistic innovation of recent path and considers Superflat as an “-ism, — like Cubism, Surrealism, Minimalism and Simulationism.”7 Rouault’s work was a resistance to this age of “flattened perceptions.”

The assumption in “Superflat” is that the reality itself is readable in a flattened perceptions; Rouault spends his entire life and career disputing this fact. Just like in Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, a nineteenth century “romance of many dimensions” about a journey in two dimensional universe, a dot approaching toward you in “flatland” may not be what it seems. A resident of a two dimensional world must determine if the “dot” approaching us quietly in the horizon is innocuous, or a huge round ball of an object rolling to crush us but imperceptible in the flat dimension. “Superflat” ism, likewise assumes we can lose dimensionality without much harm. But as twentieth century moved toward the collapse of form and ideas, we lost connection with the fully orbed dimensional reality. Into that increasingly flat world Rouault gives flesh to the synthesis of these alienated elements. In doing so, he may even be warning us, from his vantage point of the early twentieth century, that the “dot” rolling toward us may not as innocuous as it may look.

When modernism depicted chasms of splintered conditions, Rouault’s little paintings shed light into that room. When the prevailing notion of the existentialism posted “No Exit” signs in our studios, Rouault was a little window that looked out into a vision of wholeness. His work awakens us to a greater sensation.

Juhuani Pallasmaa, in “The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses”8 states:

“The skin reads the texture, weight, density and temperature of matter. The surface of an old object, polished to perfection by the tool of the craftsman and the assiduous hands of its users, seduces the stroking of the hand. It is pleasurable to press a door handle shining from the thousands of hands that have entered the door before us…”

Pallasmaa points out the “flattened perception” in recent architecture designs, and calls for recovery of our fully orbed sensory experience, to design to awaken our holistic being, to have “eyes of the skin.”

Similarly, Rouault’s work engages us not merely in the visual mode but in this holistic mode, and thus, Murakami’s “Superflat” ism does not justice as a proper grid: Rouault paints with the “eyes of the skin” as much as his ocular vision. When modernism created chasms of splintered conditions, both with truncating ideologies, and deprivation of sensory signals, Rouault stubbornly kept painting a small windows of senses, fighting against the dehumanization of visual vocabulary.

As a graduate in student invited National Scholar at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, I, too felt, the oppression of “No Exit” reality. For a modern painter, one of the only avenues to explore was the language of angst and despair. Very similar to Rouault’s depiction of his darker images early on, I began to depict sinister elements of nature, and struggled to grasp beyond the closed door of perception handed to me by the philosophical air of our time.

It was then that I encountered the works of Rouault’s Passion paintings at The Bridgestone Museum and other Rouault paintings in Idemitsu Museum in Tokyo. At the same time, writing of Jacques Maritain, William Blake whose writings I read in college began to capture my attention again. Japanese, for surprising reasons, have the best collection of Rouault. The post-war intellectual movement of Shirakaba championed artists like Rouault among other continental artists (including William Blake). I made pilgrimages to see these small but heavily painted surfaces.

Once in my graduate program studio in Tokyo, one of the assistant professors walked into the studio unannounced. I was working on a semi-abstract painting that I felt was close to finished. He took one look at the painting and said “this painting is so beautiful, it’s almost terrifying,” and walked out. Immediately I proceeded to wash the painting down, destroying the surface.

Why did I do that? It was because I realized, in honesty, I did not have a room for that kind of beauty inside my heart. I now realize it may have been Rouault’s paintings that caused me to pursue the path of “terrible beauty,” a path I was not prepared to walk. I was simply astounded that this terrible beauty would be birthed out of my own hands. Philosophically, I did not have the luxury of having beauty to capture and possess my heart.

Jacques Maritain’s writings began to affect my philosophical outlook then. His Creative Intuitions in Art and Poetry, a book I had carried around with me since college, began to bring a different outlook: Maritain wrote “For poetry there is no goal, no specifying end. But there is an end beyond. Beauty is the necessary correlative and end beyond any end of poetry”9. Beauty as a “necessary correlative” of art and poetry, allows for a broader context in which deeper wrestling, and synthesis, can take place.

It was only in reading up on Rouault’s life for this exhibit that I discovered that Maritain wrote his seminal Creative Intuition in Art as a summarization of his encounter, and his friendship with Rouault. Little did I realize that this Thomist thinker’s overlap with Rouault. It could very well be that while my visual arena was touched by Rouault’s “weight of life” paintings, I was concurrently reading, being influenced philosophically by Maritain, without knowing the connection between the two. And, it occurs to me now that I may not have encountered Rouault, and perhaps Maritain, to such an extent if I did not come to Japan.

Thus, Rouault’s influence in my life is far more than mere inspiration; he gave permission in the “No Exit” room to look outside from the most unlikely place of exile: his painting were little windows into a Reality I did not know existed. What I saw there was both beautiful and terrifying. It showed a path of a suffering servant who took on the broken condition of our souls, the historic Jesus of Nazareth, who chose to walk into darkness as claiming to be the “light of the world.” The images of the Savior that entered my eyes, became etched into my heart, and eventually broke through into my life, and along with the words of William Blake, and Jacques Maritain, became central guiding posts for my journey of art, faith and creativity.10

To Rouault, to create such indelible images, hard labor and discipline is required. Many people today assume that being an artist or musician is irresponsibly drifting into a romantic ease; young artists and musicians may think that as well, until they actually attempt to make it work. Artists actually work longer hours, with lower wages, with no guarantees of security than most other occupations. There is no “nine to five” boundaries for us. But those who make it work, do so knowing that their expression has a place inside more enduring conversations that go deep beneath the culture’s superficial terrains. And to Rouault, and often for me, that conversation is rarely with contemporaries, but with artists of the past influences, like Rembrandt or Fra Angelico, or, for my journey, artists like Tohaku Hasegawa. We are caught in the five hundred year conversations. And in such reality, consistency, diligence and commitment to discipline is the only way to gain entry into an enduring conversation.

In Rouault’s sun lit studio, I faced a photo showing stacks of paintings. The varnish bottles and used bristles of brushes seem to beckon the master artist to walk in and start working. The heavy impasto of his surfaces, though now completely dry, seemed to give the illusion that it was painted yesterday, still seem to give a slight scent of linseed oil. The tubes of paint lay inside the boxes they came in, somewhat arranged in an ad hoc manner. His process of working allowed parallel progression, and he literally stacked framed paintings on top of each other, working in literal layers. One painting competed against, and even visually bled into, each other. When I visited later the Rouault room at Pompidou, and faced with many paintings with similar colors, I began to, in my mind’s eyes, see Rouault painting them in the sun lit little room. Although the paintings used similar motifs and same colors, the series of paintings opened up as completely new creation, unique and distinctive offering.

These colors used in Rouault’s are combinations that I was taught avoid in school. Bright yellow and sharp purple never should work well on a painting, nor muted color mixes with black; and yet in Rouault’s hands, these “impossible” colors speak deeply and resonate. To observe each painting of Rouaut is to throw away conventions of painting, to watch a literal miracle take place in front of you. This is why, to this day, many painters admire him and see him as their great influence.

Rouault was a painter’s painter. Purists seem to gravitate toward his work: what makes him different from Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard, or countless other example of artists from around the same period? Is it the use of colors? Application of paint? Delineation of lines? Rouault’s works are unique in their audacity of conviction: an affirmation of the light that lay behind the darkness, and the gestural authority to capture that reality. His works still, so many years after the viscous layers of paint has dried out, teaches us to trust paint. Rouault reminds us that our souls are being squeezed out like fresh paint, directly onto the canvas of modern struggles, raw, pungent and pure, about to be pushed about by a great master. And when we allow ourselves to be moved in such a way, as I did that day at Pompidou, inevitably we begin to notice the visual language Rouault developed all his life, and we may finally begin to truly “see” Rouault’s paintings. Let me list three of visual “keys” I’ve discovered that may help in looking at Rouault paintings.

First visual key is the perspective he often uses. The masterpiece “Christ in the Outskirts” which is at the collection of Bridgestone Museum in Tokyo, depicts Christ with two other figures (children?). The perspective used here is much like the contemporary artist Richard Diebenkorn or Anselm Kiefer, as an “angelic” perspective. The perspective used is not perpendicular to the ground, nor from the ground looking into the horizen: The angle is “angelic” half way between heaven and earth. Recently, at Fuchu Museum in Tokyo, I spoke in front of one of my Twin Rivers of Tamagawa paintings which were displayed there. I noted the use of the same perspective used in Rouault: I had done so unconsciously in my Twin Rivers paintings, imitating Rouault’s work. The Outskirts painting influenced countless Japanese masters, including Ryusaburo Umehara, the most significant post war artist that worked in western style.

The second visual key is in the sun/moon in the horizon, often depicted in Rouault paintings. When I see the “Outskirts” painting now, my eyes gravitate up toward the moon in the sky. But then, with Rouault, the moon is not guaranteed to be just a moon.

Very similar to Vincent van Gogh’s sun/moon, a symbol of the new Heavens and the new Earth in the Starry Night10; but for Rouault, the sun/moon is a Sacramental vision, like the round bread of life offered by the priest at a Mass. Bread of Life, the body of Christ, is superimposed with the sun. In France, Catholic Mass often uses Monstrance, a large round, golden signpost to lift up the Sacramental reality to invite the communicants to encounter worship.

In such a Reality, materiality has direct connection with the sacred, and gives conviction to an artist, like Rouault, to see the spiritual, heavenly presence to manifest itself in reality of earth. If Communion wafer is the actual body of Christ, the intensity of the greater Reality can, in a smaller way, inhabit even ordinary paint. Heaven can, in other words, intervene our ordinary Reality to break forth physically. And this Reality of heaven being manifested on earth is a portal into any earthly reality to be filled with a sacramental possibility.

And as a third key, we must note Rouault’s unique use of colors.

During my recent stay in Japan, I traveled to Yamanashi prefecture where Rouault is exhibit at Shirakaba Museum. The Rouault Chapel, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, with a crucifix that Rouault himself hand painted. The 54 Passion paitntings that I saw in Tokyo as a student was collected by Chozo Yoshii of Yoshii Gallery, and he is the principle owner of the museum. In one of the literally journals Shirakaba movement created, Japanese philosopher Sogen Yanagi writes of Rouault’s colors:

Beneath the richly painted surface, we hear a song. Sometimes, it is a lamentation sang by those being oppressed, a dirge for those dispersed into the darkness at the end of their suffering…

And yet, what is signified beneath cannot be compared to the power of the colors:

The blue, once the color of the sacred sky by Giotto and stained glass craftsman… (though I believe the emerald of the Passion series is an homage to that), now fallen upon earth as the shadows falling upon the prostitutes’ tired skin, or in the exiled outskirts of town in a winter landscape. The red is the color of the clown’s nose or the woman’s lips, or the judge’s ruddy, fat face - but ultimately it is the color of the blood of Christ streaking down from his crown of thorns. The sun is light of yellow, with a touch of occasional red, and at times it reads as ominous color of blood, and at other times the sacred color of the proof of Love. Yellow that is depicting light is layered upon much white underneath, giving it a particular glow, and enhanced sometimes by a top layer of emerald. White is the color of the garment of Christ, but it is also the color of the moon dominating over the night sky cast upon the ash ground in the hallowed evening.

And then, there is black

Yanagi continues to describe the black in Rouault as his most important color, noting, quite correctly that Impressionists did not use black. “Black may not hold a certain worldview: but black holds a definite spiritual outlook.” Rouault, to Yanagi, was an artist of the night.

Yanagi correctly states that only in such darkness, recognizing the bleak conditions of the world and the fallen reality of our souls, can Christ’s appearance make sense. He is the true Light behind the light. “The hope and love Christ shines into the world, and He is the only Light that will never be extinguished.

One should not be surprised, in following Rouault, to find a philosopher, like Yanagi, who do not identify himself as a Christian write so eloquently of the Biblical realities. That, in essence, is the power of Rouault’s universe. He is not merely a “religious” painter: he was the painter of a greater generative Reality, of multiple colors behind our dark, foreboding and destructive world.

Thus in homage to him, my Soliloquies painting begins with a dark background on linen, and minerals are layered on top in the traditional Nihonga technique. As Rouault sought to bring stained glass colors into the darkness, I am literally painting refractive colors into the darkness. As Rouault sought to incarnate God’s love into the faces of prostitutes, exiled to the outskirts of culture, so I face my paintings to bring medieval colors to dance, and gold leaf squares to invite the City of God into the hearts of the City of Man.

As I stood in the sun filled studio of Rouault in Paris, I pondered the conversations, the thoughts that Georges must have had. He must have been pondering upon Maritain’s philosophical musings as he painted one stack of paintings after another. He must have prayed, knowing that his art, too, was a prayer. Rouault and Maritain were instrumental in recovery of integration of faith and art at the time in France where their separation of church an state lead to closing of monasteries and banning of faith teaching in schools. To Rouault, his faith was not a private event, it was connected to the public reality, a threat he felt encroaching upon the whole of humanity. My journey with faith, art and culture has lead me to begin the effort of International Arts Movement, a non-profit arts organization that would champion artists on the “outskirts” like Rouault. Georges and Marthe had three children, as Judy and I, struggling to raise them, not knowing exactly where the next month’s income will come from. Standing alone, in Georges’ studio, I had an inkling that my struggles were not foreign to him, but that they were inherited, worthy cause, passed down via the corridors of time inviting all of us for the Feast to come.

  1. William A. Dyrness, “Rouault: A Vision of Suffering and Salvation.” Pg. 108, Eerdmans Publishing, 1971
  2. Georges Rouault, Correspondance [de] Georges Rouault [et] André Suarès (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), 49; quoted in Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault, 1871-1958, ed. Stephen Schloesser (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 27.
  3. At the Aspen Institute, 2009
  4. Georges Rouault, Souvenirs intimes (Paris: E. Frapier, 1927), 51; quoted in Bernard Doering, “Lacrymae rerum: Creative Intuition of the Transapparent Reality,” in Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault, 1871-1958, ed. Stephen Schloesser (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 390.
  5. See “Art as Prayer,” International Arts Movement
  6. I like to thank Dr. Paul Vitz for coining this term, at IAM lecture in 1998
  7. pg. 25 Takashi Murakami, Superflat, Madra Publishing, 2000
  8. Thanks to philopsopher Adrienne Chaplin for pointing out this book to me
  9. Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Meridian Books, pg. 131
  10. See “River Grace,” International Arts Movement publication
  11. See my Refractions essay on van Gogh