By all rights, this should be the season for Georges Rouault, the season being not only Lent, appropriate as that may be for such an intensely Christian artist, but also a time when art is not shy about stark and biting images of poverty, war, natural disasters, despondent outcasts and smug rulers.
Yet Soo Yun Kang, who teaches art history at Chicago State University and published a major study of Rouault in 2000, recently had to drive 125 miles downstate to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to consult essential scholarly volumes on his paintings and engravings. There she discovered that the last person to have signed out those volumes was herself — nine years ago.
It was not always thus. When he died in 1958 at age 86, Rouault had become a canonical figure in 20th-century art, a wayward Fauve who took his own path of fierce religiosity. He was the subject of major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, for example, and monographs on him continued to pour out until the early 1970's. Then attention tailed off precipitously. (The latest edition of the standard textbook "Janson's History of Art," published last month, has dropped the previous editions' section on him.)
Why? The Museum of Biblical Art is asking that question in connection with a show of Rouault's great cycle of prints, "Miserere et Guerre," that opened on Thursday. The museum, less than a year old, is situated in the headquarters of the American Bible Society at 61st Street and Broadway, near Columbus Circle, in Manhattan.
From 1912 to 1918 and then again from 1922 to 1927, Rouault sketched and painted, then tirelessly worked and reworked the copper plates for what were initially planned to be two volumes of 100 prints, the first volume under the title "Miserere" ("Have mercy," the opening words of Psalm 51) and the second under the title "Guerre" ("war") .
Rouault stopped with 58 prints, which for complicated reasons were not published until 1948. Exhibitions of these anguished prints of the uprooted, the downtrodden, the dying, the self-righteous and the powerful, interspersed and flanked by images of a suffering Christ, are not infrequent, especially in smaller galleries. Not so, however, for major surveys of Rouault's art.
Is that art, perhaps, now burdened by being frankly religious but not iconoclastic?
Art critics will have to explore that and other possibilities. Professor Kang speculated that religious art was unlikely to be hailed unless it was controversial. Rouault was once controversial, of course, but mainly among the devout disturbed by religious themes portrayed in the uncompromising idiom of artistic Modernism.
The irony is that Rouault remains truly controversial but not in what conventionally — should one say uncontroversially? — passes for the controversial. The central theme of his "Miserere et Guerre" prints is suffering. Suffering, however powerfully portrayed, is familiar matter for contemporary art. What is controversial is Rouault's conviction that suffering leads to God and redemption.
That suffering can be redemptive is a pillar of Christian belief: the suffering that reveals humanity's sin and brokenness, the suffering of Jesus that overcomes that sin and brokenness. The New Testament, moreover, links Jesus with all humankind ("a second Adam"), and his disciples with him and with one another, in an intimate identity that means the acts of each have consequences for all.
This can be taken in relatively common-sense terms, as every appeal for responsible citizenship or planetary consciousness testifies. But this common identity can also be understood (by other religions no less than Christianity) in a mystical sense. This mystical sense was particularly emphasized by French Catholic writers of the late-19th and early-20th centuries like J.-K. Huysmans and Léon Bloy who deeply influenced Rouault.
They elaborated a theory of vicarious suffering, or mystical substitution, in which one person could imitate Christ in taking on physical or spiritual pains that would therefore be spared others. Perhaps as a form of shock therapy for a bourgeois society they considered hopelessly complacent, these writers sometimes drove Christian beliefs to the extremes that asceticism always risks, and sometimes their outlook tipped over into fin de siècle decadence and political apocalypticism.
Rouault appears to have stopped short of such extremes, but they call attention to the challenge that any notion of redemptive suffering poses to the human reflex to avoid suffering rather than celebrate it as a path to God.
Rouault, on the contrary, concluded that suffering was unavoidable, integral to life and yet, through Christ, ultimately the passage to hope and heaven.
"It is hard for this generation, especially in America, to swallow this view," Professor Kang said in a phone interview. "They do everything to avoid suffering."
"Look at people in third-world nations," she added. "That is where suffering is a way of life — and where Christianity is growing."
Rouault, too, did not entertain his view of suffering from a safe and comfortable distance (nor did most of his spiritual mentors, like the writer Bloy). Born, he said, beneath the Germans' bombardment of his working-class Parisian quarter, Belleville, in 1871, he was raised in poverty, and his life was a constant struggle. His prints cry out against brutality, exploitation, indifference and hypocrisy; in no way do they prettify the misery that he nonetheless saw as redemptive.
In the essay featured in the exhibition's handsome catalog, Professor Kang concludes that for him, at the most mysterious level, these grim but glowing prints constitute "a prayer book of hope." That, surely, is the abiding controversy of Rouault's work — and of his faith.