Can the greatest religious painter of the 20th century make a comeback?

“Georges Rouault: Miserere et Guerre,” installation at Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at St. Louis University, 2016. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn, courtesy of MOCRA

What can a nearly forgotten set of 58 masterful etchings by a man once called one of the great artists of the 20th century tell us about the state of religious art in America?

At a rare showing of “Miserere et Guerre” (“Mercy and War”), a bleak but compelling series by the idiosyncratic French modernist Georges Rouault, the pious and the curious will have a chance to judge for themselves.

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Rouault completed his expressionist landmark in the 1920s. New York’s Museum of Modern Art,  among other top-notch museums, owned one of its 450 initial copies and repeatedly celebrated an artist it called “the greatest religious painter of the 20th century.”

Yet the Parisian’s reputation has faded drastically in the course of a few decades.

His last American big-museum exhibit was in 1979. Not one of MOMA’s many Rouaults is up on its walls. Rouault’s entry in the standard text “Janson’s History of Art” shrank from a page and a half in 1971 to nothing by 2007.

Some see this as a consequence of the contemporary art world’s distaste for explicit religious images.

The one place you can go to form your own opinion is St. Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, which shows its copy of the series every four or five years.

Although St. Louis University is a Roman Catholic school, the museum, founded by the Rev. Terrence Dempsey in 1993, is eclectic, having exhibited Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist works, among others—as long “as it’s not a satire or a critique, but a genuine engagement” with faith, Dempsey said.

The school’s Jesuit identity, however, was the reason it was given a set of the Rouault series in 1956 by a brother of a Jesuit priest.

The 2-foot-high etchings march down eight walls, a cavalcade of stylized sorrow interspersed with austere hope. The work’s great topic is the poor and downtrodden: the dreary dead-end grind of Paris’ industrial suburbs that Rouault, who was from the working-class redoubt of Belleville, called “the old district of Long Suffering.”

He portrayed threadbare laborers, hard-pressed families and the sick; the jollity of itinerant clowns and prostitutes; as well as a stream of refugees — from where, it is never clear. The trauma of World War I appears retrospectively in the form of skeletons with soldiers’ hats.

But although Rouault’s subjects are stripped of vanity, he gave them great dignity. A contemporary called him “a vivid and brutal draftsman, infinitely rich despite the closely spaced variations of his selected themes.” Apprenticed to a glazier in his teens, Rouault translated the thick lead outlining of stained glass into a powerful, muscular line, and invented new etching techniques to make his compressed black and white figures glow from within.

None glow more so than Jesus, whose image recurs, in foreground or background, 16 times in the series. Not Jesus triumphant, but Jesus mocked and debased, often on the cross, his downward gaze echoing that of the poor.

According to William Dyrness, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, the work originally included a Resurrection plate. But Rouault canceled it. The finished series’ final image is of Jesus’ head crowned with thorns, labeled by Rouault, “It is through his wounds that we are healed.”

This reflected his faith. The title for another panel is a quote from the polymath Blaise Pascal: “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.” This emphasis on Jesus as eternal co-sufferer and of suffering’s redemptive aspect is part of mainstream Roman Catholic theology. But in his writing, at least, Rouault drifted toward a philosophy known as Dolorism that elevated suffering into the only truly ennobling experience.

The hint of this in Miserere may help explain its fall from popular grace.

Sandra Bowden, an artist and collector who rents out her own full set of the series, alludes to the museum world’s issue with modern religious works: an attitude with distant roots in the Enlightenment, but more recently a kind of knee-jerk hypersecularism.

“You can’t deny that a strong and visible faith was at work in the production of Rouault’s art,” she says. “And that’s not PC.”

But she adds, “The other thing is, the work is dark.” Passion theology has never been that big a part of Protestantism, the base coat of American religion; and Mel Gibson notwithstanding, its more fervent mystical expressions have receded in American Catholicism, except during Lent, the approximately six-week period of penance and fasting preceding Easter, the Christian celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection.

But there are some signs that, for whatever reason, interest in Rouault and his Miserere is rekindling.

Jean-Yves Rouault, the artist’s grandson and chair of the Georges Rouault Foundation, writes from Paris, “There are definitely more Miserere exhibitions than 20 years ago.” In the U.S., he reports, the foundation communicates with several collectors who bought Rouault works “in the last few years. We are confident that there will be more activity in the near future.”

It may be that Rouault’s long decades of art world exile are over. Dempsey certainly hopes so. Offering a non-Dolorist testimony to the Miserere’s relevance that might please Pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit with a pronounced social conscience, the museum director points out the appropriateness of Rouault’s acute social vision at a time when “there’s so much suffering on the global scene. All I can think of when I look at his refugees is those Syrian migrants coming in from Turkey and Greece.”

And then there is Dempsey’s personal connection. Decades ago, after his mother received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, Dempsey recalls sitting before one of the artist’s heads of the suffering Christ.

“I asked the usual questions,” he recalls. “‘Lord, how can this be helping anyone? This is a good woman. She did so much for us, she held our family together.’” And there’s this head with these big wide eyes and blood dripping down the side of his face, and what I heard in my heart was: ‘I understand. You’re not alone.’ There was no miracle. No healing. But I realized I wasn’t alone.

“There’s power in Rouault’s art for me. And that power has not diminished over all these years.”

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