Georges Rouault

September 23, 2008By Heidi EllisonArchive

Through a Stained

Glass Darkly

“Bénigne” (1939). © ADAGP Paris 2008

Having never understood the appeal of the paintings of Georges Rouault, whose works can be immediately recognized by the heavy black outlines around the figures in them, I was hoping to be enlightened by the current exhibitions at the Pinacothèque and the Centre Georges Pompidou.

Rouault is one of those difficult-to-classify artists who did not adhere to any of the movements of his time. After studying in Gustave Moreau’s studio in the company of Henri Matisse and a number of other well-known artists, he was lucky to find success in his lifetime, although his work was as often reviled for its “ugliness” and violence as it was praised.

The Pinacothèque’s contention is that Rouault’s reputation has been occulted by the fact that he was a fervent Catholic who favored Biblical themes in his work, and the exhibition tries to shed a new light on the artist by presenting another, more lighthearted side of his work. This is not entirely successful. Many of the paintings in this small show are from the collection put together by industrialist Sako Idemitsu, who saw echoes of Japanese calligraphy in Rouault’s heavy black lines (a legacy of the painter’s early days as an apprentice glassmaker who worked in stained glass?) and ukiyo-e in his palette.

Presumably for this reason, the Pinacothèque has hung small black-and-white reproductions of Japanese works of art next to some of Rouault’s paintings to show the correspondences between them, but the choices are arbitrary, and any similarities between the compositions are coincidental, since Rouault was not referring to these works in his paintings and might not even have been aware of them.

Rouault’s work has been described as powerful, but perhaps overwrought would be a better word. While some pieces stand out with their brilliant palettes, expressiveness (the spirited 1912 portrait of a judge is full of life in spite of its muddiness) or mood (a few landscapes and the processions of tragic figures), the passion that was supposedly behind his often brutal portrayal of humanity is hard to sense.

The few works on paper in Pinacothèque exhibition, such as “Au Salon” (1906), a watercolor of two women at an art salon, show a freer side of Rouault, in which he allows himself to move away from his rigid, mask-like portrayals of people. Some of his early works, like “Les Baigneuses” show the influence of Matisse (like his friend, Rouault doesn’t seem to have been completely at ease with drawing the details of human anatomy).

At the beginning of his career, Rouault was associated with the Fauves, and when he uses a brighter palette, his works are much more appealing. The Centre Pompidou exhibition hints at his relationship with the Fauves by hanging a group of paintings that positively sing with color – by Vlaminck, Derain and other artists – on the wall in front of its small exhibition of Rouault works on paper. While these are livelier and brighter than most of his oils, the contrast between his work and that of the Fauves is like that between gloomy night and brilliant day.

The Pompidou’s lovely little exhibition shows an almost tender and occasionally cheerful side (the ice skaters in “Patinoire”) of Rouault. While the hues are still generally somber, these works are more animated and more expressive, and the nudes show great empathy for the prostitutes who were often his models.

This show can be supplemented with a visit to Room 29 in the Centre Pompidou’s permanent collection, where a number of unfinished works from the artist’s studio, which were donated to the museum after his death, show a brighter, simpler, less-tortured side of his work.

Heidi Ellison

Pinacothèque de Paris:
28, place de la Madeleine, 75008 Paris. Métro: Madeleine. Tel.: 01 42 68 02 01. Open daily 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (until 9 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month; 2 p.m.-6 p.m. on December 25 and January 1). Admission: €9. Through January 18, 2009.

Centre Pompidou: Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris. Tel.: 01 44 78 12 33. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (until 11 p.m. on Thursday and Friday). Closed Tuesday. Métro: Rambuteau. Admission: €12 (includes admission to permanent collection and temporary exhibitions). Through October 13.

© 2008 Paris Update

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