The many masks of modern art; Morality and the art of Georges Rouault
Probably the most interesting response I've had to this series so far was a telephone call from an angry reader who insisted that I was very wrong in claiming that morality had a place in art -- and who tehn proceeded to list the contemporary artists whose work had suffered the most from what he called "moral contamination."Skip to next paragraph
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It was a fascinating list. Kollwitz, of course, headed it, with Rouault, Beckmann, Kline, Giaconetti, and Bacon following close behind. Picasso was also included (for "Guernica," I suppose), as well as Nolde, Kokoschka, and Orozco. By the time my caller had finished, he had dismissed fully two-thirds of the major art of this century as impure and contaminated, and had only give his approval -- with a few exceptions including Braque and Matisse -- to art which was totally abstract, essentially decorative, or light-heartedly representational.
I tried to argue that Mondrian (whom he made a big point of applauding as our most important modern master) was one of the great moralists of 20th-century art , but he was having none of it. "No," he said, "Mondrian always managed to keep himself above morality."
Since the ability to keep oneself "above" morality is beyond my comprehension , I stopped arguing and let the conversation dribble to a halt. I even allowed my caller the last word, which was: "Rouault was a disgrace to French art, especially to the tradition of Monet and Cezanne."
Once I had cooled down, I began to consider the nature of his list and what it implied. What struck me first was that every one of the artists on it put passion before perfection, and that those who headed it made conscience a primary condition of their art.
Of them all, Rouault has fared least well these past 25 years. From being considered one of the six or seven major painters of this century, and a great graphic artist, he has sunk to where he is now considered only one of a dozen or so better French painters of this period, and one of its major printmakers.
While prices for his paintings have slowly increased over the years, the do not begin to compare with the astronomical figures his major contemporaries now command. Even his prints fare only moderately well.
And yet he was a superb painter, an important printmaker, and one of the very small handful of artists to have made a genuine contribution to the art of the book.
When we add to that the fact the he was the most profoundly religious artist to have appeared in Western art in a long while (I personally would say since Rembrandt), we must shaek our heads in disbelief that he should be so relatively ignored.
But the reason is actually quite obvious -- and my telephone caller put it squarely on the line -- Rouault, of all major 20th-century painters, is the most "contaminated" by morality. Only Kollwitz has a "worse" record, but the fact that she was primarily a printmaker puts her into a separate category.
The problem with Rouault is that he demands passionate participation. We can't just sit back and enjoy his work for its color or design, or even for its subject matter, for all these qualities are so irrevocably meshed with his profoundly moral vision of reality that to study them for only a moment is to be drawn totally into his way of seeing things.