The many masks of modern art; Morality and the art of Georges Rouault

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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."

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."

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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.

Rouault's art is a crucible within which human foibles and sufferings are transmuted through creative passion into glowing, gem-like, and luminously interior pictorial manifestations of the redemptive and regenerative power of love.

In that crucible, molten images of pain and anguish are introduced to help awaken our compassion and our conscience, never to shock or to dismay -- and certainly never to seduce. Rouault was probably the least playful of contemporary artists, the elast likely to amuse. But what he may have lacked in lightness of heart, he more than made up in compassionate love and spiritual fervor.

Like lava and diamonds, a Rouault painting was fashioned under the most intense pressure and at extreme white heat -- although in this case the pressure was creative and the heat was emotional and visionary.

And because it was created under this pressure and at this heat, Rouault's art can withstand most everyday stresses and strains, and can serve as a source of moral support and sustenance for those of us to whom art speaks deeply and truly.

That is, it can if we let it.

My telephone caller obviously wouldn't, or at least resented that so large a degree of participation was required of him. And he is not alone.

For roughly 25 years we have preferred art from which most living passion and concern have been drained or burned away and which have remained cool, detached, and antiseptic. We called it everything from Pop-Art to Minimalism to Photo-Realism, but while they may all have looked different on the outside, they were much the same inside: clever, vacuous, and zombie-like. Only an occasional artist here and there was able to transcend style and create art.

Although much of that was probably a reaction to the intense and often heavy-handed emotionalism of Abstract-Expressionism, I think an even more important reason ws the overwhelmingly complex nature of our space-age, and our preference for art that codifies its realities rather than intensifies them.

I remember vividly the eagerness with which my friends and I awaited the first art to coem out of Germany immediately after World War II. The country of the Expressionists, we felt, would undoubtedly produce such extraordinary iamges of war and its effects as to put Goya and Picasso to shame. But what appeared was only mildly decorative and watered-down 1930's abstraction. The horrors of war were obviously too close to be turned into art.

I suspect much the same things has been true of late. We have been so numbed trying to comprehend clusters of apparently contradictory realities that our art has been hard put to fashion anything that is mroe than skin deep. And after more than two decades of skimming the surface, a part of us prefers even now to keep it that way.

But I don't for a moment believe that our hunger for deeper nourishment has diminished. If anything, judging from the fct that our museums are busier than ever, and from the even more exciting fact that the gallery world is bursting with rich new talent, we want this nourishment more than ever.

We won't get it, however, as long as we insist that art remain cliniclaly antiseptic and smilingly serene, and deny that morality and spiritually also have their proper place in art.

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