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Zaragoza Exhibits the Work of French Painter Georges Rouault for the First Time Ever
A cameraman takes images at the exhibition 'Georges Rouault 1871-1958', including the picture at left entitled 'Acrobate IX', at Ibercaja Patio de la Infanta cultural centre in Zaragoza, northeastern Spain. The exhibition, displaying 39 works of art by French artist Georges Rouault (1871-1958), runs until 20 April 2011. EPA/JAVIER CEBOLLADA.

ZARAGOZA.- Rouault's paintings are full of papers on their backs. References to all the places these paintings have traveled to, from Milan to New York without leaving out places like Tokyo or Paris (where his foundation is housed). "It is perhaps the fact that best expresses the importance of a painting," said exhibition curator Martine Soria about the exhibition Georges Rouault 1871-1958, which opened yesterday at the Patio de la Infanta. This is the first time that the Aragonese city exhibits the work of French painter in Zaragoza. At the event, Martine Soria, was accompanied by the Director of Social Work of Ibercaja, Teresa Fernandez and grandchildren of the artist.

The exhibition hall houses 39 works by Georges Rouault, an artist who has a unique relationship with Aragon, since Goya’s footprint, a painter who Rouault worshipped all his life, can be followed in much of his work.

Georges Rouault occupies a unique place amongst twentieth century artists. A contempory of Cubism, Expressionism and Fauvism, he never aspired to belong to any one of these movements. Often categorised as a religious painter, he was, above all, independent. He did not find his inspiration in an abstract way, but rather in observing real life as much as the highest form of spirituality. Georges Rouault was a painter who did not need religious subjects in order for his work to be stamped with the characteristics of holiness.

The Early Years 1871-1902
Born during the bombings of the ‘Commune de Paris’, Georges Rouault spends his early childhood in the old, working class neighbourhood of Belleville.

Son of a cabinet maker, who varnished pianos for Pleyel, he learns to love beautiful materials. At the age of 14, he leaves home to become an apprentice for a stained glass artist. Introduced early to the works of Courbet, Manet, Forain and Daumier by his maternal grandfather, he develops, little by little, a passion for painting which leads him to consecrate his life to it. Initial lessons at the school of Decorative Art (l’Ecole des Arts Décoratifs) are followed by those at the school of Fine Art (l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts) in 1890 when the young man abandons his apprenticeship.

The Ecole des Beaux-Arts is the site of a meeting which is to be a determining factor for his future. One year after arriving at the school he becomes a pupil of Gustave Moreau. This exceptional teacher, who pushed his students to reveal themselves to themselves, will forge a privileged relationship with Georges Rouault. Even to the point where the young painter will, after the death of his master, be named as the curator of his private mansion, left to the State and transformed into a museum. Gustave Moreau understands this pupil particularly well and advises, comforts and guides him.

At the school, Rouault makes an impression by winning the “prix Chenavard” in 1894. He is 23 years old. During his second attempt for the “Prix de Rome”, in 1895, Rouault is sensed to be the winner. However Léon Bonnat, a member of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, imposes his veto. After this failure, Moreau advises his student to leave the school and paint independently.

Outside of the school, Rouault paints what he sees. His works reveal a vision of tragic reality. He liberates himself from the subjects imposed by the academic competitions and looks for his own inspiration, although he will remain the spiritual successor of Gustave Moreau. Moreau supports him in his new path and continues to provide advice and literary knowledge and encourage his spirituality.

Rouault and Religion
Baptised at 1 month old, Rouault nevertheless receives a secular education. It is only at 24 years old that he shows a desire to follow the Christian faith by taking his first communion. He becomes close to writers such as J. K. Huysmans and Leon Bloy who represent, with Charles Peguy, a literary context marked by a neo-Catholicism which fought against the superficiality and sterility of official church art. At the end of April 1901, Rouault joins a group of intellectuals at the Ligugé abbey. Huysmans planned to found a community of Catholic artists there. The group agreed to resist publicity and everything that flattered the vanities. During this stay, Rouault determines never to make any concessions to art and the public. The introduction of the Waldeck-Rousseau law against such associations led to the dissolution of the community. Rouault comes back to Paris and takes up his paintings again, or rather his enquiry, his research.

Imbibed in the spiritual climate of Gustave Moreau, Georges Rouault holds that art is not a copy of nature but the possibility to express oneself. All his life, he will follow the advice of his master: listen to your inner voice.

The Revolt 1902 - 1914
In 1898, when Gustave Moreau succumbs to cancer, Rouault loses his principal supporter, his world collapses; he says himself that at that moment ‘it was the abyss’. From this time, and for the next 5 years, Rouault goes through a moral and aesthetic crisis. Deeply affected by the death of his master, separated from his family living in Algeria, he has a changed outlook on life and feels totally isolated.

In 1902, exhausted and sick, he goes to convalesce at Evian and it is this break that marks the end of his crisis. The peace and quiet, and the nature of late autumn, totally renews his vision. He starts to paint frenetically.

Returning to Paris, he discovers in Moreau’s library, the works of Léon Bloy who he will meet in 1904. The works of this polemic writer express his revolt against the hypocrisy of a certain bourgeoisie, Christian by convention rather than by conviction, whom he denounces ferociously, along with the mediocrity or baseness manifested in society.

The independence of spirit and the direct style of the writer enthuses Rouault and confirms his new path. Close to the ideas of Bloy on society, he retranscribes them in his painting with a verve equalling that of the writer.

The interior turmoil of this period of crisis is echoed in his pictorial evolution. His brush gives life to grotesque caricatures revealing the imperfections of society. The faces of prostitutes, clowns, judges are often disquieting, literally scarred by brush strokes. Rouault creates archetypes, allegories of debauchery, misery, vice, indifference…. What interests him is to see Man without the mask, without ceremony, in his naked reality. His themes are inspired by observed reality but filtered through his interior vision and his impulsive and passionate character. Rouault does not seek to distract, he does not look for the pleasing and seductive. His work is underlined by moral and human experience.

In this early 20th century, Rouault seeks and affirms his individuality. A new style is worked out. The paintings are characterised by the violence of the drawing and the colours, by the dynamism of the line, by the sharp and insistent strokes. The deformations that he inflicts on his subjects permit him to accentuate their expressions. At the risk of losing the support of the collectors of Gustave Moreau, he abandons his old style. The brutality of his works shocks his contempories. Despite the insulting letters he receives, he persists in this line and gradually pulls out of the Salons. Named curator of the Gustave Moreau museum in 1902, this appointment brings him a certain financial security and independence in his work.

From this period, Rouault gives a lot of importance to his materials. He mixes aquarelle with gouache and pastel on paper which he then sticks on canvas. In this way he obtains a unique material and a subtle harmony of colours. Towards 1910, he starts to use oil paint which offers him a richer choice of colours. Oil will progressively supplant his mixed technique. Rouault explores different techniques in order to uncover those which best suit his temperament. He intensively tries out the art of ceramic followed by that of printing. These two activities give him a craftsman-like relationship with his work through the material, and give, after years of research, an essential contribution to his painting.

The years 1913-14 are the beginning of a new stage in his evolution. This is expressed in the shifting of his themes and the growing over-simplification of form. By force of experimentation and persistent work, Rouault gradually finds and perfects his means of expression. His painting is a scholarly mixture of the hand, the heart and the soul. The First World War brings new preoccupations which will mature the painter and his painting.

Solitary Artist 1914-1930

Following the death of his father, in 1912, Rouault starts work on a book of drawings in Indian ink from which will come the prints for the Miserere. He works on the copper plates for more than ten years. The 58 plates are accompanied by descriptions written by the artist. Each print has the dimensions of a canvas and the work weighs more than 21 kilograms. A physical translation of his spiritual angst, the book is considered to be Rouault’s masterpiece. The events of the First World War bring to a head the preoccupations of the artist, who places Christ and death in the forefront of the Miserere. This work permits him to evacuate his anguish and the extreme harshness of his view on society. Published in 1948, the book is even better understood following the horrors of the Second World War.

In 1917, Ambroise Vollard, one of the most prestigious Parisian art dealers, proposes to buy the entire contents of George Rouault’s studio, some 770 works. The painter accepts on condition that he may finish his works at his own pace. Passionate about ‘livres d’artiste’, Vollard overwhelms Rouault with work, ordering illustrations for a number of books: "Reincarnations of Pere Ubu", Cirque de l’Étoile filante, Passion, Miserere, Les Fleurs du Mal. Vollard’s strength was to allow the painter great liberty as well as all the means to approach perfection. Each of his books is the fruit of lengthy work and incessant alteration, creating extraordinary delays before appearing. Printing occupies a determining place in the works of Rouault but also in his pictorial development. It allows him to increase his power of expression by the gradation of light and reinforces his mastery of drawing. It teaches him to be sparing and pushes him towards a synthesis of form.

For several years, from 1917 to 1926, his printing work is so intense that he paints considerably less. From 1927, Rouault compels himself to complete several hundred paintings, thus honouring his contract with Vollard. The main part of his output represents figures from the circus, religious subjects and landscapes. In addition to these three predominant subjects are nudes and portraits. The themes of girls, judges and the grotesque progressively disappear.

From the point of view of style, the realism of 1905 gives way to an idealisation of form. Unity and simplicity oppose the dynamic maze of lines. The shapes and designs are calmer. The darkness and violence disappear. The tangled lines give way to harsh outlines which highlight the composition, making the drawing more static and more monumental. The dark outlines give structure to the form and express the density of the mass and the contours, while being expressive and ornamental. They suggest movement and depth. The outline also performs the functions of highlighting the joints of the subjects and of drawing the body in a powerfully intense and rhythmic design. Rouault is looking for a quasi-monolithic style in a simple and imposing architecture. His aesthetics change, we see lengthened and frozen figures, in a hieratic style.

An essential factor in the evolution of his work, from the 1920s, is the dominating adoption of oil paint. It inspires the artist by its qualities of concealment, suppleness and brilliance and, like printing, it allows him to satisfy his irrepressible need to make alterations to his work until all the parts of the picture find their definitive relationship. Rouault is a perfectionist, meticulous in the extreme; he incessantly comes back to what he writes and paints. His paintings are distinguished by the accumulation of layers and his letters are teeming with additions and deletions. He works on many pictures at once going from one painting to the other. He examines them then classifies them according to their degree of progress. Rouault is a patient worker who takes time to dream and to contemplate. He does not aim at speed of execution but speaks of “the blossoming of all that is deeply perceived and contemplated at length, far from the speed records of modern painting”.

This era of maturity sees Rouault’s technique noticeably evolve. Accustomed to spontaneously splashing the canvas with aquarelle and being able to rework it, he discovers, with printing techniques, the possibility of slowly bringing the work, by dint of labour and by successive stages, to its completion. The practice of printing also brings him a skill acquired from the rendering of light whilst the usage of oil renews his palette and offers him a material which finally suits him.

Maturity 1930-48
Rouault’s more contained art of the twenties leads to the peaceful and sharply coloured grace which inaugurates his works of the thirties. The drawing more static and the palette more brilliant translate a spiritual harmony which only increases with time. The works nevertheless celebrate the beauty of nature (flowers, landscapes, nudes) and manifest a new decorative concern (arabesques, borders).

Sexagenarian, Rouault benefits from a certain financial security and world-wide recognition. If Rouault has a more serene and stable life, he nevertheless lives through a new war and experiences the anxiety of a lawsuit with the heirs of Ambrose Vollard, who died in an accident in 1939. In the solitude of his studio, during the Second World War, he concentrates on the play of lines, shapes and colours and finishes a large number of important works. More and more his paintings reflect a dreamlike interior world. The tragic realism of the Girls and Judges leaves its place to introverted and contemplative figures. His painting becomes more and more spiritual and sacred.

In his work we rediscover the theme of the circus and landscapes as well as series of imaginary and poetic faces, female nudes, still lives, religious subjects… In truth, Rouault finds the resources necessary for his renewal by concentrating on these subjects. The theme of the circus is dominated by the presence of Pierrots, who replace the clowns of the earlier period, and from whom emanate an enigmatic melancholy. Circus girls, riders and dancers are referred to as Carlotta, Bitter Sweet, Carmencita… Sometimes there are intimate scenes of fairground family life but more often they are solitary figures who stand out in the foreground of the canvas. A sort of silence emanates from these paintings - mysterious and dreamy figures, in which gentleness contrasts with the wan faces of the tragic clowns of the first period.

The religious subjects fall into several series: Holy Faces, which recalls Byzantine and Roman imagery; heads of Christ; crucifixions and more and more numerous landscapes. The painter qualifies these last as “biblical”, “legendary” or “Christian”. The landscapes of ‘ile de France’, sad and cold, where nature is menacing, are gradually replaced in the twenties and thirties by warm colours and architecture evoking the orient. He paints from imagination. In these works nature is glorified and the sun becomes omnipresent from 1935 on. People dressed in tunics, with no other references to traditional iconography other than Christ’s halo, continually enliven these landscapes and confer on them a strong spiritual dimension.

In the landscapes, as in all his paintings, the depth is achieved by the play of colours more than by the drawing. The infinite superimposition of strokes allows the colours to perform subtly in the light and to melt one into the other. The palette continues to lighten and becomes very bright towards 1945-7. Chromium yellows supplant the deep blues and dominate the range with crimson reds and Veronese greens. A real alchemist, Rouault exploits the intensity of the oil paints and their emotional power. To the choice of colours is added the science of contrasts between cool and warm tones, which define the expression of the painting.

This renewal of the palette is accompanied by work on the materials. They thicken; the layers are applied unevenly on the canvas and this coloured paste is shaped through intense work. Examination with raking light shows an uneven surface like a geological structure with peaks and troughs. During the years 1940-48, the materials become even thicker and richer, so much so that the paintings manage to have a three-dimensional quality. The colours are applied with broad, thick strokes. Rouault does not work at an easel. He lays his painting flat on a table. The work seen from above can be manipulated, turned and turned back like an object slowly modelled by a craftsman. This distinctive way of painting is similar to working with ceramic and printing. Indeed, the materials of certain later paintings seem to have been fired. The iridescent colour, the transparency, gives them the appearance of ceramics or enamels. One has the impression of volcanic material, solidified and multi-coloured.

Rouault had started a process of simplification of form and design with printing. Towards 1940, the figures are so refined and reduced to the essential, that they become signs, symbolic geometries. Rouault does not cross the limits of the figurative but verges on abstraction. He remains a visionary painter who, faithful to the lesson of Moreau, listens to his inner voice.

The Last Symphoney 1948-1958
The last 10 years of Rouault’s career are characterised by an explosion of colours and a real intoxication of materials. This final period is the most brilliant of his works and his crowning glory.

The layers of paint, less and less diluted, are placed to a thickness of many centimetres in some places. The black of the broad outline accentuates the effects of peak and trough. The paste is treated with patience and obstinacy, mixed for a long time, its nature is transformed. Freed from academic scruple, Rouault pushes his technique to the limits of the possible. The face of “Sarah” (1956) constitutes a typical example of this period. The accumulation of layers of paint gives the painting a sculptural aspect while multiplying the shades, colour and the effects of the light.

This obstinate search for a pictorial material is characteristic of Rouault, who, like an alchemist, in the secret of his studio, pursues his experiments and research coming back ceaselessly to his works to transform them and bring them to maturity. This can help to explain certain difficulties in dating the works inherent in such a process.

The ongoing search for pictorial savoir-faire and the sometimes painful expression of a sensitivity “torn between dream and reality” are the two lungs which give life and breath to the works of Rouault. Art for him is a means of communicating by design, colour and texture. He sets down his thoughts on paper or canvas. For him painting is, above all, a “fervent confession”.

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