Georges Rouault and André Girard
Rouault and Girard: Crucifixion and Resurrection, Penitence and Life Anew
by Jonathan Evens
This paper was delivered at the ASCHA conference in Paris on Georges Rouault in 2022.
In Christianity in Art, published in 1959, Frank and Dorothy Getlein wrote that Georges Rouault ‘stands alone in what he achieved in Christian art in our time.’ This was because they viewed Rouault as being ‘the twentieth century artist above all others who fused into one monumental testament all the elements of the social revolution and the new Christianity.’ Yet, they also suggest that by the time he died ‘an impressive list of talented and honest artists exploring Christianity was in existence.’[i]
Kymberly M. Pinder, in writing on Romare Bearden, has also noted the popularity of Rouault’s work in this period. She sees this as attesting to ‘his influence, both thematically and stylistically, on American artists’ and gives several reasons why this was so. First, his ‘religious conviction and training as glazier lent his work a level of perceived authenticity.’ Second, the ‘1939 publication of Passion, a book of woodcuts, engravings and color etchings’ made his work more accessible. Third, from ‘April until June 1945, New York’s Museum of Modern Art held a large exhibition of Rouault’s art, and the museum and the press presented his expressive and solemn work in the context of war.’ Fourth, the ‘poignancy of Rouault’s dark and brooding images of the suffering Christ produced an emotional response that transcended history.’
Pinder suggests that, for ‘most American artists who addressed Christian themes’ at this time, including Beardon, Abraham Rattner and Josef Scharl, ‘the heavy use of black lines and saturated palettes’ ‘reflects Rouault’s influence.’[ii]
The Getlein’s list of artists exploring Christianity included Rico Lebrun, Graham Sutherland, Hans Moller, Jack Levine, Rattner and Alfred Manessier, but it was another French artist, André Girard, whose work appeared on the book’s cover and of whom they suggested his work should be seen as ‘the first move of Christian art toward the universal audience of today.’[iii]
This claim was made based on Girard’s innovative technique of painting on 70 millimeter film – ‘painting on light’ - enabling the creation of 23 films for television. Josephine Belloso describes these films as ‘a totally new art form, combining light, color, form, music, movement and time to create one unifying overwhelming dramatic effect.’[iv] In addition to his films and paintings, Girard also decorated four US churches and created seven art books.
Girard was 17 when he first met Rouault, who became a teacher and friend, leading to the development of Girard’s interest in and commitment to religious art. Although he enjoyed considerable recognition in his own day and time, the reputation of Girard has diminished with time, unlike that of Rouault. As a result, Girard’s work is ripe for rediscovery. This paper will therefore explore the influence of Rouault on Girard’s life and art by highlighting key strands of Rouault’s influence on Girard such as humility and risk taking, I will also explore some of the reasons why Rouault’s work transcends his age, while that of Girard seems to remain within his. Additionally, I will share the contrasts in their work noted by their friend André Suarés - penitence and affirmation.
Rouault and Girard first met in 1918 when Girard was a student trying to draw in the academic style of the School of Beaux Arts, while longing to draw in a much freer style. Rouault encouraged Girard not just to draw more freely but to leave the School of Beaux Arts and study with him. Looking back on this period, Girard thought that he had exhibited ‘a certain vanity’ about his ‘skill in the academic games.’ Rouault had taught him humility firstly by showing him ‘the endless variations’ of subtle colours that the light was playing with on the jar and tablecloth of a still life and, then, by asking him to paint that variation of colours day in, day out for several months.[v]
Rouault wrote a preface addressed to the young artist in the catalogue of Girard’s 1937 exhibition at the Musée de l'Athénée in Geneva. He described the attitude of humility that he had practised and taught as follows: ‘It is good not to be too ignorant of ourselves, but alas, for some of us it is especially after long effort and little by little, step by step, that we succeed in better knowing ourselves – there is wisdom in limiting oneself but first one must acquire much and also not over-extend oneself.’[vi] Girard tells a story of a conversation between Rouault and Jacques Maritain in which Rouault frets because he has received a degree of fame not granted to Cezanne, Manet or Renoir and, therefore, thinks he must have done something wrong as a result. Maritain said he saw ‘the true Rouault’ in that anxiety. Girard sums up this attitude in a sentence from one of the many letters Rouault wrote to him, ‘Do not fear to be last, because true humility is not mediocrity.’[vii]
In the same catalogue preface Rouault also notes the role of artists in finding a refuge for individuals in times of social violence, envy and hate. This is essentially Rouault’s model of prophetic social and spiritual action. He writes of this refuge as being ‘an oasis, others will say a mirage, a happy magic, I do not say a saviour, since I am a little afraid of big words; the light is sweeter there, one feels so much at peace there, far from infinite discord, false bargains, vain alliances and eternal duplicity, far from cursed gatherings where words are often so skilfully basely exploited.’ This refuge that the artist creates is fashioned through ‘Form, colour, harmony, beloved motherland.’[viii]
Rouault also emphasised the importance of risk and discovery, quoting a famous musician as saying, ‘I am the rule until I break it.’ He writes of ‘little by little forgetting theories and arbitrary professions of faith’ in order that one ‘may experience a delicious feeling of security in knowing then what is right to do.’[ix]
This completes the circle that Girard draws for us; the break with the rules of the School of Beaux Arts to then humbly paint the same still life again and again in order to instinctively know how to fashion a refuge using form, colour and harmony. These are lessons that Girard learns well and practises. We know this because the poet André Suarés, in a catalogue foreword for a later exhibition by Girard, notes that Girard’s work departs significantly from that of Rouault. Rouault, Suarés argues, paints as a penitent with a tragic vision using ‘materials with an incomparable force, in order to curse the world.’ Girard, by contrast, ‘loves the world and its materials.’ Rather than exhibiting the attitude of the penitent, Girard is infatuated with life, throwing himself with passion into everything that attracts him. To describe this difference and its effect, Suarés creates a visual contrast between Rouault’s ‘art of the stained-glass’ for which ‘one must imagine the invisible sun blazing behind the window, for the vision of the painter lies in the glowing shadow.’ By contrast, ‘even in the night, the art and colourful language of André Girard bring light into play.’ Suarés imagines Girard ‘becoming more and more pure,’ finding ‘his plenitude, if not his perfection, in the tenderness of mystic peace,’ even bringing a new art into being.’[x]
Suarés is right. Girard’s great achievement was his ‘painting on light’, both painting on glass and film. At Stowe and Palo Alto churches, Girard painted directly on clear glass ‘against the light of the sun passing through the windows’ creating ‘subtle as well as dramatic effects’ by ‘juxtaposing translucent and opaque paint in multiple layers.’[xi]
Together with the architect Jean Labatut, he also prepared a model for the Church of the Four Evangelists, modelled in Labatut’s architecture lab, as a circular glass structure adorned with murals in broad brushstrokes and primary colours. The model was exhibited in New York, Chicago and Princeton through 1951-52.
Beginning in 1959 and continuing until 1968, for film Girard adapted his painting on glass approach using ‘inks, glazes, stained-glass paints, and enamels’ to paint on long strips of film. His student and restorer Josephine Belleroso writes that: ‘As the film was passed through a horizontal filmstrip projector, movement was achieved, and as the images passed along the light the colors became gloriously more vibrant. Since the color white was actually pure light passing through clear film, it added to the intensity of the images. The final effect was as if one was viewing a continuous mural of stained glass passing before you illustrating the story.’[xii]
Girard embraced these innovations – these new forms of art - in just the way Suarés so vividly describes and anticipates and yet it is in this same embrace of innovation that we can locate the fading of Girard’s reputation in contrast to the maintenance of Rouault’s. To remain with Suarés’ visual contrast, the solidity of Rouault’s stained-glass art has outlasted the innovation of Girard’s ‘painting on light’. Girard’s innovations have not lasted; the new technologies he utilised have, from the end of the 1980s, been overtaken by videocassettes, DVDs, and now Digital. What was innovatory in his day has increasingly become outmoded and dated. In addition, his works created by ‘painting on light’ have not aged well. The works at Stowe and Palo Alto need or have required regular restoration. Cynthia Haven quotes John Kysela, a San Francisco Bay Area art publicist and historian well-acquainted with the church’s artwork, as saying: ‘André thought that painting on glass would revolutionize the whole liturgical glass business.’ ‘He thought it would outlast medieval stained glass. It didn’t.’[xiii] At Stowe, Belloroso had to devise a digital alternative to Girard’s paint on glass to enable his images to remain on the windows of the church, albeit in amended fashion.
Girard’s liturgical work for churches and Universities began in 1948 with a triptych of St. Bernard of Clairvaux for St Vincent Archabbey, Pennsylvania and continued to 1955 with windows in New York and a mural in Milwaukee. However, the key works at Stowe and Palo Alto have for many years either been in need of or receiving restoration, while the model for the Church of The Four Evangelists did not lead on to commissions for Girard and Labatut. Then, the films took over with Girard producing 23 between 1959 and 1968 with commissions from ABC, CBS, NBC and the State of Israel, and awards including the Television Arts Award of the National Council of Catholic Men in 1959. However, following commemorative showings after Girard’s death in 1968, select films have only been seen again on screen in 1972, 1975, 1977 and 1985. The films also required restoration as heat from the projector melted some of the paint leaving it stuck to the reverse side of the film. Belloroso, again, was a saviour in this situation restoring the five films on the life of Christ and The Story of Abraham enabling them to be transferred onto 35mm film. The lack of longevity found in Girard’s innovations combined with the increasing speed of technological development have negatively impacted opportunities to show and view key works from the period in which he produced his most public and celebrated works.
Given these issues, where else can we look to see how Girard’s oeuvre adds to that of Rouault? The answer is to be found in the seven illustrated books he created from 1948 to 1956 which he printed by hand using the silk screen method of printing. Victor Strauss writes that ‘Girard’s books are unique in the history of contemporary bookmaking’ because of his ‘turning away from typography.’[xiv] Girard ‘achieved prints that were so rich in color, texture, detail, shading, and highlights they rivalled the effects of paintings,’[xv] while ‘his lettering expresses the inner struggle of the artist.’[xvi]
The contrast made by Suarés can be clearly seen if we compare Girard’s book designs to those of Rouault as, for example, if we look at Girard’s Sayings of Jesus – The Sermon on the Mount and The Instructions to the Disciples alongside Rouault’s Miserere. Strauss views Sayings of Jesus as Girard’s ‘ripest work and the chef d’oeuvre of all his serigraphic books, unsurpassed by anyone else who used the same medium.’ This is because ‘Subject and graphic representation are in complete accord’ making it ‘a work of greatest harmony’ where ‘Girard’s own emotions and convictions, his life-long studies of the Gospels, are magnificently expressed.’[xvii]
William Dyrness explains that it was particularly in his printmaking that Rouault’s religious vision took shape; an ‘anguished view of the human situation’ from within which he was able to ‘discover the hope of salvation.’ He ‘began his Miserere series during the somber days of World War I and had finished it by 1927’ although it was only in 1948 that the series of fifty-eight plates were finally published in a limited edition.[xviii] Rouault ‘first drew the images in India ink and later reproduced them as engravings, reworking the plates over the years—scraping deeper with a file or sanding with emery paper’-to show that ‘Deep down inside the most unfriendly, unpleasant, and impure creature, Jesus dwells.’
Dryness notes that: ‘In one print, a father reaches down to encourage his son: the caption reads, “take refuge in your heart, vagabond of misfortune.” … In the plate captioned “In the old district of Long Suffering,” a little family huddles beneath a tree that offers small comfort. His images are often distressing. As his friend Jacques Maritain said, art often must de-form to get at the nature of things.’ ‘Rouault was able to see these dreary figures without pity or despair because … he was able to look into their suffering and see Jesus. In 1939, he wrote these lines:
His friends were fishermen
Understood in the best sense;
Clearly he could do no other,
In taking on our suffering,
Than going where it was most severe.
By contrast, as Maritain has also suggested, ‘An extraordinary generosity animates’ Girard’s art. ‘This generosity is nourished by faith and intelligence, an assiduous meditation on the Gospels … and a contemplative pondering over the things he paints.’[xix] This generosity is sensed in the movement and light which animate the drama. Lynn Miller suggests that Girard’s And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors illustrated what the unforgiving servant should have done in the Parable told in Matthew 18:32-33. This work: ‘places a single figure, dressed in blue, at the center of the composition. On the left side gof the composition that figure is in the supplicant's position (head lower, face looking up). On the right side the figure looks down on a lower figure. That central figure is shown with two faces but is not two-faced in the negative sense of that phrase. The same general expression is shown on the two versions of the central figure's face. This is the consistency that the parable's king wanted to see in his servants. It is the consistency with which we should live if we are going to pray the Lord's Prayer.’[xx]
Dyrness notes that for Rouault ‘the resurrection is seldom a direct subject’, although ‘the cross always implies that hope’ and, in his later pieces, the resurrection is seen in surfaces which ‘seem to burst into flame.’[xxi] Miserere could have included a resurrection image, but the image Rouault prepared was excluded from the final version. This decision reinforces the distinction Suarés makes between the two and suggests a reason, beyond the inherent quality of the work, why we should rediscover Girard’s work; which is that when we combine the work of the teacher with that of his student, we encounter the full Gospel in depictions both of the dying world into which Christ comes and the abundance of life that is found in and through him as he brings a new world into being, just as Girard, the words of Suarés brings a new art into being.
[i] F. and D. Getlein, Christianity in Art, The Bruce Publishing Company, 1959, p.186.
[ii] K.M. Pinder, ‘Deep Waters: Rebirth, Transcendence, and Abstraction in Romare Bearden’s Passion of Christ’ in J. Romaine and P. Wolfskill ed., Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007, pp.158-159.
[iii] F. and D. Getlein, Christianity in Art, The Bruce Publishing Company, 1959, p.189.
[iv] J. Belloso, ‘André Girard: Modern Master’ in J. Belloroso ed., André Girard: Modern Master, Queensborough Community College of The City University of New York, 1982, p.9.
[v] A. Girard, ‘Georges Rouault: My Friend and Teacher’ in J. Belloroso ed., André Girard: Modern Master, Queensborough Community College of The City University of New York, 1982, p.32-33.
[vi] G. Rouault, ‘André Girard - Painter’ in J. Belloroso ed., André Girard: Modern Master, Queensborough Community College of The City University of New York, 1982, p.10.
[vii] A. Girard, ‘Georges Rouault: My Friend and Teacher’ in J. Belloroso ed., André Girard: Modern Master, Queensborough Community College of The City University of New York, 1982, p.32-33.
[viii] G. Rouault, ‘André Girard - Painter’ in J. Belloroso ed., André Girard: Modern Master, Queensborough Community College of The City University of New York, 1982, p.10.
[x] A. Suares, ‘André Girard, Painter of the Apocalypse’ in J. Belloroso ed., André Girard: Modern Master, Queensborough Community College of The City University of New York, 1982, p.12.
[xi] J. Belloroso, Painting on Light: A Restoration – the Story of André Girard’s Dramatic Windows and Murals at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, Stowe, Vermont, 2017, p.8.
[xii] J. Belloroso, Painting on Light: A Restoration – the Story of André Girard’s Dramatic Windows and Murals at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, Stowe, Vermont, 2017, p.28.
[xiii] C. Haven, ‘A Spiritual Home Finds Salvation’ in Stanford Magazine, Stanford Alumni Association, July/August 2003 - https://web.stanford.edu/~clh/articles/spiritualHome.html .
[xiv] V. Strauss, ‘Andre Girard’s Handmade Books – A Tour De Force in Serigraphy’ in J. Belloroso ed., André Girard: Modern Master, Queensborough Community College of The City University of New York, 1982, p.26.
[xv] J. Belloroso, Painting on Light: A Restoration – the Story of André Girard’s Dramatic Windows and Murals at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, Stowe, Vermont, 2017, p.24.
[xvi] V. Strauss, ‘Andre Girard’s Handmade Books – A Tour De Force in Serigraphy’ in J. Belloroso ed., André Girard: Modern Master, Queensborough Community College of The City University of New York, 1982, p.28.
[xvii] V. Strauss, ‘Andre Girard’s Handmade Books – A Tour De Force in Serigraphy’ in J. Belloroso ed., André Girard: Modern Master, Queensborough Community College of The City University of New York, 1982, p.29.
[xviii] W. Dyrness, ‘Seeing Through the Darkness: Georges Rouault’s Vision of Christ’ in Image Journal Issue 67 - https://imagejournal.org/article/seeing-through-the-darkness/
[xix] J. Maritain, ‘Visit at St Ann’s Chapel’ in J. Belloroso ed., André Girard: Modern Master, Queensborough Community College of The City University of New York, 1982, p.23.
[xx] L. Miller, ‘Forgiving Debts’ in Art&Faith Matters, 2014 - http://artandfaithmatters.blogspot.com/2014/09/forgiving-debts.html
[xxi] W. Dyrness, ‘Seeing Through the Darkness: Georges Rouault’s Vision of Christ’ in Image Journal Issue 67 - https://imagejournal.org/article/seeing-through-the-darkness/