Today marks the 145th anniversary of the birth of the French painter and lithographer Georges Rouault. For the savvier among you, perhaps the name Georges Rouault is met with an instant flash of recognition. For others, there’s not much shame in admitting he sounds like another one of those French guys who did something significant once. In truth, his name just isn’t tossed around as often as those of several of his contemporaries and influencers, figures like Henri Matisse, Gustave Moreau, Paul Gaugin and Vincent van Gogh, the demigods of the periods succeeding Impressionism.
But Georges Rouault should be anything but glossed over, for without his experiments in fauvist thinking, without his splashy stains of colour and flattened out picture planes, contemporary art may have coasted along a very different trajectory to the present day.
Rouault was born in Paris in 1871 to a rather poor family, yet was fortunate enough to have a mother who encouraged her son’s artistic promise. At the raw age of fourteen, Rouault became engaged as an apprentice to a painter and restorer of leaded glass, and benefitted from tutelage to which his mature work, defined by pudgy black contours and florid hues, would always bear witness. In 1891, Rouault enrolled in Paris’ top art school, L‘Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he became Moreau’s pet student and tangled up with those wild beasts, les Fauves.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Rouault had been exhibiting publicly for a handful of years, notably at the Fauves’ Salon d’Automne which he helped bring into existence. Although bursting with saturated pigments and loose movement, the group’s compositions often demonstrated a meditative rationale. Rouault’s were different, more unstudied and intuitive. He favoured human subjects, humming with emotion and queerly distorted.
Rouault’s body of work is diverse and immense, as he worked without much interruption for seventy years (Fun fact: Rouault deliberately burned 300 unfinished canvases not long before his death in 1958, an act apparently favourable to leaving behind a jumble of half-baked ideas), but images lifted from Christianity came to fully sway the artist’s later work. Sustained by his spirituality and an unshakable belief in eventual resurrection, the artist chose to challenge the world’s ugly sufferings with feverish paintings of biblical landscapes and Christ’s passion.
Yet, arguably, it is an array of Rouault’s earlier accomplishments, including a woozy-looking series focusing on harlequins, courtiers and ladies of the night — scathing social commentary in paint — which have smeared the thickest impasto effect across art history. On display at the Druet Gallery in 1910, such images were viewed by a cluster of German artists hailing from Dresden, Die Brücke, who went home to sketch out the first true icons of Expressionism.
And where would we be today without moody old Expressionism? Most certainly without the volatile theorists and action painters of Abstract Expressionism. Very likely without the brutal mechanics of Futurism, the mind bending nightmares of Surrealism, the sparse cleanliness of Minimalism, the intellectual trickery of Conceptual Art, the cheap glamour of Pop and Neo-Pop Art, and all the other seminal movements which have come tumbling down through the last century like reactive dominoes, propelled forward from the catalyst that was the art of the likes of Georges Rouault.
And so, joyeux anniversaire, Monsieur. And merci beaucoup for your hand in artistic marvels yet to rattle this world.
Source: Joshua Kind, Rouault: text and notes/ Georges Rouault Foundation (www.rouault.org)