Madness

I’d like to compare plate 38 and 39 of the Miserere series:

plate 38: "Chinois inventa, dit-on, la poudre à canon, nouse en fit don." -- "The Chinese invented, they say, gunpowder, made us a gift of it."

plate 39: "Nous sommes fous." -- "We are insane."

In each of these images Rouault’s skill at reflecting the viewer in the subject is seen. The Chinese man in plate 38 is not so ethnically specific as to be alienating. The foolish act of gifting gunpowder – an evil (gunpowder) paradoxically combined with a good (gift) – is not something to be solely placed on the Chinese. After all, we aren’t presented with facts – we only know that “they say” that they invented it. This doubles the foolishness of the figure – he is laying claim to such a horrid gift. The Scripture that Rouault couples with this plate suggests that this boast of invention is the real folly: “Wise men lay up knowledge: but the mouth of the foolish is near destruction.” – Proverbs 10:14

The theme of foolishness vs. wisdom continues into plate 39. We see the sort of men who may receive such a gift. At first the caption seems explanatory, “We are insane” say the figures. “Good, that must mean that I am quite sane” responds the viewer. One of the insane men even kindly points to the pair, as if to clarify who exactly is insane. However, the Scripture Rouault couples with the print clarifies: “This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead.” – Ecclesiastes 9:3
The “we” of the caption is the “we” of all mankind. Mankind is evil (“Man is wolf to man” in plate 37 – all men are wolves to all men) to himself, and this evil is a madness that is manifest in the invention of gunpowder, the gifting of it, the bragging of it. While the Chinese man of plate 38 certainly looks the part (he seems to glare at us, unwelcoming in his laboratory), the pair in plate 39 look almost respectable, though a perhaps a bit comical. It is this range of madness that includes the viewer in the insane.

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Restoration and the promise of new life

Plate 28 : “Celui qui croit en moi, fut-il mort, vivra” John 11:25

Having recently celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the liturgical calendar, these paintings by Georges Rouault speak to me as a Christian with a message of hope and newfound life. It is inspiring and refreshing in my opinion to find an artist (especially a French one) that is comfortable with using his art to express that which he believes about the message of hope that God brings. It is still further admirable that he manages to use his art as a way to convey that message to a greater audience (one that perhaps finds long lost hope in his works) in the midst of such a tragic period or war and crisis in the 20th century. Death is certainly all around throughout Europe in the midst of the World Wars as can be seen depicted in Rouault’s Plate 28.  This piece contains skulls surrounding what seems to be an underground burial grave with a cross on the tombstone. This imagery of death with skulls, tombs, and purposefully selected black and white colors plays well into Rouault’s recurring message within his artwork that in the midst of so much death and suffering, Jesus is the answer as demonstrated by the centrality and importance of the cross in the picture that restores life and meaning when there seems to be none left in this world. This work titled after the Biblical verses in John 11:25 “Celui qui croit en moi, fut-il mort, vivra” is a clear attestation to the hope of long lost life that Rouault finds in Jesus Christ and his passion which he endured in order to restore humankind from an eternal damnation and death. Rouault, by juxtaposing the two main subjects in his painting (the skulls and the cross on the tomb), brings about a feeling of inspiration and/or relief for us as a viewer when seeing the cross as a symbol of Jesus at the focus and center of the work while death and the skulls representing it are cast off to the side. This painting, inspired by the story of the Death of Lazarus in the book of John is similar to the story of Lazarus in that it emphasizes the promise of restored life as long as you believe in Jesus and follow him. This inspiring message is one that I choose to live by when believing that Jesus died for the sinners of the world and that through the wounds he suffered from, he cured ours as an imperfect race. By climbing with Rouault up the steps to the tomb displaying Jesus’ cross in his piece, we too make a leap of faith by choosing to seek Jesus as our light, our life, and our hope with the goal of finding meaning and renewed inspiration.

Plate 58: “ C’est par ses meurtrissures que nous sommes guéris / It is through his wounds that we are healed (C&R. 111b)

In this painting by Rouault, I also found the message of restoration of life to humanity through Jesus’ resurrection. This “portrait” of Jesus Christ is in fact a representation of what the cloth given to him by Veronica during his crucifixion would have looked like after he wiped away his bloody face. The offering of Veronica’s linen cloth to Jesus is a common story that emphasizes the pious followers of Jesus who recognized his sacrifice and wished to help him as he lived out his destiny as the martyr for our salvation. This work by Rouault is strange in that it depicts Jesus’ entire head rather than a silhouette,  which would have been more likely to be what was imprinted upon wiping his face. Yet, Rouault wishes to display in his work, the thorny crown and the sad, closed eyes with blood trickling down Jesus’ forehead not to be accurate in what Veronica’s linen would have looked like but rather to emphasize the mark and miracle that Jesus leaves us with through the suffering he endured as seen by his wounds. Therefore, the title of this plate accurately demonstrates the message that Rouault wishes to convey which is one of eternal gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice and pain, which restores humanity which in Rouault’s time, suffers what seem to be irreparable wounds.

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Death will always overcome us, but is there more?

Oppressed and left with little hope were the people of Europe after World War I, frightened and afflicted by acts of mankind. Where was the peace? Where was the hope for something better, something to turn the treacherous world around? Where was God?

Many paintings during the world wars reflected the artists’ perception of the world: dark, disheartening, short and oblique.  They offered no hope. They offered no peace. And, they offered no God. The artists transformed reality and displayed their disbeliefs of a greater good or a greater realm beyond the one that we are stuck in for a short period of time.

However, George Rouault, a Parisian man born in 1871, offered the people something better. He offered them optimism and hope. More importantly he offered a remembrance of God and that “Anyone who believes in me, though he were dead, shall live” (John 11:25). His Miserere piece creates a prayer for the people.

“A prayer that, if not always founded in great serenity, is always concluded in a deep-seated resignation for all things in Christ.” (Website)

Within the Miserere, it reflects if affliction man does to each other. The title is taken from Plautus’ Asinaria, concerning the Roman Civil Wars, “Man is a Wolf to Man.” The piece is a conviction for all who gaze up on it. It is a remembrance that righteous death is not death, but rather it is a rebirth. The earthly world is filled with sorrow and death plagues the earth. The Miserere is a reflection of Psalm 51.

“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to they loving-kindness: according unto the multitude of they tender mercies blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1)

Plate 45, “La Mort l’a pris comme il sortait du lit d’orties” (“ Death took him as if he rose from his bed of nettles), is somber. It reminds us of the transformation to death. “Death appears as both the victim and the executioner” (Website-Miserere 3). This then makes us realize that we are not only victims to our lives, but we also are our own source of death. We are our source of sin and source of oppression. We plague ourselves with our own unworthy acts and sins with a contorted body signaling problems. His left hand disappears into the portrait indicating his disappearance from this world. To where does he disappear? No one knows. One could only hope the good Lord took him home.  But, behold! There is hope. The skeleton holds his right, righteous hand and gazes to the right. The gaze is an idea that that souls tries to draw us back to a Godly presence as the eyes are the windows of the soul.  As the series is played in a sequence, when this plate is held up to Plate 44, Mon doux pays, où êtes-vous? (My sweet country, what has become of you), it appears as if the skeleton has a dishearten gaze towards the countryside with death, fire, and smoke.

In plate 44, wounded soldiers cover the terrain. The roof of the tallest building off to the right is in shambles. Smoke rises in the foreground to cover the sky, a sky polluted by the smoke of the burning buildings. Here lies “the ruins of what was once a paradise” (Website-Miserere 3). Rouault reflects the true pain and suffering of war.

Paintings are reflections.  They are gateways to the future. Art is a pale reflection of the harmony that reigns over the world because if we do not believe in something more, there is nothing left. Death is always moving while the world is in constant flux. We have to choose wisely the paths we wish to take. We can let ourselves drown in sorrow and horror, or we can ask God to create a clean heart and a renewed spirit within us. As Rouault illustrates in his Miserere collection, it was  “inspired by the suffering of human beings, which often can be without any reason for those who have to endure it… but what saves ourselves, if anything can, is Christ and the Virgin Mary.” (Rouault Website)

Plate 44: Mon doux pays, où êtes-vous?

Plate 45: La Mort l’a pris comme il sortait du lit d’orties

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Miserere plates 42 and 43

 

Georges Rouault created the Miserere series as a response to World War I.  His aquatint plates depict humanity in a way that uncovers its follys.  For example, one of his paintings is entitled, “We believe ourselves kings.”  This painting shows how as humans we trick ourselves into believing that we are entitled to power and glory above everyone else, but it is at the expense of all humanity because power and glory lead us to destroy one another.  In the end, we have to look at the poverty and destruction around us that we don’t want to face and we have to find a way to fix it.

Some of the other plates depict skeletons coming for young men who are going to fight in the war.  There is one of a boy and his father embracing as a skeleton representing death walks past, looking on the boy whose life he intends to take.  These pictures of the skeletons are the ones that precede plates 42 and 43.  The skeletons are predecting the fate of the persons in plates 42 and 43.

Plate 42 is entitled, “Bella matribus detestata” or “Wars, hated by mothers.”  It is an image of a mother and her young son.  He appears to be an infant.  It is said to be a continuation on the theme of war and how it affects the family.  The first images being of a father accepting the fate of his son who will be taken off to war to be killed.  The mother, in contrast, is saddened by the horror of the future wars that may take the son she is holding so lovingly.

Wars, hated by mothers by Georges Rouault

 Plate 43 has a second image of the mother.  This time she is alone.  This plate is entitled, “Nous devons mourir, nous et tout ce qui est notre,” or “We are doomed to die, we and all that is ours.”  The mother’s face is downcast as she things about her son who has been sent off to fight in the war.  Her son is gone and he is doomed to die as so many young men died during World War I.

We are doomed to die, we and all that is ours

These plates are part of Rouaults commentary on the war.  It devestated Europe and killed almost an entire generation of young men.  These plates reflect on the helplessness that families felt as their sons were sent to be slaughtered.  In looking through the rest of the Miserere collection, Rouault provides an answer to the despair: turning to Christ.  Looking higher than the horrors on Earth, Christianity provides relief from the despair and hope in a brighter future and afterlife.

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Surrealism, Part the Second

This here is not a blog.

Mais ceci est une blague.

Whether or not you find me as punny as I do, I find this joke to be a valid description of the surrealist themes in the art that we have been discussing.  Just as Noelle pointed out concerning Magritte’s work, “La Trahison des Images,” the pipe is not a pipe; it is an image of a pipe.  And, as the title suggests, images are deceptive.  Rallying behind this surrealist standard, it would seem that for Magritte and other surrealist artists that everything must be reevaluated; especially the way we perceive life in apparent “certainties” (the irony being that this idea is age-old… Timaeus much?).

Claude Gauvreau, a Quebecois artist, poet, and playwright, is a perfect example and herald of this idea.  As a social activist, he was a signatory of the Refus global; a declaration against established tradition, especially religion.  In the course of his work, he created his own language, fittingly called “l’exploréen.”  Maybe Gauvreau would disagree, but I feel that the essence of surrealism can be captured by this idea of exploration.

Art, therefore, as an expressive extension of the inner workings of surrealists like Gauvreau, becomes a testimony to the perspectives of its makers.  But to stop and stare is not enough.  Maybe the art was l’art pour l’art, but to the passerby, the very nature of surrealist art is grounded in the idea of exploration.  Just as the art enters gradually into the onlooker, first through the eyes, then passing into a much less physical dimension, so does the surrealist seem to seek an exploration of the self on the canvas in a manner that is a slow conversation with the unknown corners of their soul’s map.  It is a style which does not use but utterly relies upon a dialog with the unconscious self.

It would seem that it was for these very reasons that Gauvreau allied with other like-minded thinkers against the notions of establishment and religion.  Tradition, it appears, is nothing more than an escape for the self-ignorant to be content with the ideas of others.

After a number of years in and out of the mental ward, Gauvreau fell to his death on July 7, 1971.  It is uncertain whether it was an accident, or suicide.

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Magritte’s images and L’autotisme

When seeing many of René Magritte’s paintings back to back (and with some repetition of works) over the nine minute video “René Magritte Les Peintures” certain patterns develop. There are various figures that continually recur in Magritte’s work: apples, clouds, men in bowler hats, nude women (but never nude men), birds, street lamps, people draped in cloths, French horns, figures a cross between the shape of chess pawns and banisters, leaf-shaped trees to name a few. Frequently they occur in combination in one painting.

I find it interesting that while an individual painting may seem to range from a moderately to impenetrably incoherent image, taken as a whole there is a sense of order to his work. It’s an odd one, but there is a modicum of structure in his works.

What structure is it precisely? I’d guess it’s the structure of the mind of René Magritte. The idea of painting in the style of l’autotisme – allowing the action to flow with as little involvement of conscious thought, will, or intention as possible – is clearly not pure rubbish (well, at least not stylistically. Some may argue that it is ideologically, but that’s beside the point for now, I think).

I won’t go as far as to say that we know Magritte by looking at many of his works. Paintings, even in a multitude, are still paintings. They aren’t men any more than Magritte’s pipe is a pipe, as he so clearly states, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” But, while we can’t necessarily encounter Magritte’s personality in his works, there is something personal we encounter. This consistent images, if we take his surrealist philosophy on faith, were images that were somehow and for some reason integral to his conscious and/or subconscious. They were perhaps images that consumed him, intrigued him, or haunted him. Perhaps there was a kinship or artistic stirring he felt when he saw such objects in reality that they translated themselves into his thoughts and dreams, and finally into his art.

Or maybe they were the only things he could paint particularly well. I’m dubious that this is the case.

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No longer bound by the shackles of reality

The mind loves the unknown. It loves images whose meaning is unknown, since the meaning of the mind itself is unknown. – Rene Magritte

The unknown meanings of surrealist paintings such as those of Rene Magritte are precisely why this genre of art is so well loved and yet hated. Whether an audience feels that the techniques and subject matter of such paintings are incomparable to those of say Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in their complexity, elegance, and beauty, it is important to view this art movement more in terms of its liberating effects and the reverence for the unknown. As naturally curious beings, we seem to always need an explanation for the way things are whether we are analyzing daily events or the supernatural, we either seek God and/or other explanations for that which is mysterious or unknown to us. During this surrealist movement, not only does the artist surpass conventional technique and tradition, which often times restrains the artist’s ability to be creative and prevents him from being free of external influences, but he or she also is also allowed to explore subjects without having a need to explain his or her choice. Often times we need answers and reasons as mentioned, and yet other times, we simply need to be spontaneous and live, experience, and create things with no second thought given. Surrealism in a way can be seen as a therapeutic hobby of sorts if you think about it like stream of consciousness writing or in later years, splatter painting…

After ages of reason and philosophy to a pouring of emotions and romantic imagery, the next step in art is no surprise then, to have little to do with preceding exhausting subject matters. In the midst, too, of such turmoil in the 20th century worldwide, there really was no more thought to give for the way things transpired, after all, thinking about it only made it worse because we force ourselves to realize the atrocities we are capable of. Therefore the artist, instead retreats into the mind where having no answers was okay and creating illusions of a better or different life through strange, foreign, and unconventional depictions was a great escape from the harsh reality their eyes were facing. The mind, then, allows the artist to explore an alternative way of viewing the world. Though I am not personally a “true fan” of surrealist paintings as masterpieces of artwork, it is important to realize the kinds of innovative techniques that these paintings incorporate when going beyond the constraints of reality. By blurring images or contrasting them in unconventional settings and even using one image as a window into another “world” or subject matter, surrealist artists are able to lay down on a canvas that which is not “accurate” but rather that which is truly coming from inner inspiration and thought. Though the audience may see the confusing images and unconventional perspectives and shapes as complex, inaccurate, and betraying, I do not believe it is the artists’ intention to create a “trahison d’image” for the audience by perplexing them. Rather, this style of art grants the artist the opportunity to finally “experience” art for him or herself without necessarily needing to convey a purpose or to create a work imagined by someone else who would pay them to recreate it.

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