When the French artist Georges Rouault died on February 13, 1958, he was given a state funeral and buried at Paris’s beloved St. Germain des Prés. For more than two decades, he had enjoyed growing success, especially with American collectors. The project of his life, Miserere et Guerre, a remarkable series of plates that evokes Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra (1813), had finally been published in 1948 and was hailed as a masterpiece. In 1952, a retrospective of his work was held at the Musée National d’Art Moderne as a national tribute. The following year it traveled to the United States and to Japan. For its presentation at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote from Princeton (with perhaps exaggerated French élan) that Rouault’s “present glory is the purest glory a great painter has ever known in his lifetime.”
Soon, though, the glory faded. With the ascendancy of a whole series of new styles, from Pop to Op, Conceptual to Minimalism, Rouault was all but eclipsed. He came to be considered either coarse and histrionic (the early work), or too religious (the later). Now an exhibition at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art (“Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault 1871–1958,” through December 7, 2008), redresses those misjudgments and restores the artist’s achievement. It will be a revelation to a new generation, one that may be more open to figuration...
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About the Author
Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, is president emeritus of Georgetown University.