The French expressionist Georges Rouault peddles in anguish: the stark lines of a print series entitled Miserere et Guerre, on exhibit in New York's Museum of Biblical Art until May 28, depict the anguish of Christ alongside the suffering of the poor and the masked despair of the middle classes in France shortly before, during and after the First World War.
This is not an exhibition for those with weak nerves or excitable imaginations. Grinning.skeletons stride through the frames and emaciated, naked figures appear crushed by the weight of the world. Rouault conjures a shadowy, unhappy world, where the sheer misery of living is echoed by Christ's agony. Rouault closely associated the hungry and the downtrodden he observed in an impoverished country, stricken by war, with Christ's Passion — and it is clear that his intention was to illustrate the parallel between the two. But the cry for mercy of the series' title, so palpable in the prints, goes unanswered.
There is little beauty in these images, and the intense focus on suffering, both in poverty and on the Cross, fails to carry the message of hope or compassion for which it strives, It is difficult to imagine Rouault's sad Christ as the Redeemer — he is too firmly nailed to the Cross even when he is not on it.
Rouault, born in a working-class district in 1871, spent his early years among the poor he painted. At 14 he was apprenticed to a stained glass studio, but quickly entered L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts where he became the protégé of the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. As a devout Catholic. he found inspiration in the philosophy of writers such as Lion Bloy and Jacques Maritain.
Originally Miserere et Guerre was intended to be a book of 100 plates accompanied with text written by the poet and essayist Andre Suares. But in
the end only 58 prints were completed between 1912 and 1927, and the text was never written. Rouault first drew and then painted the images for the series, which were mechanically etched onto printing plates by photogravure. These, however, did not wholly correspond to Rouault's vision, and he altered the plates by hand. Ambroise Vollard, Rouault's dealer, who funded the project, then had the plates cancelled after the first imprint, and never published the series. After Vollard's death Rouault fought a legal battle with his heirs to regain the rights over the prints, which he finally published in 1948 with his own titles.
The exhibition begins with a print of the Resurrection that was omitted from the book. Christ's arms are outstretched as he rises from the dead, and his face bears an expression of extreme pain. This is followed by images of bent men, and poorly dressed women with distorted faces. The figures are lifted out of the darkness of the backgrounds by thick black lines.
The two most striking pictures in the series are "Tomorrow will be beautiful, said the shipwrecked man" and "A young woman called joy". The former shows a figure falling backwards into a grey sea as a tree is whipped into the other direction, and the latter is a profile of a woman wearing pearls with an ugly, downturned mouth and an unhappy face. The disparity between the title and the subject (the man in the storm seems pointlessly optimistic, and there is no joy on the woman's face) has a rather disturbing effect.
The powerful ugliness of the pictures drives home the parallel between human suffering and the anguish that Christ endured for the sake of mankind. But the exhibition leaves one not with a sense of exhilaration, but of despair. The hope conveyed in the Resurrection is overwhelmed by the relentless portrayal of pain and misery. As a meditation on suffering, Miserere et Guerre succeeds, for the viewer suffers through it.