By IRIS CONLAY
Miserere, by Georges Rouault (Trianon Press: Faber, 25s.).
ANTHONY Blunt, who writes thc
foreword to this magnificent volume of Rouault's engravings, has touched on the whole question of contemporary religious art, why it is so difficult to do and, when it is done, why it is so violent. He says, and rightly, that medieval artists produced' great religious works because religion then embodied man's views on the whole of life.
"This confidence and this lack of strain are the main causes of the almost classical quality of Christian art in the great periods," and he suggests that to be a great religious artist, in the sense that Giotto or the sculptors of Chartres were great, is now almost impossible. But, someone might argue, the faith of an artist. practising his religion today as the medieval artist practised his, ought to be able to produce the same type of work. But it clearly is not so, and the reason is that the artist does not live In vacun: he is affected by the atmosphere around him more vitally than the ordinary person and this finds expression in his work.
Mr. Blunt goes on: "In periods when faith is challenged . , the supporters of the faith which is at stakeare on the defensive, selfconscious, and they feel the necessity of asserting their beliefs defiantly and aggressively.... At the present day. as faith withers away, the religious artist must inevitably display these characteristics. It would be impossible for a classical religious artist to appear at present."
POUAULT is the typical artist of his time. Outrageous, discimceiling, a prophet of disaster, the un seeing say, but actually a St. John the Baptist, calling may to prayer and to repentance. This book of his 58 engravings, originally begun between the two earlier wars, und published in a large scale limited edition, falls into two sections, the Miserere, man's pathos. and Guerre, man's folly. Both represent Rouault's lamentation over a desolate, burnt-out world.
His people can be divided into the humble poor who have such dignity in their deprivation that they are touched with the gold-dust of greatness; and the proud rich, hideous and hateful beyond human feeling.
His landscapes, blackened and threatening, suggest an arid inferno. ,. Yet this penitential world of sad prostitutes and tragic downs is always brilliantly lit by a shaft of Faith. In its most sombre passages can be heard the toiling bell, not a dirge, but the bell of prayer and of hope.
In the final plates. when man's journey through the dark night ends in salvation through the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. Rouault achieves real greatness. His Crucifixions have a primitive gravity which nitches this hook among the great sources for meditation. the modern world has offered little more significant, more poignant or more profound.