Monday, July 17, 2017

Georges Rouault: A Synthesis of Tradition and Innovation

One of my artistic heroes is the French Expressionist Georges Rouault. Though he is still discussed in twentieth century and Modern art history courses, his name does not resound with most people as one of the elite Modern artists of his generation, such as Henri Matisse or Pablo Picasso. In a cursory comparison one would not find much in common between Rouault’s work and my own. His very direct and aggressive style seems at odds with my more “refined” realism. Still, Rouault’s primary work in both painting and printmaking, as well as his consistent themes of uneasy religious engagement with contemporary culture, can be aligned with my own work.

Rouault’s monumental print undertaking—one of the greatest all time achievements in printmaking—is his Miserere et Guerre. These large intaglio works, originally envisioned as two sets of fifty plates each (fifty for the Miserere segment and fifty for the Guerre), ultimately were produced as a total of fifty-eight plates. Still, that result is an enormous achievement.

The suffering of Christ is mingled amongst the suffering of humanity in these works. What first seem to be awkward juxtapositions of images are quite intentional. The images are all dark, both in value and subject. Even images of the Virgin Mary seem stained with darkness. She butts up against images of wealthy, bourgeois women, as well as haggard prostitutes. She is the deliverer of salvation to both. The sadness and brokenness of the prostitute are balanced against the detachment of an elite, whose indifference and intractable hold on resources are partly responsible for the circumstances of the former. All are in need of mercy (miserere) and all are at war (guerre) with the world and their own condition.

The themes are further explored through kings, judges, clergy as well as skeletal specters of death. All of these expose the corruption of this world in some form. Christ suffers with and for each one. While the individual images may seem desperate and despairing, there is a strand of hope running throughout the entire series.

However, it is not just Rouault’s thematic elements that have held sway over me. His process for these works, and his unswerving dedication to seeing the work completed just as he originally envisioned, have been instrumental in my own current work. It took Rouault about fifteen years to physically complete the Miserere. But it was actually a project thirty-six years in the making, from the first drawing to the final publishing of the completed prints. Of course, he was working on many other paintings and print projects during that period, but I recently took comfort in this. My own intaglio project consisting of fifty plates, originally conceived almost twenty years ago, is probably more on schedule than I would have believed.

The original designs for the Miserere prints were actually ink drawings. Since Rouault’s work was always an odd mixture of tradition and innovation, the drawings were actually transferred to copper etching plates through a photographic process. Photogravure (sometimes called heliogravure) is an early photomechanical process that allowed photographic images to be printed on paper, from a photographic negative, without the fading that happened with earlier photographic prints. The photogravure work prints like an etching but looks more like a photograph.

Rouault was not at all content with his initial photogravure plates and refused to allow them to be printed as they first existed. Instead, he meticulously reworked each of the plates with traditional forms of etching and intaglio, including hand working of the plates with mezzotint roulettes, scrapers, and burnishers. The results are far more than early photomechanical “reproduction.” Rouault did so much working and reworking of the the copper that it is often impossible to know what exactly he did to get the soft, velvety effects and deep, rich values. Many of the etchings look more like charcoal drawings than etchings. Each plate could be considered a masterwork, but considering that there are fifty-eight, it is an unfathomable achievement.

This brings me to the comparison with my own Palimpsest Portraits series. While there are many images of Jesus within this series, there are also “out-of-place” figures, just as with some of the Miserere works. I want viewers to analyze the series as a whole, much like the Miserere, to consider the unusual juxtapositions. Individual images may have a similar dark content as Rouault’s, but there is just as much similarity when it comes to the process.

The Palimpsest Portraits, likewise, mix technological innovation with more traditional modes of working. Each of these plates starts with a drawing, too. However, my drawings are completed in Photoshop and are composed completely from passages of text. The next step is quite like the photogravure process employed by Rouault. I transfer the images onto copper plates via a toner-based transparency print (these are the transparencies used for overhead projectors which are printed through a copy machine or laser printer). The plate and transparency are slowly heated so that the toner offsets (or melts) onto the plate, eventually acting as a resist in an acid bath.

If I was only printing these images in black and white, most of the work would be done at this point. Still, also like Rouault, I do extensive additional work on each of the plates after the first photomechanical etching process has been completed. To enhance the realism, I use multiple applications of soft ground etching textures to soften and darken the tones. This is tempered through much scraping and burnishing. The textual elements still remain, but may be further enhanced with traditional hard ground etching. The plates are also developed to differing levels to allow for the color printing process. This allows multiple colored inks to both separate and mix in various ways to create the final effect.

This is a time intensive process. There is no other way to achieve the effects required by the concept. Rouault has taught me that there is no need to compromise on your vision. Working and reworking these plates becomes a joy as I am surprised with each new plate. The new color combinations and alternate pairings of images continue to open the series in directions that far exceed my first thoughts about this series. I am pleased that the reception of these images by viewers will further expand how the pieces “speak” to each other.