Matthew Shedden is a friend and editor of mine (he is the praxis editor for The Other Journal, a lovely and smart enterprise). He has excellent taste in books and now we get to reap the benefits of his excellent taste in art. So many parts of this essay (and the artist) spoke to me, but my favorite line is in regards to self-satisfied middle-class Christians: “they spoke of the assurances of life while staring at me anxiously”. The haunting nature of these paintings will not leave me for quite some time. Which is good. I need them to tell me about life in the thin, black-and-white spaces.
Upside-Down Art: A Carcass in the World
by Matthew Shedden
“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”
― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
Toward the end of last year, I took the long hard dive into reading Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch. As I read through this novel, I was drawn into her language around paintings and art. It gave me a desire to connect to paintings despite the fact that I have no real knowledge of the art world. But on a trip to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon I pressed myself to find the art section and explore it in hopes of finding at least one book. As I wandered lost among the shelves of books of fine art I remembered an artist that I wrote a crummy paper on in seminary. I wasn’t sure where I had come across his art before but when I had seen some of his simple images, they ripped open a whole new place inside of me. They are, as one friend put it, haunting. Knowing his last name began with a ‘Rou’, I gave up exploring the whole art section and settled on finding his book.
The artist’s name is Georges Rouault. He was born in France in 1871 and passed away in 1958. One of the things that drew me to Rouault as an artist is the intertwining of life with his art. He once wrote, “My life and my art make a single whole”. Rouault was raised in a poor family, but more than that he was someone who saw the horrors of both World Wars as well as the Franco-Prussian war. His family was poor and destitute in many ways and it was the prompting of his grandfather that encouraged him to become an artist. I haven’t researched much of Rouault’s early life, but as he grew up he at times referred to his body as a “carcass”.
This notion of being a carcass in the world brings out what many consider the central theme of Rouault’s work, which is suffering. Many people, after seeing his paintings, remark about the raw nature of his art, the anguish in his subjects. This shouldn’t be a surprise because his subjects are often clowns, prostitutes, the sick, elderly, and the suffering Christ. For him, saints were those who suffered, and so he took time to paint them all in relation to the suffering one. His portrayals of the middle class bourgeois are more startling. He especially disliked the Christian middle class for the way they spoke to him when he was young and starving for they “spoke of the assurances of life while staring at me anxiously”.
The book I picked up that day in Powell’s is one that captures one his greatest exhibits, Miserere et Guerre. Literally translated “Misery and War”. However, it is clear that the word Miserere comes from the first line for Psalms 51 in the Latin. These paintings, entirely in black and white, hit you with an overwhelming weight of suffering, but also provides a glimpse into the human condition. One clown painting is titled, Who does not put on make-up? But when you look at the picture it looks back at you asking about your make-up. Rouault accepted that we all wear masks that proclaim our role in society, but the poor wear the thinnest mask, that is, if they have one on at all.
Another painting that challenges the notion of what is right side up and what is upside down is plate 55, Sometimes, the blind man consoles the seeing. In this image you see one person clearly in lament looking toward the sky, and another reaching out to him. It appears the seeing man is the blind man and the blind man is the seeing, but the one with the hand out and hand down is the one offering consolation. In the gospels it is often the blind who receive sight, but Rouault captures for us the consoling touch of another that opens us up to another kind of healing.
One that has become my favorite as I’ve spent time with this collection is “Tomorrow will be beautiful, said the shipwrecked man.” The title comes from a poem Rouault wrote to accompany the exhibit, and I think it clearly draws out how we can look through his paintings and see hope. Suffering is a part of this life, one in Rouault’s mind, which we should not try as hard to avoid. In suffering he see us as people who become more than the masks, the make-up, and disguises we wear. But through it we, like the shipwrecked man, can proclaim tomorrow will be beautiful with the hope that comes through the resurrection.
Rouault viewed this series of paintings as devotional art. Because of this the curators of the exhibit, chronicled in the book, placed biblical quotations alongside his images. They remind us that although “rendered with thick black outlines and diffused gray tonalities that evoke smoke and darkness of a world destroyed, the Miserere prints simultaneously have the luminescence of stained glass, hinting of light breaking through the darkness. While somber, they nonetheless allude to the promise of redemption, for as Rouault knew well, behind every shadow is a source of light.”
Matthew Shedden is Praxis editor at The Other Journal and an associate Pastor in rural Oregon. He writes more at mshedden.com and on Twitter @sheddenm
For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.