Rouault’s Hope-Giving Images

by Joel Klepac

This past summer I visited Cleveland’s Museum of Art in hopes of seeing George Rouault’s painting, “Head of Christ.” Rouault is one of my heroes and this painting, though I had only seen it only in reproductions, one of my favorites. To my great sorrow, I discovered the painting was in storage. Unwilling to give up, I decided to talk to the receptionist to see if I might be allowed to view it anyway. “I live in Roma nia,” I explained, “and visit America only once a year. I came especially to see Rouault’s work. He is the main reason that I myself am an artist.”

Miracles happen. She looked at me as if I might be a future Picasso whose artistic growth depended seeing this painting. To my astonishment, she was able to arrange a time two days later when staff would bring the three-by-four foot “Head of Christ” out of storage. Not only that. They would also show me the Rouault prints in the museum’s archives.

When I returned to the museum, Rouault’s entire Miserere et Guerre series was brought out for me to see. I had seen shows with twenty or so of these large black-and-white prints, but never imagined that one day the whole series of a hundred prints would be placed in my hands for a private viewing.

Rouault worked for nine years on these etchings. They describe the human misery he experienced in Paris – probing portraits, ironic faces of clowns trapped in inner misery, the life of prostitutes, injustice in the courts. There is a print of the Baptism of Christ showing the descent of the Spirit just above the blessing hand of John over the gracefully formed figure of Christ. I also found the print of Doubting Thomas placing his hands in the side of Christ that I had seen years before and still vividly remembered. And there was the strangely quiet crucifixion, where Christ’s arms reach beyond the margins of the paper like an umbrella over the tear shaped mourners below. Within all the gently worked blacks and grays, light penetrates even the darkest scenes.

As I walked out of the room I felt lighter. It seemed as if Rouault understood the suffering we see daily on the streets in Romania, and yet saw its redemption.

Next I was escorted into a large shared office where Rouault’s “Head of Christ” had been carted to wait for me, placed on a chair. At first I experienced the disorienting feeling of suddenly being face-to-face with a celebrity, but little by little the painting opened its doors. Deep blues and greens, reds, smears of black, and yellows are piled together; years of tortured layers a half inch thick in some areas. Christ’s head is slightly tilted. He has an elongated nose and small mouth, and the ears almost disappear in the black outlines of the head. But it is His eyes that were most startling. In those 45 minutes, Christ’s eyes pierced me. Somehow gathered behind them were all the tears of the boys on the street of Romania whom I have come to know, all that inner pain, those graphic histories of abandonment, mocking, and abuse. And here I also saw my own poverty, my loneliness, fear and lost relationships. There is nothing of the cheap plastic smile that one finds on so many sentimentalized images of Christ. Rouault’s Christ looks me in the eyes until he finally has my attention, and says, “I suffer with you. I love you.”

I first became aware of Rouault’s work thanks to William Dyrness’s book, George Rouault, A Vision of Suffering and Salvation. Dyrness’s thesis is that the Christian artist is a person who unites a vision of the world’s suffering with a vision of its redemption.

In his work and life, Rouault did not turn a blind eye to the suffering around him. The plight of the prostitutes living next door to him in his early years always haunted him, as did dark smoke-filled war scenes, the harsh faces of politicians and judges denying justice to the poor, and his own hunger pangs as a young artist struggling to survive. He experienced suffering in his own body, but also empathetically through contact with the world at the dawn of the twentieth century. For Rouault art was not a flight from reality into the nirvana-like dreamlands one often finds in Christian bookstores. Through his art he embraced the suffering enough to see the seeds of redemption growing in its muddy soil. By doing this he gives the world a body of work which serves as a reminder that the light of Christ truly does comprehend and pierce even the deepest darkness.

Our experience among the poor in Romania is at times very discouraging. I often come home from a day with street boys emotionally spent from hearing them relate their gruesome experiences. I recently spent an hour with a boy who had self-inflicted three inch long and half inch wide gashes up and down his arm from a shaving razor. I was compelled to do what George Rouault did in his life work – embrace the reality of the suffering I see in this young man and look for the dim flickering light of redeeming work of Christ beyond the blood and scars.

The young man mentioned that he thought God loves him, “in His way.” He said, “You know, when I am good he loves me.” At the end of our time together I asked him to look me in the eyes, that he needed to know something. I don’t know what he saw in my eyes but I could barely stand the deep pools in his. “Christ loves you not only when you are good, but also when you are bad, and when you cut yourself. He loves you so much that He suffers with you. He feels it too.”

Hope is a precious commodity for boys who contemplate suicide on a daily basis. Just a little hope can keep at bay the monster within them.

Rouault’s art teaches us how to be instruments of hope in the world. There is a lesson for artists as well as those interested in sharing the sufferings of the poorest of the poor. As a painter, he challenges me – through colors, lines and forms – to wrestle with my own suffering and that of my brother, to ask the Holy Spirit to come and allow me to see the seeds of redemption in the midst of that suffering. This process is very personal, very intimidating, and sometimes seems out of control. The question always lingers: “What if I enter into the pain and am just swallowed up by it? What if Christ isn’t there with me? What if my paintings are simply a record of despair, lacking the light of Christ?”

Only by a deep, faith-challenging encounter with suffering will we ever experience the truly death-defeating resurrection faith which is hope for the poor. This faith comes through death, not the avoidance of death. Works of art that bear witness to this journey have the potential to be hope for both the poor and the rest of the world.

At its very least, attempting this kind of art helps me to survive emotionally and spiritually among the poor.

Though Rouault didn’t serve among the poor, his work teaches us that an artist living among the poor must learn to bring into works of art the suffering and desolation found among the poor along with a glimpse of the ultimate healing of humanity. An artist in community with the poor is one who encourages and stimulates this kind of intuitive vision, which can see through the pain to the moving of the Spirit below the surface.

It becomes clear that while an artist can be an instrument of hope, he is also a metaphor for all of us who see Christ among the poor. We too can risk cultivating the intuitive vision it takes to hold the hand of Christ suffering in the poor as well as the hand of our reigning, victorious Redeemer.

Christ, may your healing image find its way out of the vaults and into our work, hope made visible for the sake of the poor.

Joel Klepac is an artist working in community among the poor in Romania with his wife Monica and their two-year-old son. As part of a larger community he serves underprivileged families and youth living on the streets through a day center program and a home for boys. An artist’s statement and photos of some of his paintings are posted on the web at: www.wordmadeflesh.com/klepacart0105.htm.