Rouault’s Miserere: Eternally Scourged (1922)

George Rouault believed, like other artists and mystics, that each human being could, with enough willpower, improve their being and so purify their minds that their true Self, which is their human essence, shines through. He had a saying about art which is equally true when applied to the individual: “If nothing under the sun is new, everything can be transformed and we can sing in another way and a different mode to the ancients."1 

A few years ago a publicity poster for a Rouault exhibition startled me (left). Rouault, the most Christian artist of the twentieth century, had drawn himself as Christ. It added more evidence to my theory that an artist's Christomorphic self-representation is not heretical but in full agreement with Christian faith. Rouault, unlike other artists of the day, was Catholic and deeply religious.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Poster for Rouault exhibition (2007) Photo by Simon Abrahams.

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This image is from his Miserere series (1912-27), a collection of 57 prints said to be based on a Psalm of Repentance in Catholic liturgy, Miserere mie Deus. His scenes, though, are not historical or illustrative. Art critics have described the series this way.

"Man lives in a terrifying jungle largely of his own making, for the shadows and perils of the jungle he finds are within his own heart as well as in the outer world. But whatever is endured by man is also endured by the Son of Man, the Son of God."2

This recognizes that Christ's sufferings are ours but not, significantly, that we are divine like Christ, as Rouault and earlier artists clearly believed.3

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Captions for image(s) above:

Rouault, Toujours flagellé or Eternally Scourged (1922) Sheet 3 from the Miserere series. Lithograph on paper.

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What struck me in that road-side poster was Rouault's own face staring out of Christ's torso. His "eyes" are Christ's (fertile) nipples: one looks at us (or, rather, at Rouault the artist), the other is closed for insight. His "nostril" is an odd horizontal line across the chest with his broad "mouth" and "chin" in Christ's abdomen. The latter is circular with a dot for the navel and is thus eye-shaped. The "point" of birth becomes an inner eye and organ of creation.

To be honest, back then, I had never seen Rouault's face but I still knew that this hidden form was a "self-portrait". Artists have been using the same method since the Middle Ages but rarely has this ever been recognized outside EPPH.4 Church dogma has been so influential in the past that it even traps those who have rejected religion. Atheist critics still see what the Church wants them to.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Rouault's Eternally Scourged with (inset) detail of Rouault's Self-portrait

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There is an inscription underneath (eternally scourged...) which, it has been said, emphasizes our own participation in Christ's suffering as does Rouault's technique. This view, of course, is correct. 

"Rouault's tools themselves are made symbols of the punishment inflicted on Christ...The surface shows plainly the nature of those tools: the steel edge gouges into the smooth copperplate; the etcher's acid burns and eats the copper....The variety of the violence, the intensity of the treatment - to copper and to Christ - takes us progressively deeper into man's cruelty to God."5

The conclusion is suspect but just as Titian's brush scourged Christ with his initials in Christ Flagellated (c.1560) so Rouault's tools torture Christ here. As he said, everything old can be sung in a new way to the ancients.

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More Works by Rouault

Notes:

1. Richard Nathanson, online at http://rouault-paintings.com/introduction.htm. Retrieved July 22nd 2014.

2. Frank and Dorothy Getlein, Georges Rouault's Miserere (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co.) 1964, p. 24

3. See 50+ examples under the theme, Artist as Christ.

4. See 90+ examples under the theme, Veiled Faces.

5. Getlein, op. cit., p.33

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 20 Jul 2014. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.