Art Thoughts, Week 8 -- Rouault & Symbols

(Please note: as usual, the above image - this time by Rouault - is not the actual piece I'm discussing...but it does - as might be expected - exhibit similar qualities to the one I'm talking about. Of course, visiting the Barnes Foundation would be best...)

Acrobat with Two Dogs (Clown), Georges Rouault, French, 1871—1958, 1922, oil on canvas, BF 883.

Interesting, isn’t it, how one artist – even one work by that artist – can evoke two absolutely different, even opposing, sensations? Many paintings by Rouault do this to me. The particular characteristic of his paintings looking like stained glass is often repeated, but valid. (This is usually attributed to his having been apprenticed to a stained glass workshop). To me, though, there is much more depth in his paintings than stained glass could ever achieve; it’s more like looking at a grizzled stone wall through stained glass. And that’s the other sensation I get when I look at Rouault’s work, that of stone: of time immemorial; of hewed roughness; of generation upon generation of lichens growing upon each other.

Interestingly enough, yet another feature which popped into my head while looking at Acrobat with Two Dogs (Clown), is related to the two aforementioned, and that is its iconic quality. And this shouldn’t really be a surprise after one knows that Rouault was a life-long devotee to traditional – and not so traditional – spiritual paths. The acrobat in question in this Foundation painting has what might be a rather aquiline nose. Outlined in black as it is, it relates well to many facial features of traditional icons, which tend to be elongated, contemplative and solemn. Of course, something else which accentuates the iconic look of the figure is the paint layering mentioned before. Icons tend to have the cachet of age and wear; here the paint is obviously “piled up” – red on top of blue, on top of green, on top of brown, etcetera; each peeking through enough so that the combined effect is very stone-like. Of course, most stones are not flat, and neither is the surface of this painting: within the dark outlines of the acrobat’s features and limbs, this “piling up” of paint builds up quite an impasto, lending even more to the feel of stone masonry. In this way, Rouault’s painting reminds me somewhat of work by Tobi Kahn; a Jewish-American artist who paints mostly land- and sky-inspired abstractions. One distinct feature of his painting style though, is how the borders between his colors and shapes are very concretely preserved, and between them the paint is gathered together, so to speak, lending an almost lunar, undulating permanency to the painting’s surface. The borders become valleys; the colors and shapes are gently-swelling hills. And in their own way, Kahn’s works are also iconic and spiritual, but by way of a different route: he names his paintings with faux-Hebrew words – that are, incidentally, utterly convincing to non-Hebraic eyes. Rouault on the other hand, using humanity as his subject as he did, portrays this spirituality as a fleshly struggle within life. This acrobat becomes a symbol of the human animal’s obstinacy and sometimes silly resoluteness.

And, we might well ask, why an acrobat? Well, what is an acrobat except someone who routinely defies conventionality, even the serious “conventions” of gravity and safety? Here is a person who stands, arms akimbo, in the face of the drudgery and, at times, yawning vacuity of life; an entertaining warrior fighting for us all. And the discipline of acrobatics themselves are a symbol of that same flinty resolve to make life the best that we might…by pushing the envelope of the existence that is handed to us when we each arrive; by giving us the excuse to cross boundaries, laugh at ourselves and each other while doing it, and discover a strange grace in the whole mix.

The Drawings of Rob Matthews  – (Wednesday, 05 March, 2008)  

I was at the Barnes a couple of Fridays past during the snowstorm. Sorry I didn't see you there. I saw evidence of your presence (little removal tags initialed by "TG").
Do you think more people would go to the Barnes if their website highlighted the collection? I wonder about that from time to time. The blue Picasso floors me. No web image can capture it.

GIERSCHICK  – (Thursday, 06 March, 2008)  

Hey, I was around that day; next time, go to the corner by the women's restroom and gift shop, and knock on the door marked "staff only". That's where my office is. Sorry I missed you. I have to agree, the blue Picasso is wonderful (as much as I love the rose one in Gallery 23). I'll probably be writing about a Picasso soon.

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