Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 8: Ritualistic: Rouault, Joseph Beuys, Tom Friedman

Georges Rouault, Le Pierrot sage, 1943, oil on paper

Joseph Beuys, I love America and America Loves Me, action, 1972

Tom Friedman, Untitled, soap and hair, 1999.

Tom Friedman, Untitled, toothpicks.

Ritualistic: Rouault, Joseph Beuys, Tom Friedman

Why might ritual be important to a spiritually-attuned artwork? And especially why might it be important to glimpsing the spiritual (the transcendent) in early-modern artwork? Hadn't much of modernity moved past needing the reminders, repetition, reiterations; the keeping of “rites” or passages which earlier generations had considered so important? As mentioned before, there are some artists who merely suggest or casually point to a spiritual vein or aspect in their artwork; and there are others who display it on their artistic sleeves, so to speak, and establish it as the core of their practice (Klee, I’ve mentioned specifically, as falling within this category). The artist we'll begin with to examine that sideline of early-modernity is Georges Rouault. But firstly, a few more words on ritual itself and its importance as a means towards a spiritually-attuned artwork. Ritual is normally involved with specificity: specific in its place, time and manner in which it's done – appropriate technique, order and materials are all important to performing a ritual correctly. Writ large, a ritual is a practice (or rite/passing through) grounded in place and material, which removes us to things larger than ourselves; gives us a picture of purposes and realities outside of our regular routine, and reminds us that we are not the be all and end all of life. Prepositions are often used to describe the proper role of ritual: outside; beyond; above; between. Anthropologist Victor Turner says of ritual – be it ancient, traditional or modern – that it is “quintessentially, a time and place lodged between all times and places” (Suquet 151). With most traditionally religious rituals, the place where it is done is important, but even more important is the realization that, once begun, the ritual itself is essentially “time”-less and “place”-less – that is, an appropriate and powerful ritual is both specific and universal in its meaning, import and effect. It is a kinetic symbol; a symbol in action. Therefore, in an artist's work such as Rouault's, there are always certain aspects of it which will be consistently touching in their universality and timelessness (i.e. they touch our hearts and existence). There are, of course, critics, critiques and disparagements of ritual – those who say that it's antique in the worst way (a relic), is meaningless and rote; and should be dispensed with in order to let in fresh tropes and means. Interestingly enough, similar critiques were (and still occasionally are) leveled at the first artist who we'll look at, who used a fresh, re-imagined concept of ritual in the making of his art, and the forwarding of his beliefs.
Rouault was a lifelong, devout French Catholic, who surely became familiar with the pattern, style and meaningfulness of ritual early on. After his teacher Gustave Moreau died, Rouault began adopting the style for which he is best known even now: his thickly-applied and repetitiously layered paint; the recurring themes of grotesqueness in his use of prostitutes, clowns, acrobats and other figures which represent the extremities of human life and emotion. So, how is ritual made alive, active and prescient in the work of Rouault? I believe we can effectively divide his practice into three aspects which speak to and use ritual (and around which various techniques and formal elements will arrange themselves). Firstly, there is a ritual of technique (through particular means of creation); secondly, there is ritual of subject or theme (by what is depicted and addressed pictorially); and lastly, there is a ritual of repetition (directly ritualistic, to accentuate the two former aspects).
To illustrate what I mean by ritual of technique, we'll look firstly at his painting here in G 8, The Little Maid (by the way, this could be considered along with Acrobat and Dog, in G 19, which also shows a definite ritualistic technicality). To begin with a visual explication of what I'm after, let me show you what I mean by “raking light”, a technique used by conservators to gain a better sense of the actual topography, so to speak, of the painting's surface (proceed to demonstrate raking light). What had been fairly flat in the normal gallery light, suddenly takes on a new dimension; a new depth, explicating the actual process of applying paint, used by Rouault. In some ways, this recalls the technique and surface of Tobi Kahn's paintings – they have been built up so significantly over time, so as to seem nearly carved out or excavated from the paint – even though this is a definite additive process; not reductive. And that is a distinction which is important: an additive practice or technique in painting implies several points from which to choose: obsession; devotion; deliberation or decisiveness. For Rouault, it may have been a little of each of these, but I believe the dominant reason for the thickly repetitious layering-on of paint is due to his devotion firstly (ritual) and subsequently his decisiveness. That is, ritual is one of the means (tools) by which we reach a certain decisiveness or resolve, out of our residual indecisiveness of life. We pick this up like silt in our shoes by walking those well-trodden paths of doubt; denial and the idolatry of the new. So, ritual here seen in paint is firstly a devotion to a belief in line; used equally to remind, comfort, rejuvenate and reorient (in relation to the above disorientation). Besides layering of paint, however, we can note the devotional use of both luminous color, and the color being encased or “set” in a way, in visual “leading”, reminiscent of stained glass (probably a reminiscence of Rouault's first exposure to religious expression and ritual in the Catholic church buildings). The delineation we discussed last week in relation to Matisse and Prendergast, is here used towards a very different look and purpose (though harmony is still at work in Rouault as an impetus). The figure and objects (positive space); that which the “light” works through, is what is meant to be the subject; the carrier of emotion: the leading role, if you will. The “packaging” or delineation of the dark, leaded lines, on the other hand, is the “encouragers” of emotion: they are the core of the ritual; the place and material; the engine of that which Rouault and his work are conveying – or, the supporting role, to continue the theatrical metaphor. Thus, the thickly dark lines are often the very areas which are subjected to the most vigorous, ritualistic reapplication of paint, towards reiteration and reminder.

To illustrate the next connection between Rouault and ritual, let's move to G 11 (Clowns) to consider the idea of ritual of subject or theme. In an early (1953) review of a Rouault exhibit, the writer says “Rouault emerged from this period [after the death of Moreau his teacher] with a new style, his mark; violent paintings of prostitutes, clowns, jugglers painted in gouache and watercolor in a predominantly dark blue tone. The surfaces of many of these pictures were alive with a storm of violently expressive brush strokes, frequently at odds with the main forms, sometimes bounding them. The shadows and contours are often arbitrarily placed, vigorous gestures to nail down some feeling of disgust or horror. Yet underneath the furious surfaces these paintings have an extraordinary solidity. The figures sit heavy and firm in opposition to the movement about them” (Lansner 456).
Two words used in the page following this quote continue the two possible approaches to Rouault's work and technique: “obsessive”, and “repeatedly”. There is some gravitas, besides the loaded technical and formal choices, which clearly caused Rouault to continually revisit the subjects and themes of clowns, prostitutes, acrobats, etc; indeed, the head of Christ. But what might that be? Perhaps this is an iota of a direction: each one of these groups is involved in an entertainment or diversion: circuses are meant to entertain; escorts or prostitutes' services are meant to both divert and entertain – but each of these are also an exaggeration of their origins: the prostitute is meeting a natural need, unnaturally; the clowns and acrobats are certainly skilled, and of course entertaining, but they are so in an overly artificial way. They seem to be exaggerated surrogates for the real thing. In other words, the characters that Rouault chooses over and over to depict in his paintings are all involved in diversion of a vicarious manner. These characters are both antithetical to his depiction of Christ (considered a true vicarious figure; and also a repeated theme in Rouault's art) as well as ritualistic vehicles for Rouault to deal with his own feelings of discontent; disorientation; discomfort with the world around him. He dealt with a modern spiritual anguish, in an artistically modern way, but with a traditionally ritualistic manner. Lansner says again, “these subjects, particularly the degraded prostitutes, are only the necessary vehicles for Rouault's own intense feelings of revulsion” (456). And this anguish, both personal ennui and a malaise with the world condition, was revisited time and time again, through the figures of grotesqueness, carrying his emotions; acting out their opposites in a dark and subliminal manner, but effectual enough that Rouault kept calling upon them repeatedly. (Of the pieces by Rouault here at the Foundation alone, five of the seven incorporate one of the character types mentioned above). All of this, ironically, was pulled off with the greatest sense of “compulsive restraint”, the very opposite of what these exaggerated characters represented (Lansner 456). A final important point is Rouault’s strong identification with his revisited characters: he is never judgmental, but commiserating, and offers an alternative through the ugliness to a beauty beyond; within.
So, the third ritualistic aspect in Rouault combines these first two into one: the ritual of repetition. We've discussed this aspect in a sideways manner already, with the discussion of ritual of technique (being repeated to make a visual and metaphorical point), and the ritual of subject or theme (a deliberate revisiting of cathartic vehicles). In each of these, repetition was already an important element. But repetition should be talked about within its own relationship to ritual, outside of any particular means. This is because, as we've mentioned before, ritual is ritualistic partially by virtue of being repeated, and is most often repeated within a particular framework: specificity of time, place, materials and words if applicable; all arranged in a specific way. Here in Acrobats and Dog, in G 19, is an example of repetition’s power as ritual. An acrobat is an oft-visited theme for Rouault: a symbol of the bounded yet unbounded freedom within the paradoxical human dynamic. Acrobats follow a type of ritual according to a strict discipline; they soar, fly and spin – but they always come back down. (Transcendence is not useful if one never comes back “down” again.)
In a way, the repetition of a ritual is a dialing-back for the human psyche: we return for a time to previous state of timelessness and place-lessness. Dug deeply into a ritual in the here and now, we may dig right through to a fresh realization or fresh understanding. This, it must be stated, is the ideal for ritual. Some things and means called ritual have become rote, tired and powerless, through negligence or lack of skill. Indeed, some may say this about traditional art; others may claim modern or contemporary art to be this way. Unless we repeat a ritual for the right reasons, this seems to be an inevitable result of our efforts. Instead of repetition additively creating a place, texture and understanding for transcendence, we create instead a “rut”, which we get stuck in, repeating an empty, hissing note.
In the Rouault works we've seen continual repetition of mark-making and paint-application; searching for an assurance of transcendent possibility. We've also seen continual repetition of subject or theme, to therein understand ourselves and our emotional needs and foibles more clearly. Finally, while we have revisited briefly here the idea of “additive” practice in Rouault, let me mention the related but different ritualistic act we might see in some of the African figurines here in G 22. Several of these figurines you may notice have what seems at first glance to be broken off, or splintered limbs. But upon closer inspection, the breaks look very old, so that the broken edges have a similar patina to the undisturbed surfaces. This is partially due to a belief among some tribes that, if they broke or carved off a tiny scrap or splinter of this figurine, which to them was possessed of a life power, a portion of that figure's power would go with them, and benefit, heal and protect them. In contrast to the Rouault ritualistic technique, this one is clearly reductive, rather than additive. However, an analogous sentiment or belief is active here: rather than mentally or visually internalizing a concept through repetition on a surface (paint), the devotee is actually taking and themselves tangibly possessing a portion of that figure's power for alteration – on their person, and at their disposal. And actually, the community, through their mutual belief and action, is together acting to make this an even more powerful ritualistic activity. So, not only does the actual look of the Rouault works mimic and have some affinity with the look of the African figurines, but also a similar ritualistic response is happening; one additive and the other reductive: in both instances, the human core realizes the transformative power in a repetitious act (reminder/rite), both psychologically and physically.
Now that we've considered Rouault fairly thoroughly, let's discuss an artist of the latter part of the 20th century, who was immersed quite deeply in the concepts, practices and especially the possibilities of ritual in artwork; ritual to repair, revitalize and remind: all appropriate functions of true ritual, and connected with what Rouault was involved with, in his own more comparatively traditional manner. That artist is Joseph Beuys, a German artist who dealt with such diverse expressions such as Joseph Cornell-style box constructions; actions; as well as more traditional mediums such as watercolor, graphite and sculpture. Most famous for his real-time actions, Beuys considered himself to possess a shaman-type expression, sharing a message of healing and reparation to all people, all of whom he considered to be artists – everyone to a person. In his actions, which were replete with what were highly-loaded and symbolic materials and objects, he interacted with those materials and occasionally animals or other people, to create a sculpture-in-time, as it were, with a definite message and meaning. A few examples of his occasionally unusual but very deliberate material choices are fat (tallow), felt, honey, copper, iron and wax. He saw each of these materials, especially fat, as deeply symbolic and almost alchemically (tenuous/fugitive) engaged entities. For example, whenever he used the material of fat, it was directly related to a desire to instigate a dynamic of warming, and also a sense of change or organic fluctuation. Fat itself easily moves from solid to liquid with a slight temperature change; it is also paradoxical in that it is mildly repulsive to some as a pure material, but desirous in that it is consumed and craved after. We all are, after all, keepers of fat, if you will. Therefore, it is a material of highly transmutable and almost fugitive (easily changed/capricious) properties. It is influenced easily; and easily influential. Ritual for Beuys was a theatrical opportunity for invoking change and healing, within the message and manipulation of a limited set or group of materials, each of which had or carried a particular, significant body of meaning. And as he manipulated them, that desire, message or vehicle would be made more obvious. It was almost as if an alchemist was letting an audience in on the process, watching him work; there existed an explication of sorts by watching the action, but also a persistent and intriguing mystery, even though the materials may have been explained. In this way, the ritualistic expression in Beuys was both highly personalized (his way of working), and universally applicable (the egalitarian or workaday materials, requisitioned by Beuys's personality). All this to say, despite his desire to reconnect us to the natural world, the hovering spiritual world, and indeed to our own disenfranchised selves, there is a persistent, lingering mystery surrounding him and his work, which either serves to give him an aura of an artistic holy man, or a complete and utter madman and poseur – both of which he has been defined as being. This is related to Rouault’s desire to withdraw from the world, and so to engage life from a place of ritual, to re-engage with the imaginative natural world. To sum Beuys up, perhaps better than I have so far, is this quote from an article comparing anthropologic ritual and Beuys:
“All of Beuys work is oriented toward the idea of the 'transformational process of human consciousness' and of its relation to the world, by the effect of the methods that can show reality in a different light. It comes as no surprise that Beuys's strategy should have something in common with archaic rituals, if we accept that many of them are 'ways of saying and doing,' aimed at transcending the given and at conjuring up, through some 'exceptional perception,' a form of 'presence which common perception lacks.' Suquet goes on to say, “The imperceptible, the seminal reason of things, throbs at the very heart of the concrete. Archaic thought perpetually dwells on the matter that the world is made of, and so does Beuys. It is through matter that what cannot be represented can be experienced. The equilibrium of man's relation to the world lies in this experience that reveals to us the unpresentable from which we proceed and that comprises us. Creating the conditions for this revelatory experience – within the bounds of meaning, time, and space – is the aim of many archaic rituals and Beuys's work” (Suquet 151).
So as Rouault's work is involved with rituals of technique, theme and repetition, Beuys’s work takes the idea of a ritual seriously, to the point of actually performing a ritual, in the milieu of modern art. And his careful, material-specific preparation of a space in which to act, corresponds to what we noted as important to a ritual; an action or rite within a controlled space and time, which allows us to transcend that enclosed and defined place, to experience psychological, spiritual and ideally physical renewal and reorientation, and then a subsequent return to where we began, with the ability (and materials) with which to repeat the ritual as necessary for our equilibrium and well-being. How much we are open to the possibilities, in both Rouault's and Beuys's expressions, depends to a large deal on us. In other words, do we feel a need to respond to these invitations to contemplative, transforming ritual?
A third and final artist who we'll visit briefly, and who works with a ritualistic sensibility – again with common, banal materials, but this time with their own symbolic possibilities, uninfluenced by the artist – is Tom Friedman. (I will mostly introduce you to Friedman's work and thought, and you may investigate further if you are interested.) Friedman deals with some of the same ideas of ritual, repetition and intellectual and psychological prodding as our first two artists, but with a slightly more American, casual spirituality; more individualistic and 21st century: as if to say, if you respond to his obsession with materials fine, but if you don't there's no skin off the artist's back. Friedman employs household items or materials, such as glue, straws, pencil shavings and pencils, string, aspirin tablets, sugar cubes, laundry detergent and sheets of paper...engaging them on their own terms, but also mining them for any metaphorical, ironic or spiritually-questioning possibilities, in such ways as to make your household chores never be the same again. To really help explain Friedman's work, and its role in our discussion of ritual, let me read a portion of an interview with him: (read Hainley, et al, 11—13). (Quote on its way...)

To see a documentary on Joseph Beuys, in seven parts, please visit the following links:

Joseph Beuys documentary, Arena-1987, Parts 1 – 7 Links:

Part 1:

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