IT'S NOT often you find an artist who is genuinely dispiriting, whose work - whether good or bad, maladroit or accomplished - makes the heart sink. But such is the effect of Georges Rouault. Here is his special distinction, whether or not one is irritated by his harping on misery. Why so morose? It would have been easy for him to become a better artist. He could have changed his subject matter, lightened his palette, taken drawing lessons, or tried to please. He did none of these. Somehow he couldn't. Rouault was stubborn as well as mournful, stuck in the mud of his unhappiness.
On the other hand he may have realised that the power of his art came from this one furrow of the imagination. Though it is repetitious, the show at the Royal Academy demonstrates his force and is as good a Rouault exhibition as we are ever likely to see. I write 'see' with reservations, since much of the work is hard to examine. Nine-tenths of the pictures are glazed, because they are watercolours, and lighting has to be low for conservation reasons. This gives one the sensation of peering beyond a flashing surface into a dark interior.
The few oil paintings on show don't have glass and are immediately more attractive. Rouault used pigment in slabs and smears, not looking for any niceties. For this reason his oil paintings are more believable than his watercolours. The lighter medium ought to give clarity, delicacy and atmosphere. But Rouault's brush stabs and swirls. He is unsure of his definition and solves problems by recourse to murk. There is just one area where all these difficulties find a resolution - Rouault's ceramics. His vases have a glaze of their own, not the imposition of a sheet of glass, and his brush slides around their roundness, as though the decoration were as liquid as the substances the vases were formed to contain.
A further reason for liking these vases is that their sensuality is frank and relaxed. This was not his normal stance. Rouault was not the only artist to be obsessed by prostitution. But his obsession was dull. It lacked the social observation of Lautrec or Degas and had none of the bitterness of Picasso or the superbly sexist mania of Munch. He could have done with more Baudelaire in his soul. As things were, Rouault entrusted his soul to the Roman Catholic Church, and to some pretty strange branches of the religion. The real nature of his faith is still obscure. Nor do we know much about the nervous breakdown that preceded the work in this exhibition. But it is certain they were connected, and the result was an art of religiosity coupled with a half-modern daring.
Rouault did not really wish to be a modern artist, but could scarcely escape his times. He was born during the Paris Commune, studied with Matisse and other fauves and felt the authority of Cezanne. He was also affected by an apprenticeship in the stained-glass business and by his very curious job as curator of the Gustave Moreau Museum. Moreau liberated some of his pupils, but the physical presence of his studio turned into a tomb must have darkened the tones of the young man's creative life.
The RA show begins with a self-portrait from 1895 that will long remain with people who consider Rouault's character. It is extraordinary how he looks so afraid of himself. Sadly, it is the most moving picture in the exhibition. I wonder whether the many dejected clowns of later years are disguised attempts to portray himself, and whether this charcoal drawing is their progenitor. Rouault often said he was painting humanity. But surely it is more likely he was painting his own predicament, that of a lonely, juvenile figure in a world where all women are whores and all men are judges. Why else paint these terrifying legal people?
The peculiarities of his technique are said to be part of Expressionism. Maybe. But the waywardness of his watercolour brush speaks also of childishness. He strikes out, not quite knowing what he is doing, disgruntled and impotent. Sarah Whitfield, whose exhibition this is, calls him 'a strong, even an extreme, radical'. If this is true, it can only be because something was stunted in Rouault's development.
'Georges Rouault: The Early Years' is at the Royal Academy, W1 (071-439 4997), to 6 June.
In his column last Sunday, Tim Hilton said the Royal Academy's Rouault exhibition had been put together by Sarah Whitfield. We are happy to make it clear that it was in fact conceived and organised by the Pompidou Centre, and the curator was Fabrice Hergott.
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