David Lyle Jeffrey
Beauty in an Ugly Time
Sometimes we think of modernism in art as a period of great liberation from the constraints of the past, of the triumphant emergence to dominance of secularism and the demise of religion. This cliché overlooks, of course, the unprecedented violence of the 20th century, the horrible deaths of score of millions of people just because of their religious identity—Jews in the Holocaust and Christian martyrs all over the globe. Response to real evil is exceedingly various; many an artist has been driven to outrage or despair, others to self-indulgence and escapism. The recent exhibition at Baylor University of Georges Rouault's Miserere et Guerre series and Marc Chagall's Bible series (both made possible through a gracious loan of collections by the Mark Foster Family Foundation) offered an opportunity to reflect on an aspect of modernity so obtrusive that no artist concerned for truth can entirely overlook it: the monstrous fact of human suffering on such a scale.
Rouault's etchings, which have been called the most powerful single work of Christian art in the 20th century, and Chagall's etchings of the covenant narratives, often regarded as the high watermark of 20th-century etching overall, were made in war-ravaged France. Rouault did his work from 1914-27; Chagall's work was begun in 1931-39 and only completed between 1952 and 1956. Anchoring the work of both artists, literally and figuratively, are reflections on the meaning of the Crucifixion of the Suffering Servant for modern man.
Rouault's images are far too strong to absorb entirely in a single viewing, etched powerfully in dark ink, bordered in black like a funeral notice. Together they capture an overwhelming truth unflinchingly: as Rouault puts it in one of his images, "Man is a wolf to man" (number 37 in the series). Rouault's Miserere forces us to consider what it is that we have become. "Are we not all convicts?" (6) he asks—and are we not all self-deceived? "Who does not paint on a face?" (8). Who is free from having become, whether in denial or evasion, what Walker Percy has called "a phony self"? "We like to believe we are kings" (9) when in fact we are knaves. The truth is that in our false self-liberation we have made ourselves almost absolutely lonely, "Solitaire en cette vie …" (11). For Rouault, this is the deeper reality about modern man—psychologically, sociologically, and theologically. To show these things is to tell a necessary truth.
Accordingly, in this series by Rouault we see the greatest Catholic painter of the early 20th century effectively acting as a confessor, a priest-artist, analyzing sin and its consequences, showing us how "the wages of sin is death." Fortunately, this is not all. He also shows us how into the radical alienation of modern humanity Christ still comes, identifying with our disconsolate sorrow and brokenness, standing in our stead, one with us even in our deserved condemnation (18, 21). For Rouault, the only enduring consolation of our broken world is the wounded Christ, who, in the words he borrows from the Suffering Servant poem (Isa. 53), was "wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities." It is no accident that the "Veronica" image from the Franciscan-inspired Stations of the Cross is the envelope structure for his great series, or that the last image of the penitential pilgrimage on which he guides the viewer is captioned by another line from Isaiah 53: "By his stripes we are healed." This, for Rouault, is the "true image," the Terrible Beauty in which alone we find redemption.
Marc Chagall is sometimes viewed as an artistic lusus naturae, a brilliant modernist whose work refuses every convenient category: Jewish, yet whose tender crucifixions are an outrage to Jews; a man in whose art the deepest spirit of Hasidism breathes, yet who, after he left his Belarus village, was at best lax in observance; a sometime cubist and quasi-surrealist who rejected both cubism and surrealism; a friend and admirer of Picasso who rejected outright Picasso's attitude to women and to marriage. There is no denying that his Bible etchings are both textually informed and alert to their own narratives of sorrow as well as the promises of the covenant. Yet his Bible innovates in ways that, like his paintings celebrating marriage and orthodox Jewish life, reveal a deeply personal commitment beyond horror to beauty.
In the terror of the 1930s, as European Jews were struggling to maintain religious identity, when assimilation could seem the only viable option for survival, there were other attempts made by Jewish intellectuals to return the Bible to modern consciousness. One thinks of the brilliant essays of Martin Buber and Franz Rosensweig, for example, as they planned their new translation of the Bible—a translation which was cut off by terrible events. After the hideous revelations of the Holocaust in 1945, for more than a generation many a Jew recoiled from the Bible and the God of the Bible. But Chagall's Bible is contra, in some ways a visual analogue for the projected translation of Buber and Rosensweig. As with Rouault's Miserere, this work had been commissioned by the art publisher Ambrose Vollard, a man of impeccable taste and tyrannical practices. When Vollard died in 1939, Chagall was already so depressed by events in Europe that he seemed only too glad to abandon the work (only 66 of the eventual 105 plates had by then been finished). When he then lost his beloved first wife Bella in 1943, his darkness deepened. Only after the war, his return to France, and, especially, his joyous second marriage to Valentine Brodsky ("Vava") in 1952 was Chagall to take up his work again in earnest. Her encouragement was clearly decisive. Not only did he become extraordinarily prolific, but he returned to the color and hope that had so marked his early work.