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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Georges Rouault's Epistemological Modesty

Outward appearance, both revealing and dissembling, is key to understanding the work of French artist Georges Rouault, the subject of a critically acclaimed exhibition this fall at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art. Curated by history professor Stephen Schloesser, S.J., the exhibit was entitled “Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault 1871-1958.” On October 15 Professor Schloesser joined us at the Boisi Center to discuss theological and philosophical themes in Rouault’s work.

Schloesser focused upon what he called the “epistemological modesty” of Rouault’s masked figures—clowns, judges, lawyers and prostitutes. Prostitutes must appear romantically interested in a client rather than reveal the harder reality; lawyers must act passionately on behalf of their clients, even when they have doubts as to their innocence. By juxtaposing these figures with religious iconography such as images of Christ and Saint Veronica, Rouault expressed his belief that divine reality often hides under outward appearance. Saint Veronica, in fact, was a favorite theme of Rouault’s. Veronica helped Christ in the midst of his suffering as he carried his cross to Calvary. Most people did not recognize Christ’s divinity as he faced crucifixion. In love, Veronica wiped his brow with her handkerchief, and his true, divine, image appeared on the cloth.

Surveying some of Rouault’s more violent and gritty images, Schloesser argued that the artist shared with Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene a recognition that violence sometimes corrects our vision and allows us to recognize the masks that conceal the truth of a situation.

Rouault faced persistent criticism during his lifetime from secular and religious critics alike as a consequence of what Schloesser described as Rouault’s refreshing look at religion, his overturning of religious certainty and pride. Nevertheless, said Schloesser, sacramentality permeates Rouault’s work, in which the appearance of a thing is only an outward sign; deeper and more significant reality lies within.