Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Head of Christ

Yesterday in class I shared with my students what I called an "appreciation" essay by a Romanian painter named Joel Klepac. The object of Klepac's enthusiasm was the French post-Impressionist (to the extent that he is categorizable) George Rouault, who happens to be my favorite painter as well. Specifically, it was one of Rouault's "head of Christ" paintings, of which I would guess the artist did hundreds.

Klepac's enthusiasm for his subject is contagious, which is precisely why I chose to share his essay, as for me the acid test of an appreciation essay is the extent to which it infects the reader with the author's positive feelings. A quote:

Next I was escorted into a large shared office where Rouault’s “Head of Christ” had been carted to wait for me, placed on a chair. At first I experienced the disorienting feeling of suddenly being face-to-face with a celebrity, but little by little the painting opened its doors. Deep blues and greens, reds, smears of black, and yellows are piled together; years of tortured layers a half inch thick in some areas. Christ’s head is slightly tilted. He has an elongated nose and small mouth, and the ears almost disappear in the black outlines of the head. But it is His eyes that were most startling. In those 45 minutes, Christ’s eyes pierced me. Somehow gathered behind them were all the tears of the boys on the street of Romania whom I have come to know, all that inner pain, those graphic histories of abandonment, mocking, and abuse. And here I also saw my own poverty, my loneliness, fear and lost relationships. There is nothing of the cheap plastic smile that one finds on so many sentimentalized images of Christ. Rouault’s Christ looks me in the eyes until he finally has my attention, and says, “I suffer with you. I love you."

I am not a religious man. To say I don't believe in God (or his resurrected son) doesn't quite go far enough: I don't believe in believing. I could, like some, finesse this and say that, while I don't believe in a personal or personified God or in the resurrection as a fact, I DO believe in it as myth and metaphor: but that would be a lie, since one doesn't have to "believe in" a myth or a metaphor; in so far as the word "belief" means anything there's nothing to believe in, no reason to suspend impirical observation or judgment. No, believing in metaphors requires no leap of logic or faith. If a metaphor functions, it exists; and by extension it exists to the extent that it functions.

What I do believe in is the beauty of art and of metaphor and myth—which, if not works of art in and of themselves, are constituents or components of art. As fiction the story of Jesus can't be beat. It has it all: drama, suspense, magic, tears, guilt, reversals, catharsis, poetic justice. There can be few if any images as powerful as that of Christ on the cross. And as a fictional character I can think of none more complex or subtle. Gatsby, Ahab, Lord Jim—none even come close.

It is the tactile substance of Rouault's paintings that moves me most, that touches me like the skin of a lover. To encounter his paintings in the flesh is to encounter flesh: a flesh formed of layer upon layer of encrusted oil paint—so thick, so crusty, so organically rich in texture and spontaneity—like the patterns made by fallen autumn leaves, or any of the perfect accidents of nature, the one artist incapable of a false stroke. 

Rouault has always been one of my favorite painters. When I'm feeling low or insecure, when my writing doesn't go well, when I can't bear words any longer and want to sink into colors and shapes and texture, next to a walk in a forest, Rouault’s canvasses are the next best thing. His series of crusty crucifixions pleases me more than anything—in spite of their religious vehemence and my atheism, they please me.  It's not that I don't give a damn about Christ or the crucifixion; it is merely that I am more moved by the colors and the textures of Rouault's paintings than by their themes or subjects. For me, the story is secondary, something that happened long, long ago if at all. But the painting itself is alive; the painted surface a kind of living tissue or flesh. No one ever did more with paint than Rouault—or with color, for that matter. Between recklessly bold swipes of thinned black, viscous reds, yellows and greens ooze like blood and puss from a festering, gangrenous wound. Perhaps because Rouault had been a glazier in his early life his critics tend to compare his paintings to stained glass windows. But for me they are more like divine autopsies, pious corpses spread out and splayed with a palette knife on canvas—stained windows of blood, flesh, bone and gristle. As Christ redeemed man by rescuing him from his sins, Rouault’s paintings redeem Christ by rescuing Him from the abyss of cliché.

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