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Light Shining Through Darkness

THERE are painters who are masters of light - and painters who are masters of darkness.

This is not necessarily a matter of moral symbolism. But neither is it simply to do with technique.

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The 19th-century French Impressionists, for example, as masters of light, were interested in its optical effect and in finding methods to make paint on canvas resonate in ways that are equivalent to that effect. But for them to be able to capture light in paintings with a new spontaneity was a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. It made for a more realistic depiction of the world.

When painters in earlier centuries had shown special interest in light, it was often as much for light's symbolic power as for its physical properties. Frequently (but not always) it was ``light shining in darkness,'' the darkness signifying ignorance, the light truth.

The Impressionists were realists, bent on painting modern life. In the main, the religious impulse that had underpinned much of the work of the Old Masters was rejected by these modernists, who were intrigued by scientific theories of optics. These physical theories suggested to them that a heightened palette and an actual penetration and breakup of dark shadows by bright colors would come closer to the sensation of light (and thus closer to painting the observed environment convincingly) than some of the older ways of painting light.

THESE older ways, particularly in the 17th century, used contrast, making the lightest parts of a painting seem vivid or dazzling by making the darkest parts impenetrably black. There was even a name for artists who produced paintings of strong contrast between light and dark. They were called ``tenebrists.'' They were painters of darkness. The light they did paint did not flood their pictures. It was more likely a small center or point of light in the surrounding obscurity; frequently, in fact, they painted candlelight, the tongue of flame on the wick casting a limited, localized illumination.

The darkness in such paintings is as richly painted and imaginatively conceived, in terms of paint, as the light. It is not a negative or just a complete absence of light. In Rembrandt's paintings, for instance, the darkness has texture and substance. It even sparkles somberly, as though, however velvety and dense the artist strives to make it, it still contains minute specks of light.

During the earliest years of our own century, there was a short-lived flare-up of a kind of painting that took Impressionism and its expression of light to a new extreme. It was nicknamed (in 1905) Fauvism, as if it were the work of ``wild beasts.'' One of its chief proponents was Matisse.

These Fauve paintings were bursting with strong bright colors and contrasts between colors, dashed onto the canvas with a jubilant freedom from restraint that certainly broke the previous bounds of painting. They shocked traditionalists, and it was this indignation that resulted in the name.

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Today these canvases seem an overflow of joie de vivre and celebration of color - and light - for its own excitement. They have little or nothing of the deliberate aggression, the disgust, the fierce and repellent negativism that developed later in our century as a conscious aim of certain painters.

But there was one painter included in the Fauve exhibitions whose work really sang to a quite different tune: Georges Rouault. He was a master of darkness. One of his more appreciative early critics described him as ``the greatest and only tenebrist of his time.'' He was a friend of the other Fauve painters, having been a student, with them, of the same painter-teacher, Gustave Moreau.

A number of Moreau's students wrote or spoke about his teaching in later years with great respect, even if it was sometimes tinged with a critical appraisal of Moreau's own bejeweled, overwrought, mythological, and mysteriously dark dramas. He was a teacher who knew how to bring into the open a pupil's individuality. That Matisse and Rouault were both his students splendidly shows how successful he was in this: They developed in totally different ways (while remaining friends and appreciators of each other's art). Matisse said of Moreau: ``[He] did not set us on the right roads, but off the roads. He disturbed our complacency. With him, each one could acquire the techniques that corresponded to his own temperament.''

None of his students, however, spoke of Moreau with such appreciation as Rouault. He had been Moreau's favorite pupil. He became curator of Moreau's house and collection after his death. And if Moreau's strange - and shadowy - Symbolist paintings did have a 20th-century heir, it was in the work of Rouault.

FRENCH art historian Pierre Courthion, in his 1962 study of Rouault, recognized fully the importance of Moreau to Rouault. He says that Rouault ``talked interminably of Moreau - to such an extent, in fact, that it seemed as though he felt his artist's career would not have assumed concrete form without the instruction of this extraordinary teacher.''

One idea that Moreau instilled in Rouault was that trying to paint light, like the Impressionists, was a lost cause. ``Don't struggle with nature over `objective truth,' '' he told his students. What he encouraged instead was painting out of the imagination. He taught that dreaming was important. To him this meant evocation of past myths and dramas, whether Salome or the Sphinx. He painted ``visions'' - painterly, dense, encrusted, and full of sparkling darkness.

When Rouault came into his ``own temperament,'' in the first two decades of the century, he, too, favored a painterly darkness with scintillating, sour colors. His visions, however, were not of archaic mythologies, but of modern ones. His ``Salomes'' were Parisian prostitutes. The actors in his dramas - and his figures are like actors playing roles, representing types - also included clowns, Pierrots, tragediens, mothers with children, judges, lawyers, pedagogues, people from poor suburbs, wrestlers, and acrobats. He brought these characters close up to the picture space, filling the frame, so that unlike Moreau, they were no longer in vast staged settings. They were not historical, but part of modern life.

These characters came quite as much from Rouault's imagination as from observed reality. They are also the fruit of Moreau's encouragement to look at the Old Masters and at the same time a result of the new art fermenting on every side.

Clearly Rouault was influenced by Degas, and was, in his own way, in debt to Cezanne. The caricaturing of Daumier, satirizing the vices and corruption of officials, is part of Rouault's inheritance. Among Old Masters, Rembrandt in particular appealed to him. He quoted Moreau as often saying: ``There are moments when you would give your all for a bit of Rembrandt's mud.'' Rembrandt's capacity to face ugliness and discover the beautiful and compassionate in it surely helped form Rouault's own aesthetic.

Courthion tells an apt story in his book: ``One day Rouault showed [Moreau] a picture of two butchers cutting each other's throats.... `I shan't go so far as to say that he congratulated me,' Rouault writes, `but he told me, ``You are a painter, whatever you do.'' ' ''

Rouault's paintings were like religious icons, if deeply ironic and unsettling ones. And even in his early work, when he engaged most vigorously with modern life, it is the overriding importance of his religion that dominates. He painted the Roman Catholic icons - baptism, the Virgin, the crucifixion - doing so in ways that show them as no less current and significant than his other figures.

In a catalog from a Rouault exhibit staged earlier this year at London's Royal Academy of Arts, Fabrice Hergott emphasizes the central importance of Rouault's relgious beliefs to his art. ``The artist's vision of the universe is formed by his beliefs, and refined by his musings on religion....'' The mixture of sardonic tragedy and a certain dolorous sense of human comedy seems to find its source in his faith.

Hergott tries, however, to lay to rest an often repeated notion about one of Rouault's more distinctive stylistic traits, his use of heavy black outlines. He writes that these ``are not the equivalent of the lead contours in the medieval stained-glass windows with which his paintings have been wrongly associated.'' The theory that they are is based on the fact that before Rouault studied under Moreau he had worked as an apprentice to a stained-glass maker and repairer. Hergott argues that the lines in Rouault's ``paintings give structure to the forms rather than just surround them; they are the external, translucent skeleton that allows an unexpected interior brightness to shine out.''

Hergott is certainly right that, in the freedom of painting rather than constructing leaded glass, Rouault could, and did, use his black outlines in many different ways. But in stained glass, too, the black outlines do not ``just surround'' forms, they frequently add emphasis and structure to the interior brightness they contain. Rouault's religious imagination was inarguably moved by medieval stained glass (and sculpture), and he certainly adapts some of its effects to his paintings. Just like the stained-glass makers of the Middle Ages, Rouault expressed both profound darkness and the intense, symbolic light that shines out of it.

* An exhibition called `Rouault: Malerei und Graphik' (Rouault: Paintings and Drawings) will be on display at the Rupertinum in Salzburg, Austria, through Oct. 17.

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