Spiritual Impressions: Axel Haig and Georges Rouault in a Changing Europe brings together the works from the printmaking career of two twentieth-century artists. Known as the “Piranesi of the Gothic Revival,” Swedish-born Axel Haig (1835-1921) was responsible for creating incredibly detailed prints that primarily show architecture, such as the Canterbury Cathedral (1911) and Cathedral Cefalù (1901). Frenchman Georges Rouault (1871-1958) created his renowned Miserere series (1914-1927)—a collection of fifty-eight prints portraying despair and hope of the human existence during World War I, three of which are on display (Plates 5, 26, 55). The subject matter, styles, and techniques of these artists’ oeuvres are very different. Haig renders the meticulous details of Gothic cathedrals while Rouault’s expressionistic use of line and color depict an anguished world. However, there are subtle similarities between the artists’ works that make this juxtaposition of seemingly divergent prints worth examining. On one level, they both exemplify very different approaches to the intaglio technique of printmaking. However, on a deeper level, the works of these two artists reflect the endurance of spirituality in an age when religion began to fade in Europe.
The basic similarity that these five prints share is that they were made using the intaglio technique of printmaking. This method involves the printmaker cutting into or incising a metal plate with a sharp tool such as a burin or etching needle. Once the lines are incised, ink is then applied and the plate is wiped, thereby forcing the ink into the metal grooves. This ink is then forced out of the grooves under the pressure of an intaglio printing press and is transferred onto the paper. Engraving, etching, and drypoint are the primary intaglio methods. The Haig prints are pure etchings, while Rouault combined etching and a number of other intaglio and tonal techniques. For more details on the specific processes used in these prints, see “Techniques.”
Haig was heavily influenced by the mid-eighteenth century architectural movement of Gothic Revival, which sought to establish the Gothic style as an aesthetic and theoretical alternative to the neo-classical architecture that proliferated at that time.1 During the nineteenth century, when Haig was active within the architectural community, the writings of art critic John Ruskin became hugely influential in the spread of the theory behind the Gothic Revival. To Ruskin, the Gothic architectural style was a perfect expression of natural truth, unlike the “worthless and corrupt” architecture of the Renaissance and neoclassical styles.2 These writings and others would become highly influential in the movement that is today referred to as the Gothic Revival; it was this natural truth that Haig grasped at with his etchings despite Ruskin’s opinion that the medium was inferior because of the “wanton speed” with which it was created and its resulting lack of attention to detail.3 It can easily be argued that Haig was able to defy this characterization, using the engraving needle to carefully detail the nooks and crannies of his cathedrals and landscapes. Regardless of the medium, Haig succeeded in capturing the sublime nature of the centuries-old gothic cathedrals in his works.
The Gothic architectural features found in Haig’s prints establish another point of contact with the Rouault’s works when one considers Rouault’s artistic background. Canterbury Cathedral and Cathedral Cefalú both feature Gothic stained glass rose and lancet windows. The stained glass windows in Haig’s prints make an interesting comparison to Rouault’s approach to his images. Heavily influenced by his apprenticeship to stained glass makers Marius Tamoni and Georges Hirsch as a teenager, the influence of traditional cathedral windows is evident in Rouault’s works.4 Rouault’s training in this medium is reflected in his use of thick, broad contours that recall the lead beams in stained glass, and serve to delineate the limbs of the figures in the Miserere series. Although working largely after the Gothic Revival of the Romantic period, Rouault was clearly inspired by Gothic architectural features.
Although Haig and Rouault’s works are aesthetically dissimilar, they share this underlying search for natural, pure expression. This is obviously evident in Rouault’s prints, influenced as he was by Primitivism, an art movement that celebrates the natural, automatic, and authentic.5 This connection may be less apparent in Haig’s etchings of Canterbury and Cefalù Cathedrals, until one considers the influence of Ruskin on the theory of the Gothic Revival movement. According to this movement, gothic masonry, so carefully depicted by Haig in his prints, was imbued with a roughness and personal spirituality that neo-classical architecture lacked.6 The Gothic cathedral was not simply a building, but an expressive statement of the spirituality of its builders and architect.7 The higher and thinner the walls, the larger the lancet windows, the closer to God the individual could reach. Although Haig was operating centuries later and outside of any obvious religious context, Ruskin’s writings on the spiritual value of the Gothic still influence his focus on the Gothic cathedral as a subject. While Rouault’s hunt for the natural manifested through expressionism, Haig executed intricate detail in order to convey this natural quality of Gothic architecture.
Furthermore, Haig was able to render light shining through the lancet windows that fill Cathedral Cefalú from the right. This recalls the Medieval notion of “heavenly light” that fills Gothic cathedrals. Similarly, there is a symbolic light in Rouault’s prints. The subjects in the Miserere are not bathed in complete darkness, however, as light shines down on these figures. This light represents a hope in Christ and salvation in times of darkness.8 Moreover, there is also a focus on silent contemplation—another aspect of Medieval philosophy—in these prints.9 This is shown in Cathedral Cefalú, in which the faithful have come to worship in the sacred space. In Rouault’s case, the prints were intended as a sort of devotional aid, walking the reader through contemplative exercises on the spiritual value of suffering.10 In each of the prints from the Miserere, the artist encourages the viewer to contemplate mankind’s suffering in light of Christ’s own sacrifices by dedicating select prints to Christ and the Virgin.11
Approaching Catholic spirituality from opposite directions, Georges Rouault and Axel Haig have more in common than can be seen at first glance. Their desire for truth through expression, though manifested in different styles at different times, is reminiscent of the gothic period as well as the cultural climate of Europe in the early 20th century. Both a nostalgia for gothic spirituality and a look into a hopeful future are perceivable in the works of both artists, if one goes back for a second impression.
Grace Boyan, Emily Inglis, and Nicole Meily
This exhibition was mounted by Dr. Barnaby Nygren’s 2015 Prints and Printmaking Seminar. These prints were researched by art history students Kaitlyn Argila, Thomas Bagley, Grace Boyan, Olivia Camusi, Emily Inglis, and Nicole Meily.
1 Georg Germann and Pippa Shirley, “Gothic Revival,” Grove Art Online, Oxford University Press, accessed May 4, 2015, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T033731.
2 Dinah Birch, “Ruskin, John,” Grove Art Online, Oxford University Press, accessed May 4, 2015, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T074542.
3 Joseph Mordaunt Crook and C. Lennox-Boyd, Axel Haig and the Victorian Vision of the Middle Ages (Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1984), 23.
4 See “Rouault,” for a biography on the artist.
5 Roger Cardinal, “Primitivism,” Grove Art Online, Oxford University Press, accessed May 4, 2015, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T069588.
6 Birch, “John Ruskin.”
8 Holly Flora and Soo Yun Kang, This Anguished World of Shadows: Georges Rouault’s Miserere Et Guerre (New York: Museum of Biblical Art, 2006), 17.
9 Ibid., 16.
10 Ibid., 9.
11 Ibid., 16.