Letters to André Suarès
Rouault 'Portrait Intime' de André Suarès' lithograph 1926
Rouault collaborated with the writer André Suarès, on Vollard’s publications ‘Cirque’ and ‘Passion’. Their thirty-seven year friendship was one of deep artistic, spiritual kinship. These few extracts from their correspondence reveal the strength and solace Rouault drew, in the face of continuing isolation and rejection, from their friendship.
16.7.1911 [among the first letters].
Let me confess, your letter gave me great pleasure and I would be glad if you would kindly let me know when I could come and see you…..I am rarely free during the day but in the evening after dinner I feel a great need to relax from time to time…
Life is an overwhelmingly powerful and strong experience provided that one can extract from it the creative energy which expands the mind and heart….I have started out on this path and cannot now go back….I had to depend on myself alone and sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why is there so much effort, so much resistance and sacrifice around me…?’
When I was a small child, a face or a landscape aroused a whole world in me…..I could not stop myself from dreaming of it or of living through its memory…I have continued to be the same child by trying with my own resources , clumsy if you like, to express my emotion.
I am at present reading Crime & Punishment by Dostoyevsky with great reverence. Yes, despite my failings I feel and discover every moment new beauties, and what beauty, unknown and wonderful…..in the midst of the most tragic and sordid realities transfigured by genius…..
You love art and above all you are able to love…..The fear of love is the plague, the end of the world. Everyone is afraid of love; from the top to the bottom of the social scale. People would like to be happy, to seek pleasure, but without having to suffer. What miserable, unhappy fools and above all how sick…..Even the beast in man let loose is more interesting than the mass of all those unhappy people castrated of feeling. Everything strong, troubles and alarms them… I am gradually getting used to my solitary life…..I can accept the fact that I am not appreciated, with serenity. People admire success above all, without understanding the least thing about it; I confess that I admire the instinct of the man who passing in front of a poor sketch of mine said: ‘this is beautiful because it is ugly’. Obviously that is all right as far as it goes, but it may be as well not to insist too much on the pilgrim’s further explanation.
There is no inner life anymore, there is no constant effort voluntarily followed up, or at least there is less and less of it.
I do not know why I am writing to you or rather I do not know the cause unless it is that you might say a strong and comforting word to me in my agony.
My father died on Monday, but today I do not fight against death anymore which I did not know to be so near. And here I am lost in the midst of a dark night like a little child…..I imagined myself strong but here I am cast down and crushed. Never did I discuss my feelings for art with my father…..he never talked about it and I have a strong feeling that he never understood what I was doing….but such hidden and tender threads between us have just broken. This poor man without education as people say had such humility, such gentleness, such kindness in his last moments that I cannot find words to say what I felt.
I had the impression I was discovering a wonderful work of art unknown and not understood. This silent man and simple all his life, even uncommunicative, opened up at the moment of death; he was like a child…..
I have a horrible sensation inside me that as soon as I throw myself back into art I reduce my family to tears and suffering; and I know that if I satisfy my conscience as an artist, others will have to pay for my joys…I have a strong feeling (excuse my boldness) that I have found a brother in art….it has nothing to do with either your gifts or mine….I may never bring to fruition all that I have in me as you have done so completely: it is a question of the nature of your intellect. I shall never have your gifts, nor your culture, nor your judgement, nor your refinement, but I love my art as much as I ever loved my father….and without wanting to appear conceited, I see fewer and fewer artists who love their art very profoundly; and this produces in me as profound a sadness as that which I experienced upon seeing death in my father’s eyes.
And in response to Suares’s letter of condolence:
I was very touched by your letter. Yes, certainly in spite of the reservation I previously made concerning communion with my father in art, there was (how mysterious this all is) another still higher communion….a worker in the holy craft which is art, as you so rightly say…An old craftsman like my father* was troubled and said, quite seriously when he saw my mother or my aunts open a drawer brusquely and force it back into its place: ‘Oh these women! They do not realise that ‘they make the wood suffer’. That may sound ridiculous to some people but not to me.
My father was a man of few words and when I say in my assessment of him ‘He did not talk about it and I have the strong feeling that he never understood what I was doing’, my judgement is blind and unsound. What do we really know of what is going on in the head and heart of the simple who express themselves neither in theories nor in eloquent dissertations?
* Rouault’s father was a cabinet maker
I know my limitations better than to be tempted to go beyond them. It does not worry me, but I know the domain where I must live, as far as we are able to know anything. One must pay for everything….and for ten years I refused all distraction, all external pleasures (or what the world calls pleasure), journeys to Holland, to Flanders, to Italy graciously offered, but where I would have felt no communion with the people involved. I have that other joy: that I am alone….I know that I breathe pure air, and that my suffering will soon be transformed into creative joy, in spite of difficulties which more than once I thought would crush me.
During these last fifteen years, many of my colleagues have become established and settled. I seem merely to have strayed. To know yourself, not through discussion, analysis and verbiage, but through suffering and in suffering, to know yourself through living and in living, far from snobbery and the contrived, but through seeking the truth with the effort of our whole being.
To measure oneself; to know how to stretch and also how to relax; to be master of one’s imagination, of one’s nerves, of the excitement of one’s blood, one’s mad rages and one’s holy anger on account of the Injustice which rules the world, or at other times to let them go without apprehension and without fear, knowing that in an instant, one will be able to master them. That is the apprenticeship of life; and art that springs from it will not be castrated.
During the 1970s, I was able to introduce Alice Low-Beer, a dear friend and my most ardent Rouault collector, to Isabelle Rouault. Alice had a home in France and spoke fluent French. I suggested she might make the first English translation of Rouault’s correspondence with Suarès.
Already in her seventies, she leapt at the idea, dedicating herself wholeheartedly to this important project. The above is based on her translation, published by Arthur Stockwell in 1983.
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