By Dr. Marcia Rickard, Professor Emerita, Saint Mary's College
Jean Charlot’s career spanned much of the 20th century and many of its artistic controversies. As a figurative artist, his work was eclipsed by the critical attention placed on abstraction, yet he found markets for his prolific output. As an artist drawn to indigenous peoples through his family heritage and working in the dynamic environments of Mexico after the Revolution and later in Hawaii, he was far ahead of Post-Modernist concerns of “The Other.” As a printmaker and muralist he was committed to the accessibility of his art to all its viewers. However, one aspect of his work has yet to be featured in any exhibition—his religious and liturgical art.
Jean Charlot (1898-1979) was a devout Roman Catholic, a man whose faith took root in early 20th century France at a time when the Modernist Movement in Catholic theology was raging around him. As a young art student, he admired the painting of Maurice Denis, and joined with fellow students to create the Gilde Notre Dame, a group modeled on Denis’s own organization, Ateliers d’art sacre. Both were dedicated to producing new religious and liturgical art at a time when they saw contemporary church art as dryly traditional and uninspiring.
Following his years in the French army of WWI, his first effort at establishing his career as a muralist in France was an unrealized design for a church in a Paris suburb. It never materialized, and his disappointment led him to go to Mexico in 1920, just at the moment when the newly independent government sought to document its history on the walls of public buildings in the capital.
Charlot was at the center of the Mexican Muralist movement. While Charlot never partook of the Marxist fervor of Rivera or Siqueros, he shared with them a deep and abiding respect for the common people. After he and Orozco came to the United States in the 1920s, they would continue a long correspondence in which their mutual belief in the Roman Catholic faith was evident.Within months of his arrival in the United States, he met Paul Claudel, French ambassador to the US and internationally prominent writer of plays and poetry. They collaborated on several projects in which Charlot illustrated the English translation of Claudel’s plays, and a huge project which was only partially realized—a commentary on the Apocalypse for which Charlot executed over 300 drawings. They are a fascinating vision of a contemporary world mired in the politics between two world wars seen through the lens of St. John, Paul Claudel, and Jean Charlot. But Charlot’s vision was never so pessimistic as Claudel’s, and he was able to produce remarkable religious imagery which was far more uplifting.
Maurice Denis, Self portrait
Jose Clemente Orozco
The theme of the Stations of the Cross recurs repeatedly in his work. In the 1930s he created 14 canvases on the theme in oil which drew upon imagery from Mexico to people the dramas. ND sought to buy a few of them in the 1950s when he was teaching summer courses in fresco, but he wouldn’t divide the set, and he wanted them to be in a parish church. They are now stowed in an organ loft in Illinois. There are additional painted sets still in situ at St. Silvestre’s in Kuaui, Hawaii, and multiple examples of the Stations of the cross in his oeuvre from early to late prints. The prints could certainly be a part of an exhibition of liturgical art and would be easily transported.
The Way of the Cross, Jean Charlot