It’s been said, oversimplistically but sympathetically, that “he didn’t know the rules well enough to break them”. But of course there are no rules in the kingdom of the imagination.He knew he was a babe in the woods of high art but sought to exploit his very naivete, and gradually, splitting open rules like coconuts, he stumbled on to a whole new way of looking at things. Henri Rousseau, “the very-good-very-bad painter”, remains enigmatic nearly a century after his death….
The myth of Exoticism captivated the minds of many avant-garde artists and writers as the 19th century drew to a close. It represented an escape from bourgeois society, with its declining spiritual values, and an urge to travel to distant lands uncontaminated by progress in order to pursue a more natural, “savage” lifestyle. Following in the wake of Gauguin’s move to Tahiti, Kandinsky travelled around north Africa, Nolde sailed to New Guinea, Pechstein explored China, and Klee and Macke spent time in Tunisia.
The French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) pursued this same ideal in his quest to capture a spirit of innocence. While still very much rooted in French city life, and for many-years a conventional man, he nevertheless projected images of an exotic world of magic and freshness. Known as “Le Douanier” because he worked for the Paris customs service until 1893, he was an untrained painter. However, amid much criticism and controversy, the exclusive intellectual elite of late 19th-century Paris at the end of the century claimed to understand the “hedonistic mystifications” of symbolism in his work. ( Cornelia Stabenow )
We shall probably never know exactly when or why or under what circumstances this unsophisticated and relatively uneducated man, whose life to the age of forty had been so humdrum; felt impelled to take up painting. The answers might resolve many of the contradictions about Rousseau’s isolated and enigmatic genius. Presumably, his interest began as a hobby sometime during the late 1870’s. Rousseau taught himself to paint- as he said, “alone and without any master but nature.”
As the obsession took hold, Rousseau began to sneak off to paint during his working hours. The suburbs of Paris, where he was stationed, were still rural then- goats and cows grazed on the slopes of Montmartre, for that matter, and it seems a safe enough guess that many of his early scenes of Seine quays and outlying villages were done on stolen time. He did not retire from the toll service until 1893. One early painting, “The Tollhouse” ( 1890) , stands as a monument to his bureaucratic career and his dreamy estrangement from it. The iron gate with its spiked top, the lampposts, the high brick walls- so far the painting adheres to the actual place as we know it from photographs.
“Almost everything about them is a fanciful concoction, whether he was painting jungles of plants and trees that barely belong in the same hemispheres, let alone latitudes or climate, or scenes of suburban Paris which, although sometimes begun as faithful topography, took on an aspect entirely derived from the artist’s imagination. He is regarded as a kind of collagist – equally happy cribbing a tiger’s pose from Delacroix or a lion from an illustration in Le Petit Journal, for which he briefly worked as a sales representative. Academic sculptures, postcards, a book of wildlife pictures and his lone expeditions to the Jardin des Plantes provided his material.” ( Adrian Searle )
But Rousseau has replaced dreary proletarian suburbs with a background of wooded hills. What is the odd figure on the top of the wall looking at? Why is he on top of the wall? Wheres the gate lead? The tollhouse has been transported into the landscape of hallucination.
Rousseau first attempted to exhibit two of his paintings at the official Salon des Champs-Elyséées in 1885. One was slashed by a penknife, and they were removed. So it happened that Rousseau, whose naive ideal was the “truth” of the camera and who wanted nothing more than to be accepted by the academicians, had to cast his lot, “faute de mieux” , with the avant-garde. For it was at this time that other refusé, refused artists, such as Seurat, Signac,and Redon founded the Société des Artistes Indépendants, whose membership was open to all. Its first major exhibition was held in 1886; Rousseau showed up, pushing four canvases through the streets in a handcart. One of them was “Carnival Evening” . Along with Seurat’s “La Grande Jatte” , also exhibited at the Indépendents that year, it has become one of the standard masterpieces of modern art.
Year after year he continued to exhibit at the Indépendents. After his wife died in 1888, he immersed himself in his art. But it was another five years before he could bring himself to leave the “Octroi”. The decision could not have been easy; his pension of fifty francs per month was barely enough to keep him alive. We have only glimpses of Rousseau in the next decade, and the reason is understandable. Who bothers recording the days of a pensioner? History has no place for its “refusés”.
He was seen painting shop signs or playing his violin at public concerts in the Tuileries Gardens. For a few years he taught music and drawing at a philanthropically sponsored night school- but without pay. In really hard times he went on the street and played for a few sous. Occasionally, he received a commission from someone in the neighborhood to paint a portrait. He exchanged canvases for laundry and groceries. But through it all he continued to work. He was possessed of a fortitude amounting to madness.
Every moment counted; he slept in his clothes to save time. Only in 1889 and 1900 did he fail to exhibit. This gap may be somehow connected with his second marriage in 1899; at any event, there is an indication of some sort of upheaval, personal or financial, that kept him from painting. After little more than three years, his new wife died of cancer and he was alone again.
In spite of the hardships, it had been a remarkable decade of production. Many of Rousseau’s best paintings come out of these years, and the scope of their subject matter is breathtaking. These include “Storm in the Forset” , with its tiger skulking through a rain-swept jungle; the first of his exotic paintings and one of the most beautifully composed. There are the first of his “portrait landscapes” of which he proclaimed, “I am the inventor” . These are characterized by their stylized and often crude depictions of the human face that have been much criticized.
But Rousseau’s portraits were less psychological studies than records of events in which detail of the scene identify character. And, above all, we have his riddle of riddles, “The Sleeping Gypsy” ( 1897) . Why the lion? Why the woman sleeping in the desert? The interpretation of Jean Cocteau is tempting: “Perhaps, in fact, the lion and this river are the dream of the sleeper… it is probably unintentional that the painter, who never forgot a detail, has put no imprints in the sand around those sleeping feet. The gypsy did not come there. She is there. She is not there. She is in no human place…”
Rousseau would use the device again. It was, of course, the idea behind the last and most famous jungle painting, “The Dream” ( 1910). As he explained it: “This woman asleep on the couch dreams that she has been transported into the forest, listening to the sounds of the enchanter’s instrument. This is the reason why the couch is in the picture.” For his surrealist descendants, the couch in the jungle would become the couch of Freud.
At the 1897 salon of the Indépendants, “The Sleeping Gypsy” became, as one witness remembered, “the target of the Show.” As his paintings began to draw more notice, Rousseau took a lacerating punishment from critics and the public alike: “Monsier Rousseau paints with his feet with his eyes closed.” He was the “annual aberration” of the Indépendants” , the scarificial offering of modern art.
At last, even the Indépendants debated excluding Rousseau, and it was Toulouse-Lautrec who successfully defended him. The avante-garde were beginning to pay attention to his work. This association is the singular fact of his last years; it is through the artists and writers who came to know him that he begins to emerge from the shadows. The “farceur” Alfred Jarry, who was also born in Laval, was the first to recognize his extraordinary talent. Barely twenty, Jarry had just arrived in Paris, and he briefly lived near Rousseau in 1893; one supposes that their common background and Rousseau’s local notoriety brought them together. Jarry, the image of the bohemian poet with his shoulder length hair and drooping mustache, publicized the old “gabelou’s” work, most notably “War” , and introduced him into Paris intellectual society.
Rousseau walks on trumpet paths
Safaris to the heart of all that jazz
Through I-bars and girders, through wires and pipes
The mathematic circuits of the modern nights
Through huts through Harlem through jails and gospel pews
Through the class on Park and the trash on Vine
Through Europe and the deep deep heart of Dixie blue
Through savage progress cuts the jungle line
In a low-cut blouse she brings the beer
Rousseau paints a jungle flower behind her ear
Those cannibals of shuck and jive
They’ll eat a working girl like her alive
With his hard-edged eye and his steady hand
He paints the cellar full of ferns and orchid vines
And he hangs a moon above a five-piece band
He hangs it up above the jungle line… ( Joni Mitchell. The Jungle Line )