RUNNING WITH LIONS:The Enigma of “The Idiot”

For all of them Henri Rousseau was the “venerable child” of art, the great primitive who lived and worked beyond the reach of damaging speculation and sophistication, at one with himself, original, as nature had made him. Conscious, deliberate action was seen as a negative ingredient of culture, and Rousseau was quickly acclaimed as the unconscious ar-tist. But was that really the case?…

“Soyez muette pour moi, Idole contemplative…”

I came home and found a lion in my living room
Rushed out on the fire escape screaming Lion! Lion!
Two stenographers pulled their brunnette hair and banged the window shut
I hurried home to Patterson and stayed two days

Called up old Reichian analyst
who’d kicked me out of therapy for smoking marijuana
‘It’s happened’ I panted ‘There’s a Lion in my living room’
‘I’m afraid any discussion would have no value’ he hung up …( Allen Ginsberg, The Lion for Real , Paris 1958)

The portraits that Henri Rousseau exhibited from 1889 in the Salon des Independants were usually commissioned and they were usually misunderstood - often, indeed, violently rejected. The portrait-landscape Boy on the Rocks was labelled by the press the "Dwarf with the Enormous Head" and established the painter's reputation as a freak. It sometimes happened that people from his own quarter who freak. It sometimes happened that people from his own quarter who asked him to paint themselves or their children rejected the result or pernaps destroyed it.

After Toulouse-Lautrec successfully defended Henri Rousseau, trhe avant-garde began to pay attention to his work; he began to emerge from the shadows after taking a lacerating from critics and public: he seemed to be the sacrificial offering of modern art. In addition, the “farceur” Alfred Jarry, like Rousseau, another “Mad man from Laval” , became the first literary figure to recognize his extraordinary talent. Jarry, the image of the bohemian poet with his rock-star length hair and drooping mustache, publicized the old toll-collector’s work, and introduced him into Paris intellectual society.

From now on, it was impossible not to name drop. Rousseau was seen at the Sunday name gatherings at Gauguin’s studio, playing a short concert on his fiddle or informing Degas that he will help him with his “artistic connections.” Anecdotes about Rousseau’s naiveté began to multiply as the years went by; even in his lifetime a considerable legend had formed around the Douanier- the title conferred upon him by his new friends was part of it.

Muse Inspiring the Poet. 1909. "This, at least, is the story told by Andre Salmon and by Guillaume Apollinaire who, as late as 1906, saw the remains of "a most impressive head". Apollinaire made the acquaintance of the Douanier in 1906 through Jarry, and like him he was confronted with an unusual way of working when he sat for his spectacular double portrait. Rousseau is said to have taken the exact measurements of his model's face and body in order to transfer them, reduced in size but proportionally exact, to the canvas. Moreover, he allegedly held his tubes of paint up to the sitter's face in order to find "the precise tone of the flesh". The reports of the two subversive poets delight in the fame of the ridiculous painter, who in their eyes was a simpleton with a touching desire to imitate nature but whose bureaucratic pursuit of detail barred the way to an overall impression."

…Confused dazed and exalted bethought me of real lion starved in his stink

in Harlem

Opened the door the room was filled with the bomb blast of his anger
He roaring hungrily at the plaster walls but nobody could hear outside
thru the window
My eye caught the edge of the red neighbor apartment building standing in
deafening stillness
We gazed at each other his implacable yellow eye in the red halo of fur
Waxed r

y on my own but he stopped roaring and bared a fang
greeting. … ( Ginsberg )

Rousseau was a natural victim; the pranks played on him were much celebrated. Once, a group of art students sent a man made up to look like the renowned academic painter Puvis de Chavannes to visit him. Rousseau never thought twice about the identity of his guest: “I was expecting you,” he said.

Child with Doll. 1905. "There is something particularly entertaining in the logic of the absurd, which all parties had in common. For Rousseau, a human being was a concrete object that could be reconstructed in the same manner as a piece of furniture, so that the surface of the painting becomes a technical designer's projection screen. For Jarry, the picture that came about in this way was merely created matter and therefore a fit object of attack. "

More and more, the Douanier would have the last laugh. Malraux puts it so movingly: “Those… who thought they were making of him a figure of fun were to hear long after his death, sounding in their ears, the waltzes played to them by the ghost of one they could never forget. …It was only in the manner of Dostoevski’s “Idiot” that the name fitted this man of genius. “There is a terrible power in humility.'”

Maybe Rousseau did see the world through the eyes of a child. Maybe he did have delusions about his own worth- but do they seem farfetched now? Maybe he was a bi of a simpleton- though he was also cannier than his detractors would like to make out. Maybe- and this is the most common charge- he was a primitive. His drawing was amateurish. His handling of linear perspective was at best rudimentary. He has the primitive’s characteristic fascination with the particular. Maybe he can be dismissed as just a frustrated academic.

"To fete Baby! seems to be the artist's own testimony with regard to himself. Oneness with nature, safety, security are its themes. The marionette, symbol of mechanisation and alienation, is not yet in control of this unblemished paradise. Perhaps this harlequin with his huge moustache is really Rousseau? A jolly toy in the hands of the child that he still is? It would be a plausible statement on the part of the artist who took refuge throughout his life in a kind of commedia dell'arte, who disguised himself behind Pierrot's mask as early as 1886 and then pleaded exonerating naivete on various later occasions. With a good measure of self-awareness he wrote to the judge on 6.12.1907, in an attempt to plead innocence in the bank fraud trial: "In all my works people find a remarkable upright quality, which I have endeavoured to sustain in all I have done. It is often said that my heart is too open for my own good..." And on 13th December he drew attention to his fundamental honesty: "If by the way I had acted differently I could not have developed the natural intuition which even my parents overlooked."

…He didn’t eat me, tho I regretted him starving in my presence.
Next week he wasted away a sick rug full of bones wheaten hair falling out
enraged and reddening eye as he lay aching huge hairy head on his paws
by the egg-crate bookcase filled up with thin volumes of Plato, & Buddha.

Sat by his side every night averting my eyes from his hungry motheaten
stopped eating myself he got weaker and roared at night while I had
Eaten by lion in bookstore on Cosmic Campus, a lion myself starved by
Professor Kandisky, dying in a lion’s flophouse circus,
I woke up mornings the lion still added dying on the floor–‘Terrible
Presence!’I cried’Eat me or die!’ … ( Ginsberg)

Rousseau. The Hungry Lion.---All those who in the wake of Jean-Jacques Rousseau took "back to nature" as their slogan demanded also a return to childhood. Rational philosophy was ana-thema to them, they went back to the beginning in their search for wholeness. In his defence of dandyism Barbey d'Aurevilly wrote: "Like the tortoise the poet carries his house on his back, and this house is the very first castle of his dreams." It was poets, artists and aesthetes such as Alfred Jarry, Guillaume Apollinaire, Odilon Redon, Robert Delaunay, Vassily Kandinsky and Wilhelm Uhde, who, weary of traditional school models, established the fame of the Douanier. ---

Maybe. But should intent be confused with actual execution? It is a trap that too many of his critics have fallen into. In fact, Rousseau could be a painstaking craftsman; for all his limitations, he had precise and exacting ideas about the handling of form and space and color. Can a conscious stylist ever be a true primitive? The question could be argued indefinitely. But there is no doubt that- and again we turn to Malraux- “The Douanier’s best canvases are the work of a great colorist. …Sometimes, when reproduced in black and white, his pictures may be confused with naive art; but never, when we see the pictures themselves. ” His paintings demonstrate, as few others do so vividly, the transfiguring quality of paint. Picasso put it simply: “Rousseau is not an accident.”

Rousseau. Self Portrait with a Lamp. 1903. "The small Portrait of the Artist, which was painted around 1900, reveals something of his image-conscious personality. With black lacquered hair, precisely twirled moustaches and well-cut dinner jacket, he assumes his position as stalwart man of honour and energy. Although he chooses a modest format for the picture, yet the smallest detail of his face and the severe black-and-white of his evening dress express the full quantum of self-assertion. This is the proud representative of the Third Estate, the roguish bohemian and serious artist, who distributes visiting cards with the imprint "fine art painter", who geves private painting and violin lessons to the people of his neighbourhood and , from 1902, teaches for the Association Philotechnique. Not without reason did the artists of the "Blaue Reiter" attach importance to this self-portrait. At Christmas, 1911, Franz Marc gave Wassily Kandinsky a mirror-image replica in verre eglomise, which gave the "painter with the sacred heart" flower and halo. Not without reason did Max Beckmann refer to Rousseau in his famous Self-Portrait in Dinner Jacket of 1927 as the "Homer in the Porter's Lodge" who could both portray and transcend the petit bourgeois world."

The belief that a likeness could be built up from measurements, like the photo-kit reconstruction of a wanted person, resulted in an unusual style of portraiture. The basic scheme is provided by the pictures of children. The figure faces the front and is fixed in position by a precise outline, always sketched in first. Since the face comes at the beginning and holds most meaning, relatively little room is left beneath the “Japanesque” head for the body. Details such as hands, accompanying objects, the pattern of a dress, legs, are compressed. Since Rousseau constructed the figure additively and without regard to perspective foreshortening, it turns out in segments like the pieces of a puzzle; the simple fields of colour cause the flesh tints to hover in front of the black and behind the red. This deformation arose from deficient technique, yet it is so clearly defined that in the most astonishing way it anticipates Cubism. The figure becomes a multi-layered structure, resulting not in likenesses of the known but in art shapes, precursors of Chirico’s articulated dolls which confront the observer like rigid, iconic masks. The collage-style landscape, too, “cut and pasted” during the second phase, is fictitious in content.

Every model who sat for Rousseau was disturbed by his preoccupation with planes and detail. Whether he was painting a leaf, the arch of a bridge or a human being, he always contradicted intuitively the reality people knew, and arrived at magic formulas stylistically modern in spirit. Fundamental to the magic of the portraits is that the “things” conjured might well have come from a puppet theatre, and yet they catch the essence of the subject’s world.

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