Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris


At long last I made it to see Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris, the travelling exhibition of Rousseau's paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Way back in February, I think it was, I read about the show and printed out a page on it so I'd remember to go after it opened in July. It was only six months away; still, at the time it might as well have been opening in 2050. The summer was as far off as the next flyby of Halley's Comet. But somehow the six months got behind me and then another couple of months slipped in there and my wife, bless her heart, realized if we didn't get down to DC this weekend we'd never see the show. And she knows, of course, that Rousseau is my favoritest painter, so she put it together and we drove down Sunday morning.

There are a number of rational reasons why I might feel an affinity for Henri Rousseau. He was a "weekend painter" until he retired from his day job at the age of 49. He was completely untrained and taught himself everything he knew about art. Before becoming a full-time artist, Henri had worked at quite possibly the most boring job in the history of bureaucracy, as a customs clerk, checking people's baggage at the border of France to make sure they paid taxes on anything they brought in to the country. He never travelled anywhere. His work would probably be unknown today but for the championship of Pablo Picasso, who told everyone he could about Rousseau's paintings and held parties in his honor. Looking back, it seems like maybe Picasso considered his support of Rousseau to be one of his jokes on the art establishment. If so, it's likely that Rousseau didn't get it. He was too busy -- along with paintings he also composed music and wrote stage plays which were never performed.

So from his biography alone, I love poor Henri. He gives me hope, since I'm a latecoming, self-taught artist, working as a computer programmer, quite possibly the most boring job in the history of the modern corporation.

Then there are a number of rational reasons why I might not like Henri Rousseau's work. I'll admit this: Rousseau's a terrible painter. Technically speaking, his work is a disaster. He has no grasp of perspective, no clear concept of human anatomy, no sense of composition. His coloring is childlike. He makes so many elementary mistakes in drawing it'd give an academic the willies. His paintings cry out for some professional guidance. One copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain would've worked wonders for the guy.

But my love for the paintings of Henri Rousseau isn't rational at all. My love is based entirely on standing in front of the paintings and feeling. I was working at yet another thankless, pointless computer job in midtown Manhattan. My life had beaten me down. I could barely walk. And one day during lunch I stopped in the Museum of Modern Art. I wandered aimlessly past any number of paintings barely even registering them. And then there was Rousseau. I stood in front of it, then sat. My whole world fell into that painting. Everything dropped away.

I can't explain my love for Henri Rousseau because it can't be explained. It's beyond analysis. I knew nothing of Rousseau's biography that day in MoMA; I didn't examine the painting closely enough to note its flaws. The painting, in some way, bypassed the thinking parts of my brain -- it reached through my eyes and down into some deeper place and found something past thought and language, past where I make decisions and debate ideas. I can't explain my love, or defend it, or even place bounds on it. The more I try to put my hands around it, the more it slips away.

I'm not even sure which Rousseau it was that affected me this way. Was it The Dream? The Sleeping Gypsy? When I went back years later, The Sleeping Gypsy was in the place where I'd had my epiphany, but I strongly recall leaves. It was probably The Dream. I was honestly so affected I almost fainted, so forgive me for forgetting exactly which painting it was.

The only thing disappointing about Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris is that The Sleeping Gypsy isn't in it. Every other major painting you might want from Henri is there, in addition to a lot of his lesser paintings. In fact one of the things that's really fantastic about this retrospective is you can see Henri start out attempting to be a real academic painter and failing miserably. He just has no idea what he's doing. Then, over time, you can watch as he tries harder and harder to reach his goal, until ultimately it appears he just gives up. Then he wanders off in his own direction, giving free rein to his inutition, and the farther he gets from academic painting the better he gets. Eventually his paintings have almost no connection to reality: Rousseau has no clue what a lion looks like. He's got monkeys using fishing poles. He's got an American Indian fighting a gorilla in a jungle. Jungle cats have six claws on each foot. And throughout all of it, Rousseau is lavishing his attention on the flora which is ostensibly the background. I can't tell if he loved painting plants or if he found himself in the middle of painting the plants thinking, "Damn! One more leaf and I'm going to kill someone!" But it's clear the leaves are what the paintings are about, whether he knew it or not.

The exhibition text talks about Rousseau's "unsettling" juxtapositions and "jarring" changes in scale and perspective. Maybe if you stretch you can see those things, if you feel you need to. I see a painter with no observational skills and no technique whatsoever. He's not trying to make that kid on the rocks look like a petulant giant. He's just incompetent.

The amazing thing is, his technical competence doesn't matter. When he lets loose on some totally fantastic subject, his enthusiasm, his spirit, his amazement at being alive all come through. Rousseau's cartoon moon shines down on all of us while we sleep and dream of life.

There really isn't anything else in the modern wing of the National Gallery to compare with Rousseau. An entire room full of Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross has less energy, less life, than one square inch of any given Rousseau. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote of Rabo Karabekian in Bluebeard, if you took any given painter's works and displayed them so they'd all focus their energy on a single point, and then you stood at that point, for most painters you'd feel nothing. But Henri Rousseau -- well, he might just knock you over.


Ok so I stop checking in on you and even ask you where the heck you've been and in the meantime you go and post an entry. Typical.While Rousseau doesn't affect me quite the same way that he does you, I have always loved his work. It's the best feeling when an artist doesn't necessarily have great technical skill but the work still gets you in the heart. And while I love how he depicted the leaves as well, I have to wonder a bit about his sanity. When I do foliage, I go mental if I try to detail even one leave let alone a tree full.

leaf, duh!

Tracy sez:Ok so I stop checking in on you and even ask you where the heck you've been and in the meantime you go and post an entry. Typical.That's just me.I've been a lot more consistent with this blog than I thought I'd be. I've got about 100,000 words with an average of one post a week since I started. That means I've got a good-sized book already. I was sure I'd have given up by now.I've been slow to get posts up lately because I'm working during the day and I don't have the facilities for doing the usual images and stuff. Also, I imagine my employer would frown upon paying me by the hour to write on my blog.

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