A Preference for the Primitive
Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris at Tate Modern
The following article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.
“Loony! He’s a loony! Don’t you think he’s a loony?’
The oldish woman who said this to me at the press view of Jungles in Paris, the current Henri Rousseau exhibition at Tate Modern, hissed her words at me conspiratorially, as if imparting a momentous secret. My response was the conventional one. “Oh, um, absolutely,” I said, backing away slowly whilst maintaining eye contact — and not just because talking to strangers at press views isn’t really a sign of robust mental health, either. Ever since Hitler’s entartete Kunst exhibition, attacking art one doesn’t really like or understand by labelling its creator a nutcase has become a big professional no-no. Put bluntly, it tends to make one look like a Nazi. And since I harbour no desire to become the Louis Thoreaux of Tate Modern’s darker corners, I made my excuses and moved on to the next room, leaving the old lady mumbling quietly to herself amid her penumbra of overstuffed carrier-bags.
For what it’s worth, then, I am pretty sure that Rousseau was no madman. Certainly the story of his life speaks less of mental illness than of serial underachievement, leavened with a fair amount of deceit, squalor, self-pity and laziness — and then dusted with good luck and perhaps the tiniest hint of brilliance.
Rousseau was born in 1844 in Laval, a small market town in north-west France, where his father worked as an ironmonger. He attended the local school where, unlike many of his petit-bourgeois contemporaries, he remained until the mature age of 17. He then proceeded to get himself into a series of messes. A job with a local solicitor’s firm ended when it was discovered that he’d stolen a small sum of money from his employer; he joined the army, seeking to avoid a prison sentence, but ended up spending a month in prison all thsame. Despite what he was to claim later, he never in fact went to Mexico with his regiment. By 1868 he had moved to Paris. Here he got a job working as a clerk in a customs-house, hence his eventual nickname Le Douanier. He married and his family grew. Briefly, he seemed to have made a life for himself that was more or less respectable. So far, so dull.
By his late 40s, though, Rousseau started painting, not professionally but in an unremarkable, Sunday painter sort of way. The hows and whys of this remain obscure, although we do know that by 1884 he’d obtained a permit allowing him to copy pictures in the Louvre. Soon thereafter, although his work was rejected by the official Salon, he was allowed exhibit at the ‘Salon des Independants’. This wasn’t the end to his cultural ambitions, either, as he also wrote several unsuccessful play, gave music lessons and seemed to enjoy hovering on the edges of literary and artistic circles. In 1893, with his first wife dead, six of his seven children dead in infancy, and the remaining child packed off to an orphanage, he gave up the day job and took up painting full time. At a practical level, the decision was spectacularly unsuccessful. Before long he was running up debts, failing to win commissions or to secure official patronage. An attempted bank fraud soon had him back in prison. Freed, he was rejected in his efforts to seduce a middle-aged shop assistant with whom he’d fallen in love. He died in 1910, aged 66, of an infected leg wound. Only a few weeks later, the first Rousseau exhibition opened in New York, organised by Max Weber. The translation from laughable failure to misunderstood genius was well underway.
But could he paint?
Yet in a sense, we all knew the story would end, because in our own times Rousseau is a very well-known, even popular artist — the sort of figure, in fact, who merits major exhibitions at Tate Modern. The present exhibition takes Rousseau’s greatness as read, and it is probably right to do so. If nothing else, Rousseau created a set of images which are not only instantly recognisable, but which could be the product of no one but the artist himself. Say ‘Rousseau’ in the context of visual art, and except for the tiny elite whose thoughts turn instantly to the obvious other Rousseau, or even the less obvious other Rousseau, there it is — the image of that tiger leaping through the undergrowth as lightning flickers fitfully above, or perhaps one of the other jungle scenes, or even that dark-skinned gypsy sleeping by his mandolin, untroubled by the nuzzling curiosity of the nearby, benevolent lion.
Rousseau, in short, has made as much of an impact below the middle-brow snowline as he has above it. The dissemination of these images is the stuff of posters on the walls of undergraduate rooms, advertisements, album sleeves, carrier-bags and sofa cushions — indeed, because their success depends mostly on outline and pattern and not at all on painterly effects, they reproduce extraordinarily well. In a sense there’s nothing surprising about this. Rousseau’s most successful images are, as we shall see, largely harvested from popular culture, albeit the popular culture of our great-grandparents’ day, and it may be this, perversely, rather than any imagined ‘freshness’ or ‘innocence’ that gives them their easy accessibility. But anyway, there they are — once seen, hard to forget. For many, they seem less dated than Degas’ graceful dancers, and easier to love than Cezanne’s grave geometries. There is greatness of a sort in all of that.
Those who like their art famous, then, will be reassured to discover that the present exhibition at Tate Modern not only opens with Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) but also includes The Snake Charmer (from the Musee d’Orsay, Paris) and The Dream (the Museum of Metropolitan Art, New York), if not The Sleeping Gypsy. This is the Rousseau that everyone knows and expects. The real surprise, though, for many, will be the other paintings that make up the fifty-odd works on show. They show what Rousseau was doing when he wasn’t concocting imaginary jungles and their dreamily improbable occupants. They bring us closer to the late nineteenth century Parisian petty bureaucrat who read illustrated magazines and attended popular exhibitions, who hoped to secure official commissions to design murals in town halls, who strolled through the great parks and boulevards of the metropolis, who was marked by the poisoned politics of his age and also by its expansive and increasingly complex popular culture.
But they also remind us of something else, or demonstrate it to us if we didn’t know it already. Yes, Rousseau’s strongest images are powerful ones. It’s no great wonder that artists and critics including Alfred Jarry, Picasso, Apollinaire, Leger, Magritte and Max Ernst were all, in their various ways, drawn to them. But on those occasions, and there were many of them, where he didn’t somehow stumble onto something apparently inspired, his work is often awful — inept, fussy, repetitive, even boring. And that, then, is the paradox that animates Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris. While Rousseau was arguably have been an artist of some importance, he was a pretty hopeless painter.
Who are you calling naïve?
For many of Rousseau’s admirers, the ineptitude was precisely the point. It was the charm, the genius, the virtue of his lifetime achievement. Rousseau was perhaps the first painter to build a critical reputation based not on his skill, but rather, on his own supposed naivety.
On one level, he recognised this and even played on it. His art was once produced as evidence in court, entirely successfully, to prove his simplicity and guilelessness. And yet here’s another paradox. While the avant-garde artists who, in every sense of the word, patronised him seem to have viewed him as a sort of urbanised noble savage, as a visual idiot savant, Rousseau apparently thought otherwise. That licence to sketch in the Louvre shows he was no stranger to the conventions of Western art, while the painters he most admired were precisely the sort of Academicians — Cabanel, Bouguereau, Gérôme — against whom his modernist pals were explicitly reacting. Nor was he short of self-assured critical judgements about himself and his peers. Rousseau complained that Cezanne couldn’t draw. Rousseau later announced that he and Picasso were the greatest painters of their day: Rousseau in the modern style, Picasso in the Egyptian one. And a self-portrait in the present exhibition, Myself: Portrait Landscape (1890), could, for all its various deficiencies, scarcely be said to lack an aura of self-importance.
What, then, to make of all this? Ultimately, those who knew him well could never quite decide. Was the innocence genuine or cynical? Was the whole persona of Le Douanier a work of art in itself? Was he an idiot or a genius? Who, ultimately, was being naïve here?
Can’t paint, won’t paint
Of course, ordinary life is one thing, art history another. When it comes to the use of ‘naïve’ as a critical term, Rousseau’s paintings — the bad as much as the good — set the gold standard.
The very ‘badness’ of this art proclaims its freedom from the deadening conventions of the art school and the academy, from the heavy heritage of naturalism, of learned attempts to idealise a subject or to paint realistically. Rousseau’s visual language has a different grammar. Large areas are filled in with pattern or undifferentiated local colour, lending them a flatness that emphasises outline, not on volume. Detail is either eliminated or stylised out of all recognition. Scale has escaped the laws of perspective, handed down from the Renaissance onwards, and instead has everything to do with psychology, or whim, or maybe accident. Nor is there anything painterly about them — no brushstroke capable of giving pleasure, no juxtaposition of tones that makes one’s pulse go a little bit faster — and the unselfconsciousness of this makes them look less like paintings than some artefact created for another purpose entirely. So the result is that fin-de-siecle Paris, in some ways familiar to us through the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, takes on the demotic strangeness of folk art, or of the products of ancient or distant cultures we don’t properly understand, or perhaps even the art of children or of madmen.
From whence, then, did he draw his inspiration? One of the strengths of Tate Modern’s exhibition — and if one accepts that Rousseau is in any sense a significant figure, certainly this exhibition is a strong and important one — is the way in which it both introduces us to the visual culture that surrounded Rousseau, and shows how this fed his own visual vocabulary. On one hand, it provides the source-material for the jungle scenes. Famously, Rousseau had never stood beneath a genuine jungle canopy, nor felt the close and humid breath of a tropical morning. Instead, his jungles were cobbled together out of the entertainments available to a Parisian middle-brow audience trying to work out their feelings about colonial expansion. On show at Tate Modern are illustrated magazines, bits of film, relics of great exhibitions, records of zoological gardens and taxidermied scenes of predatory drama — as well as reminders of what other artists were making of this same source-material. The exhibition handles this material well, and offers up a wealth of it, which tells us something not only about Rousseau’s imaginative resources, but also about the reception of his work. Yes, his paintings were strange — but as their strangeness came straight out of a milieu that was familiar to their initial audience, in some sense they simply entailed the surprising juxtaposition of two known quantities — bad oil-painting and present-day popular culture — rather than anything wholly novel. From pop culture they came, and now, to pop culture they have returned.
The beautiful game?
As with children or indeed madmen, or indeed most people over most of human history — but unlike most of his Parisian contemporaries — Rousseau was less concerned with showing what something actually looks like than with representing it, in the faintly abstract sense in which a pub sign, or a pane of heraldic glass, or indeed one of today’s corporate logos transmits a particular bit of information visually without literally depicting it.
In a painting like The Football Players, for instance, the ground doesn’t recede because it’s enough that it simply represents the stuff on which the players are standing. The stripes on the players’ jerseys curve in a stereotyped, undifferentiated way, signalling fabric covering a three-dimensional form without actually producing a convincing illusion of space. Each leaf in the trees above is enumerated, one by one, meaning that the result looks far more like patterned fabric than anything that ever existed on an actual living branch. The players’ faces are as similar as those of mass-produced dolls. Meanwhile the players are frozen in stances as stylised, if less sturdily timeless, than the friezes on an Assyrian memorial stele, bearing no more obvious relation to their surroundings than cardboard cut-outs would have done. Only in the line of the trees themselves, carving a crudely recessed space out of the picture-plane, is there anything suggesting perspective — and the literalism of this scheme is such that a tall tree in the distance, far above the horizon, signals the ‘vanishing point’! In other words, where Rousseau roguishly introduces a bit of apparent art-world knowledge, he immediately undermines it. And where these games work, they do so largely because we, the viewers, are aware both of the rules and the fact that they are being broken. In this sense, at least, Rousseau was full paid-up modernist.
The good, the bad and the ugly
The paintings, as noted above, don’t always work. There is a very thin line between so-bad-it’s-good and plain old bad, and that line runs right through the middle of Rousseau’s oeuvre.
Wandering through the airy, white-walled, brightly-lit rooms at Tate Modern — and wondering, incidentally, how these works would have fared in the context for which they were painted, which presumably included a lot more patterned wallpaper, gleaming ormolu and overstuffed divans — it becomes clear that few of the canvases would have detained the curators had they been painted by anyone other than the creator of Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!).
As it is, the lesser works come to read like scene-setting background material for the greater ones. I had, for instance, long assumed that the uncomfortable tonal relationships between the greens in Tiger were the result of some sort of deterioration in the paints Rousseau used, whereas the present exhibition proves that Rousseau simply didn’t have much of an eye for tonal values. His paintings of Paris and its suburbs, in particular, combine a banal literal-mindedness with ambiguities stemming from a basic lack of technical ability, rather than anything more exciting. To play games with pictorial conventions is one thing — the result can be quite liberating for a picture or two — but after a few rooms of this stuff, it’s hard not to wish that Rousseau had simply been able to paint a little bit better than he did. Fatally, after a few rooms more, one starts to wonder whether any painter might eventually come up with a ‘masterpiece’ of sorts, given plentiful attempts, famous friends and a shrewd way with PR. Or perhaps he was helped a bit as well by a slightly insane self-confidence that simply blinded him to his own lack of evident merit?
It’s not a very nice thought, that, so I’m glad to be able to say that in front of a few works, anyway, accumulated doubts start to dissipate. Rousseau may be best known for his claustrophobia-inducing jungles, his great slow tropical rivers under sullen skies, his Noah’s Ark-toy wild beast and his enigmatic nudes. Yet the works here that impressed me most were, oddly, his history paintings.
War and peace
It’s worth remembering that Rousseau didn’t, as far as we can tell, see himself as some sort of proto-Surrealist, some poet of an arcane inner truth. He really did want to show at the more established salons, to receive public commissions — and not just because he needed the money, either. The signs are there that he would have loved to have achieved the high respectability of a proper history painter. So perhaps he pushed himself harder with the stronger historical and allegorical works here. The greatest of these is probably War (1894, Musee D’Orsay, Paris), where the crudity of the forms, the lurid colour and Apocalyptic violence deliver a charge of genuine violence that make the efforts of, say, Robert Motherwell, Leon Golub, Anselm Kiefer or the Chapman brothers in this direction look at bit silly and effete. There’s a directness that would, in fact, give Guernica a run for its money. The ugliness of the painting feeds into the ugliness of the theme. Perhaps at the end of the world is this cursory, brutal thing is all the art anyone could manage? Who knows? It is, at any rate, a brilliant thing that gains, as many of Rousseau’s paintings do not, from being examined at first hand, rather than in reproduction. I wish I knew more about what informed this image. Although the generally impressive catalogue features a chapter on this painting, War still raises as many questions as it answers, which is perhaps as it ought to be. The deadly colour, the stumpy forms, the borrowed religious imagery and lack of evident ‘artistry’ all speak for themselves.
The other painting that caught my attention was A Centennial of Independence (1892). It commemorates the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, and Rousseau had hoped to gain a public commission to execute it in some provincial town hall. As some readers may recall, I am not naturally in sympathy with its subject-matter. And yet despite this, there is something strangely compelling about the work. It’s a dream-scene, as far-fetched as any jungle fantasy, where a ring of timeless figures, each wearing the Phrygian cap, dances hand-in-hand under a line of colourful flags, as from the sidelines, a small group of aristocratic bystanders observes impassively the demise of the old order. Here it’s the sheer lack of naturalism that makes it all work. Areas are filled in, as if in a paint-by-numbers set, with local colour, but since Rousseau does not seem to have troubled himself unduly with the relationships between these patches of colour, the juxtapositions range from the sublime to the almost unbearable. This makes it into one of the strangest experiments with colour that I have ever seen. One might like to think that the prettiest thing about the work — the soles of the feet of the dancers — are cribbed from something by Poussin, but it turns out that they come from piece of contemporary commercial art instead. The faces of the figures are delineated much as the faces of badly-painted model soldiers, of the old lead-and-enamel school, might have been. The Liberty Tree is as frondy and flat as a pressed bit of fern. In short, if ever a work tended to undermine its own representational mission, if ever something conceived entirely for other purposes cried to be judged on wholly aesthetic, abstracted grounds, this is it. So, is that a triumph, or a failure, or what? Still the dancers dance, and still the jury is out. All I know is that I could hardly take my eyes off it.
It’s that ‘loony’ question again
And so we return to the old lady in the gallery, with her carrier bags and her accusations of lunacy. At one level, the question she asked was a rhetorical one, and probably deserved a sterner response than I could be bothered to deliver. For to write off visual art on the grounds of madness — as if we could really judge that at such a distance, as if we really could know what was going on in Rousseau’s mind, given that even his closest associates seemed so unsure about this — is as cheap a temptation as writing off art on the basis of any other strand of imputed intentionality.
True, such questions are interesting — but ultimately, not definitive. At the end of the day we are left with the work itself, and what it says to us — along with what we know about it — in the here and now. So if we smile today at a tiger that Rousseau yesterday wished to look ferocious, in the same way we might admire what was once a wonder-working icon for its formal values, or hang on the wall an African tribal mask of huge magical force because it goes well with an existing set of armchairs, then where’s the harm in that? Inanimate objects are, ultimately, ours to do with as we will. That goes for meaning, just as much as it does anything else. Certainly, however hard some may try, it is hard to imagine a realistic alternative.
Yet at the same time, it’s part of the whole mystery of ‘art’ that we want certain styles, certain approaches to encapsulate certain moral qualities. For just as surely as the stupider sort of Nazi, like the stupider sort of Soviet Communist, once viewed the reheated by-products of nineteenth century academic classicism as the acme of artistic achievement, for many of us there’s a countervailing tendency, however unconscious, to find in ‘primitive’ or ‘naïve’ art all sorts of admirable qualities — not least, innocence, directness and honesty. Some feel drawn to what they instinctively read as a lack of artifice, intellectualism and complexity. If they’re beset, as the British sometimes are, by a slight nagging worry that art might be mostly about deception and artifice, a bit of a confidence trick perpetrated by clever foreigners, they can relax before the work of artists like Rousseau, blanketed in the security that comes from slight condescension — not catching our breath, as it were, or looking back over our shoulders, but breathing a sigh of relief and smiling despite ourselves. How else to explain the success of Alfred Wallis away from the shoreline, L. S. Lowry outside the ranks of nostalgic Mancunians, or Beryl Cook with anyone?
Yet if the artist himself believes that his art was anything but simple, naïve and uncomplicated, then doesn’t that muddy the water? Surely ‘real’ simplicity would be better. Or does his madness, in not recognising what others saw in the work, actually make the work better?
In any event, don’t we need a certain state of mind on the part of the artist in order to legitimise what we think we see on the surface of the canvas itself? Sure, the result is just a fig-leaf — but as we all know, in civilised modern life, there are moments when fig-leaves matter enormously. Perhaps this is one of them?
So that, finally, is why it perhaps matters, at least a little, whether Rousseau was a loony or not. For what it’s worth, to reiterate something I implied at the beginning of the review, I think that Rousseau knew perfectly well what he was doing. I think he knew he was a bad painter yet had a thick skin and enjoyed the kudos of artistic success sufficiently to hang around the right circles no matter how badly or cynically he was treated, kept doggedly daubing away despite the criticism, and — crucially — preferred to be misinterpreted, rather than simply ignored, because fame mattered that much to him. One might pause at this point to wonder whether, in fact, this makes him godfather to Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili, Stella Vine and others — Jean-Michel Basquiat, even — the list could go on. Or is that simply being unkind? In any event, it is hard to deny that, mad or sane or somewhere in between, Rousseau is a figure of real relevance to the history of modern art. The current exhibition at Tate Modern does justice both to the relevance, and to the ambiguity. It is well worth making the effort to visit before the show closes next month, if only to try to judge this complex, contradictory character for yourself.
Bunny Smedley holds a doctorate in history from Cambridge University, and lives in central London with her husband and young son.