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)
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.
…Confused dazed and exalted bethought me of real lion starved in his stink
Opened the door the room was filled with the bomb blast of his anger
He roaring hungri
t the plaster walls but nobody could hear outside
thru the window
My eye caught the edge of the red neighbor apartment building standing in
We gazed at each other his implacable yellow eye in the red halo of fur
Waxed rhuemy 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.
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.
…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)
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.”
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.