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“Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris”

We’re supposed to pity poor Henri Rousseau. After all, the self-taught artist was saddled with an outlandish style and outsized ambitions. For whatever reason, he claimed to be a realist painter in the grand manner, but with his clunky, contorted figures and scenes of fantastic animal combat, there was no way he ever would have gained admittance to the traditional salon.

As for his true fellows among the avant-garde—the artists, writers, and intellectuals who were actually in a position to understand what he was up to—well, they mostly snickered behind his back. There was that infamous liquor-soaked banquet Picasso held for Rousseau two years before his death in 1910, at which everything he did or said was greeted with laughter and applause. Despite the insincerity, when he was eventually packed off in a cab for the night, tears of joy were streaming down his face. He thought they truly loved him.

This is the conventional Rousseau narrative: He was just a folksy dope who accidentally made a unique contribution to the history of modern painting. But do folk artists tend to live in bustling art capitals like, say, Paris? And how many primitives could boast contact with Picasso, Robert Delaunay, Gauguin, Georges Braque, Odilon Redon, Alfred Jarry, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Weber, and Gertrude Stein? Rousseau was not a hermit, working in pristine isolation; he was a cosmopolitan artist with one hell of a peer group. And his revolutionary paintings hardly look ready to please the average petit-bourgeois consumer—the imperative that many accused le Douanier, the customs clerk, of following.

Take To Celebrate the Baby (1903). It’s difficult to imagine what the laundress who commissioned this piece would’ve made of Rousseau’s efforts. Her infant stands fully upright, looking adult-sized as it towers over a field dotted with wildflowers. The child’s brows are angrily knitted; its body is composed of crude contours and chalky shades of pink—there is no concern for the observed life of light and shadow here. In its shirt this massive child has gathered a bouquet; with its left hand it manipulates a marionette—which, unnervingly, looks a bit like the artist himself, holding his arms up in a gesture of helplessness.

The picture is singular and forceful. Untutored or not, Rousseau displays undeniable graphic boldness and a restless visual imagination. He might have relied on a limited vocabulary of shapes, but within that system, he was capable of control and discernment. The oval-faced lovers in a painting such as Rendezvous in the Forest (1889), for example, exist in a weirdly cramped, flattened space. Yet the forest they’re hidden in is simply perfect, all sinuous branches dotted with dark, tiny leaves, like meticulous decorations in the margins of some gothic manuscript. Much like the other advanced artists of his age, Rousseau could be decorative in the best possible sense of the word.

A century later, however, people are still hedging their bets on Rousseau. The National Gallery’s current survey, “Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris,” tends to waffle between presenting the man as an influential modern whose work helped revitalize the tired conventions of Western art and positioning him as a gifted naif. The big stumbling block for the show’s organizers, it seems, is the artist’s unconventional training. The exhibition has a whole room given over to the sources Rousseau used to paint his most powerful pictures—his jungle scenes. There are picture postcards, illustrated journals, adventure novels, even a taxidermic lion and antelope from the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. The pair ultimately became the model for Rousseau’s The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (1905), although in Rousseau’s version, flesh-devouring birds have attacked the antelope as well, and a tear rolls down from the corner of the mutilated creature’s solid-black, perfectly round eye.

As far as artistic apprenticeships go, this was hardly sketching Greek statuary or even copying paintings at the Louvre. Rousseau might have craved exactly those sorts of academic exercises, but the stuff of pulp and popular sensation were what fired his imagination and filled his canvases. The results must have seemed guileless to audiences at the time. In her catalog essay, Frances Morris points out the words of critic Arsène Alexandre, who, in 1909, wrote that Rousseau uses “means he finds directly and involuntarily in himself, without thinking about them at all.” Rousseau, he said, was “incapable of wanting to do what he did.” Morris might not think that the artist was this mindless, but she goes on to claim that Rousseau suggested many advanced techniques that modern French artists would go on to employ—particularly collage—without ever realizing their full power.

But Rousseau’s odd evolution as artist was simply a sign of things to come, and of the changes already wrought by Romanticism, and, more specifically, by the 19th-century French realist Gustave Courbet. It was Courbet, after all, who insisted that painting could not be taught. Art was simply the artist’s personal, individual study of the canon. Rousseau’s individual study included consulting academics like Jean-Léon Gérôme, who advised him to “keep his naivety.” Upon further examination, many of the eccentricities in Rousseau’s work—preposterous jumps in scale and proportion, for example—can only have been deliberately maintained. He often worked directly from photographs and, just as often, made radical changes in the sizes and arrangements of the figures he otherwise faithfully copied. Combine the giant, imposing women looming in the centers of Portrait of a Woman (1895) and Portrait of a Lady (1895–1897) with the huge babies, as in Boy on the Rocks (1895-1897)—in which a lumpy, Orson Welles–ish child sits impossibly on what seem to be the craggy peaks of some bare, distant mountains—and one sees what can only be called a consistent method. If Rousseau just made confused compositional choices, he made them with stunning regularity.

A good number of Rousseau’s Parisian landscapes and his smaller jungle paintings tend to look hastily brushed, as if they were executed in hopes of an immediate sale. But the large paintings that Rousseau clearly invested time and emotion in are knockouts, regardless of seeming naiveté. Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) (1891), with its unusual dark, diagonal striations indicating rain, is tense and beautiful. Amid abstracted bits of windblown foliage, a tiger glides weightlessly through tall grass. Its bulging eyes and curled whiskers suggest the creature has wandered out of some Asian woodcut. The Snake Charmer (1907), despite its graceless, stiff serpents and flattened, silhouetted heroine, exhibits some of Rousseau’s most captivating stylizations—the perfect horizontal bands of lapping waters; the broad-beaked bird that, despite having been inspired from photos and illustrations, is constructed from wedges of completely invented color; the unexpected atmospheric perspective applied to the trees on a distant shoreline. His contemporaries, no matter how much name-calling they heaped on him, took note of this sort of formal power and willful clarity.

Rousseau’s jungles might seem far removed from his suburban surroundings. If so, this would contradict another one of Courbet’s influential dictums: that the modern artist should treat only the present historical moment, depicting things that are known and observed firsthand. What is the possible likelihood of Rousseau ever having laid eyes on a battle like the one in Tropical Landscape—An American Indian Struggling With a Gorilla (1910), in which a Native American in full feathered headdress dukes it out with an ape under the setting blood-red sun?

But such subjects were perfectly usual at the turn of the century. Colonialism in North Africa brought images and specimens home—much to the delight of the French middle class. The leafy foliage and animal melee that filled Rousseau’s canvases came from popular magazines like Le Petit Journal, or from the photos in the album Bêtes Sauvages, published by a department store in the 1890s. The natives he depicted reflect exhibitions like those in the 1889 World’s Fair, in which Senegalese aborigines lived in huts in the middle of the Esplanade des Invalides. Mass entertainment and a nascent mass media made the exotic available.

His method, then, doesn’t look all that different from, say, Andy Warhol’s new realism in the ’60s. Warhol offered images of things that interested not specialized arts practitioners but everyday people: Brillo boxes, celebrities, car crashes. Rousseau’s jungles could be thought of as the sensational auto accidents of his day. He combined images and influences in ways that were only possible at the close of the 19th century in France, acting both as a product of his time and a driver of visual culture.

Add to Rousseau’s jungles the airplanes, smokestacks, and views of the Eiffel tower that crop up in his Parisian landscapes, and one begins to see the essential sympathy he had with his time, with ideas of modernity and progress. In The Environs of Paris (1909), enormous twin smokestacks dominate the center of the picture, towering above the cramped little buildings directly adjacent. In View of Malakoff, Paris Region (1908), giant telegraph poles provide the picture’s main visual force; the tiny faceless villagers and their blocky houses almost seem an afterthought.

Technology in Rousseau’s time was equalizing the landscape. Suddenly, there was the prospect of flying across great distances and discovering remote lands via photos, or of seeing artifacts and animals—and even living, breathing native people—from those places transplanted into the heart of the city. To visitors at successive World’s Fairs, the whole French empire must’ve seemed thoroughly subjugated. The Dream (1910), while resembling a proto-surrealist non sequitur, becomes an eerie reflection of this equalization: The recumbent nude on a couch, in a pose familiar from Titian to Ingres to Manet, is no less artificial than the manicured jungle she reclines in, which itself has been thoroughly pre-processed, culled from zoological displays. All of this material is mastered, Westernized; only Rousseau’s technique seems truly alien.

The difference between Rousseau and Picasso, more than technical merit or training, was Rousseau’s faith in all forms of cultural modernization. His taste might have seemed common, a weird sort of amplification of the interests of the bourgeoisie. But that sort of preoccupation marked a later generation of American new realist and Pop artists as truly revolutionary. Rousseau’s love of traditional academic painting was in no way incompatible with his oddball style and cartoonish, bloodthirsty animals. He accepted and celebrated the tenor of his time, all of it.

There’s no need to pity Rousseau. Snobbery, incomprehension, professional jealousy—these things fade. The work remains, looking more focused and more apt with each passing decade.CP