Rousseau at the Tate

Back to Rousseau. The painter, not Jean-Jacques. I’m afraid the exhibition, Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris is nearly over, so this won’t be much use to anyone who was trying to decide whether to see it.

Rousseau was a bit of an oddity. He was self-taught and, according to the exhibition blurb, he aspired to joining the academic, classical tradition. Instead, his work was very much admired by a younger generation of artists, like Picasso, whose work Rousseau apparently didn’t like much. Which makes it hard to know what to make of him. If he was literally trying to produce paintings that looked like academic works, then he failed. On the other hand, his similarity to the Modernists is striking – his work has a limited sense of depth, a strong sense of colour and design, and is highly stylised.

But of course, these things are also characteristic of folk art; they seem, in fact, to be typical of self-taught artists generally. This is a self-portrait by Rousseau:

this is an anonymous panel from the American Folk Art Museum:

So was Rousseau absorbed into the canon, rather than relegated to folk art status, just because he happened to be in the right place at the right time? Well, there may be an element of that, but he does have some distinctive things in his favour. His compositions and use of colour are gorgeous, for a start. The most famous thing about him is the choice of subject matter, of course, in the jungle paintings. There was a lot of good contextual stuff in the exhibition, much of which you can see on that website, to show that the jungle paintings weren’t quite as random as you might think. There were World’s Fairs held in Paris in 1878, 1889 and 1900, and sensational portrayals of Africa were in the air in the French equivalents of Rider Haggard. There’s a startlingly dodgy statue in the exhibition (not by Rousseau) of a nubile woman being abducted by a gorilla, for example. For that matter, the Cubist interest in African art is an only slightly more enlightened version of the same thing.

Kowing where he got his ideas from doesn’t make the paintings any less peculiar, of course. In The Hungry Lion Throws itself on the Antelope, it isn’t the central struggle that is most remarkable, it’s all the other animals lurking in the jungle – an eagle, an owly thing, a leopard and a weird gorilla-bear creature, several of them with strips of bloody flesh hanging from their mouths.

Anyway. It’s a big subject and I’m not about to do it justice here. Interesting though. I’d recommend the exhibition if you’re in London in the next 11 days.

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