Monday, March 9, 2015

Rousseau's Reality - An Angel in Venice

Merry Jesters by Henri Rousseau (1906) Philadelphia Museum of Art
(Venice, Italy) Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) never traveled to the lush jungles of Mexico except in his own mind, although he claimed he had fought during the French invasion of Mexico under Napoleon III in 1863. Rousseau was called Le Douanier, which means customs officer, although he was not a customs officer -- for nearly 22 years he was a lowly municipal toll collector on goods that came into Paris. Wilhelm Uhde, the art collector and critic who would become a significant figure in Rousseau's career said, “Rousseau had been next to worthless in the service. ...His job had been to hang around the quai like a watchman, keeping an eye on the barges.”

Girl with a Doll by Henri Rousseau (1904-05) Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris
Henri Rousseau was an ordinary man who had Walter Mitty dreams of becoming an famous artist. He had a wife, Clemence, whom he adored, and six children, only one of whom survived childhood. After nearly 20 years of marriage, Clemence, too, died of tuberculosis. During Rousseau's lifetime, he was mocked by the critics, and shunned by the establishment, but finally embraced by Picasso and the avant-garde the way young people adopt an eccentric old man, like a pet -- his naive ignorance made them laugh. Unlike most critics, real artists look at the world through the eyes of heaven, and the young avant-garde appreciated the primitive spirituality that radiated from Rousseau's work.

The Snake Charmer by Henri Rousseau (1907) Musée d'Orsay, Paris
What Henri Rousseau had was an obsessive belief in his own great talent. He once told the young Picasso: "You and I are the two most important artists of the age - you in the Egyptian style, and I in the modern one." He never achieved the success he craved during his lifetime, but after viewing Henri Rousseau - Archaic Naivety at the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, home to Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, his astounding declaration of assurance rings true.

Black Spot by Wassily Kandinsky (1912) Hermitage, St. Petersburgh
It was only after he died that Rousseau became the leader of a school of art, his "Archaic Candor," paving the way for magic realism. The mostly self-taught artist became known for his naive, childlike depiction of reality. It was not possible to stick a label on him and file him into a category -- there was no one like him. Wassily Kandinsky, the influential Russian painter and art theorist, whose work is represented in the exhibition Henri Rousseau - Il Candore Arcaico thought that Rousseau's spiritual greatness and strength derived precisely from his formal limitations. Kandinsky bought Rousseau's The Poultry Yard and exhibited it in the first Blaue Reiter show in Munich in 1911, after Rousseau was dead.

The Poultry Yard (1896-98) Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris
I have been pondering for days who Rousseau reminds me of, and it finally hit me: the angel, Clarence, in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Clarence is an Angel, Second Class who has been passed over for his wings for more than 200 years. Clarence's boss, Joseph, says to the head angel, Franklin, that Clarence has "the I.Q. of a rabbit," and Franklin replies, "Yes, but he's got the faith of a child -- simple." To me, the enormous faith that Henri Rousseau had in his own artistic ability made him an Angel, Second Class; his paintbrush earned him wings. Even though he claimed to have fought in the Aztec jungles, in reality he found his inspiration at the botanical gardens in Paris, the stuffed wild animals at the natural museum, pictures in magazines and the zoo.

Myself, Portrait-Landscape (1889-90) Prague National Gallery
Although Rousseau excelled at art and music as a young boy, he started painting later in life, quitting his government job as a toll collector at the age of 49 to devote his life to art. He was born in Laval on May 21, 1844, a medieval town with a castle, lush woods and rivers, the first boy in a middle-class family of two girls and two boys. Rousseau's father ran a hardware store, as did his grandfather; his mother's grandfather was a major in the Marching Regiment with Napoleon in Spain, and was later knighted; his mother's father was a captain in the Third Battalion. His father had lifelong financial problems, and lost their home when Rousseau was eight-years-old.

The Carriage of Father Junier (1908) Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris
At age 18, Rousseau worked for a lawyer in Angers, where he had moved with his parents, a town about 45 miles away from Laval. Together with two younger friends, he was caught stealing 15 or 20 francs and some stamps from his employer. He joined the army, hoping to avoid a jail sentence, but still ended up behind bars for a month. (We can imagine that even back then young men who got into trouble were urged to join the army, especially if their grandparents had been in the military.) Two battalions of his regiment did go to Mexico under Napoleon III to set up Maximilian as the Emperor, but Rousseau never left France. The stories of the returning soldiers set his imagination on fire, but he led an ordinary life, playing the saxophone in an infantry band. When he was 23-years-old, his father died. Rousseau left the army and moved to Paris; his widowed mother was still in Angers. He found a job as a bailiff's assistant.

In 1869, Rousseau married his landlady's 19-year-old daughter, Clemence, whose father, too, had recently died after gambling all his money away; her mother was a seamstress. When Prussia invaded France in 1870, he signed up to be a simple soldier, but was soon exempted. His first child died in infancy during the Siege of Paris in 1871 when people were starving; as life went on, he would lose all his six children but one.

The War - The Ride of Discord  (1894) Musée d'Orsy, Paris
“The War, terrifying, she passes, leaving despair, crying and ruin everywhere.”
The devastation of Paris and the effects of war left a deep impression on Rousseau which would later be expressed in his paintings. In February 1872, at age 27, Rousseau began working for the customs office, collecting tolls on goods that came into Paris, a government job he would keep for almost 22 years. About that time he started painting in his spare time, certain he had the talent to become an academic painter without studying at an academy. He tried to enter a painting in the official Salon in the Palace of the Louvre, but was rejected. In 1884, his friend and neighbor, Auguste Clement, got him a permit to study and copy in museums like the Louvre, and Rousseau taught himself to become an artist.

Carnival Evening by Rousseau (1886) Philadelphia Museum of Art
In July 1884, in response to the rigid control and requirements the government exercised over the official Salon, a group of artists, including Georges Seurt and Paul Signac, whose work is represented in Henri Rousseau - Il Candore Arcaico, created the Salon des Indépendants -- the motto was: "No juries, No prizes." Any artist could enter their paintings -- it cost 10 francs to show four works. After trying in vain to be accepted by the official Salon, in 1886, Rousseau exhibited four paintings at the Salon des Indépendants, including Carnival Evening.

Rousseau then became an annual fixture at the Salon des Indépendants despite receiving cruel reviews from the critics who called it the work of a "10-year-old child" and "the scribblings of a 6-year-old whose mother left him with colors." For the 4th Salon des Indépendants in 1888, he entered five paintings and five drawings. That same year, Vincent van Gogh, who had moved to Paris in 1886, entered three. Four days after the 4th Salon des Indépendants closed, Rousseau's beloved wife, Clemence, died on May 7, 1888 of tuberculosis, leaving him heartbroken. Ten years later, he married his second wife, Josephine Noury, who died within four years.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised) by Henri Rousseau (1891) National Gallery London
In 1891, Rousseau exhibited his first jungle painting at the 7th Salon Indépendants Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised) (which is not part of the current exhibition) supposedly inspired by his combat adventures in the Aztec jungle under Napoleon III, but actually drawn from the Parisian botanical gardens and the zoo. Again, the critics laughed -- it had become a popular pastime to laugh at Rousseau -- however one young artist, Felix Vallaton, recently arrived from Switzerland, did not. He wrote:

“Monsieur Rousseau becomes more and more astonishing each year, but he commands attention and, in any event, is earning a nice little reputation and having his share of success: people flock around his submissions and one can hear the sound of laughter.  In addition he is a terrible neighbor, as he crushes everything else.  His tiger surprising its prey ought not to be missed;  it is the alpha and omega of painting  .   .   .   . As a matter of fact, not everyone laughs, and some who begin to do so are quickly brought up short.  There is always something beautiful about seeing a faith, any faith, so pitilessly expressed.  For my part, I have a sincere esteem for such efforts, and I would a hundred times rather them than the deplorable mistakes nearby."

The Salon Wars continued in Paris. In 1903, Felix Vallaton was part of group that created yet another new Salon, the Salon d'Automne in opposition to all other Parisian exhibitions, which caused all sorts of uproar in the art world. Henri Rousseau was sucked into the vortex of the Salon d'Automne, and in 1905, the 61-year-old struggling artist found himself in the same room as the 35-year-old Henri Matisse and 25-year-old André Derain along with his Hungry Lion -- and Fauvism was born.

The Hungry Lion by Rousseau (1905) Beyeler Foundation, Basel
Rousseau was not a Fauve, which is French for wild beast, but his Hungry Lion probably inspired the term "Fauvism" after the art critic Louis Vauxcelle saw a classical statue in the same room as the works of the avant-garde artists at the 1905 Salon d'Automne and decried: "Donatello chez les fauves" (Donatello among the wild beasts)." Rousseau wrote a long subtitle for his painting:

The lion, being hungry, throws itself on the antelope, [and] devours it. The panther anxiously awaits the moment when it too can claim its share. Birds of prey have each torn a piece of flesh from the top of the poor animal which sheds a tear. The sun sets.

Horse Attacked by a Jaguar  (1910) State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
The Hungry Lion is not here in Venice, but a similar painting is, which is called Horse Attacked by a Jaguar. To me, the poor horse looks more like a bewildered unicorn.

Now Guillaume Apollinaire, writer, poet, art critic and guru of the avant-garde asked to meet Rousseau. Apollinaire then introduced Rousseau to Pablo Picasso, who had bought Rousseau's Portrait of a Woman on sale for five francs from a Paris junk shop, which was selling it for the canvas. In 1908, the 27-year-old Picasso held the famous banquet to "celebrate" Henri Rousseau, then 64, a lavish artisty kind of prank to play. Guillaume Apollinaire composed a satirical poem, praising Rousseau's adventures in the Aztec jungle, poking fun of Rousseau's long subtitles for his paintings. Also at the banquet were Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who recorded the event in her autobiography.

The images you paint you saw in Mexico,
A red sun lit the banana treetops,
And you, courageous soldier, have swapped your tunic
For the blue jacket of the brave douanier.


Even though the banquet began in jest, it morphed into a genuine celebration, a drunken chorus of the avant-garde shouting "Viva, viva Rousseau!"

Portrait of a Woman by Henri Rousseau (1895) Musée Picasso, Pari
The focus of Henri Rousseau - Il Candore Arcaico in the Doge's Apartments at the Palazzo Ducale in Piazza San Marco is that "the artist was a point of reference for the great exponents of the historical avant-garde movements, for intellectuals like Apollinaire and Jarry, for great collectors like Wilhelm Uhde, and for many painters who preceded and went beyond the Cubist and Futurist movements. Artists such as Cézanne and Gauguin, Redon and Seurat, Marc, Klee, Morandi, Carrà, Frido Kahlo and Diego Rivera, not to mention Kandinsky and Picasso. All these artists are present in the show."

The Grand Exhibit Henri Rousseau - Archaic Naivety runs from March 6 to July 5, 2015.
Please go to the PALAZZO DUCALE for further information.
www.ticket.it/rousseau
www.mostrarousseau.it

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat 
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Henri Rousseau never traveled to the lush jungles of Mexico except in his own mind, although he claimed he had fought during the French invasion of Mexico under Napoleon III in 1863. Henri Rousseau was an ordinary man who had Walter Mitty dreams of becoming an famous artist

    ReplyDelete

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