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Henri Rousseau: Art’s Alan Partridge?

He may have been painfully lacking in self-awareness, and even discernible painting skills, but, as yet another major exhibition of his work opens, it is fair to say the French naive painter left a legacy nonetheless. IAN WALKER reports

‘You know, I could finish all these paintings.’

Henri Rousseau, after looking at works by Cézanne. 1907.

In certain ways, Henri Rousseau was a terrible artist. He couldn’t paint hands, or arms, or heads – which was an issue for someone who painted full-body portraits. And in his paintings some of these odd-headed, awkward-limbed figures seem to float; but they don’t float like the figures in, say, paintings by Chagall or Matisse. There is no sense of wild freedom.

Instead, Rousseau’s figures seem to float because he struggled to convey any sense of three-dimensional physical weight (he sometimes got around his floaty people problem by painting figures standing in long grass). Depth perception and scale were often beyond his talents; his paintings often appear flat and sometimes it is impossible to differentiate between the foreground and the background. There is, with Rousseau, something childlike in these paintings of weirdly flattened landscapes filled with funny-looking, floating people with big heads and odd hands.

Yet despite these rather fundamental technical limitations, he remains, more than a century on from his death, a significant figure in the development of art, much collected, and much exhibited. Last week saw the opening of the latest major show to focus on him, Magritte, Dietrich, Rousseau: Visionary Objectivity, at Zurich’s Kunsthaus. Such exalted company and continued interest suggests that, for a severely limited artist, there is clearly something about Rousseau.

He came to art late. He was born in Laval, in north-western France, in 1844 and during the first 40 years of his life the key biographical moments were a mixture of the ordinary and the awful. He father was a bankrupt. Rousseau himself got caught stealing from his employer and instead of a lengthy jail sentence, he served in the army. In 1871, he started work as a tax and toll collector in Paris. At some point in his 40s, le Douanier, as Rousseau was nicknamed (it means ‘the customs officer’), began to paint.

In 1885 he stopped working so he could dedicate himself to painting full-time. He never really explained this decision, but it may have had something to do with the awful fact that five of his six children died; as did his first wife. There is, with Rousseau, the sense of a man who threw over his old life and who tried to find freedom through reinvention and art.

That he quit his job to paint was either very brave or very stupid. For much of his artistic career in Paris, Rousseau was regarded by most of the gallery-visiting public and by most critics as a bad artist and as a joke figure.

In 1885, in what was the first public display of his work, Rousseau showed two paintings at the Salon des Champs-Elysées.

Such salons were exhibitions organised by the French art Academies and were part of the official cultural establishment. In this salon, both of Rousseau’s pictures were slashed. The view of the established Parisian art world couldn’t be any clearer. Rousseau’s work wasn’t just lousy art – it was an affront to art. It was rubbish.

But by the 1880s, France’s art establishment was being challenged. It had rejected the new approaches of Impressionism and Symbolism (and, later, Post Impressionism and the various forms of early modern art), so Impressionist and Symbolist artists began to establish new networks and new outlets for their work. One of the most important of these was the Sociéte des Artistes Indépendants.

This new exhibition space was a perfect opportunity for Rousseau; the start of his artistic career coincided almost exactly with the first Société des Artistes Indépendants exhibition. The establishment had rejected Rousseau, as it had the Symbolists and the Impressionists, so he would display his work alongside works by Seurat, Redon and Signac.

And what was the response of the critics and the public to Rousseau’s work being displayed amongst these new radical artists? They scoffed at it.

By the 1890s, Rousseau had become a laughing stock in the art world of Paris. ‘Monsieur Rousseau paints with his feet and with his eye closed,’ wrote one critic in 1891. Almost every year he would return to theSociété des Artistes Indépendants to display three or four paintings, and almost every year the public and the press would line up to laugh at him again. Mocking Rousseau became an annual event.

How did he withstand all this criticism? He certainly knew of it. He cut out and kept every hostile, sneering, mocking review. Was it that he was thick-skinned? Was he, as some people thought, just a bit stupid and not quite all there? Or was it that he genuinely believed himself to be a great artist and that the world just wasn’t quite ready for his art?

The criticism seemed to have no real effect on his work. He just ploughed on, and did so with no significant indications of any artistic development – the paintings at the end of his career are not that different from the paintings at the start of his career (the only significant exception to this was that he produced more paintings of jungles towards the end).

Rousseau seemed to believe himself to be in the tradition of the Academic, artistic establishment – that his work was like that of William-Adolphe Bouguereau or Jean-Léon Gérôme. These artists worked within classic and formal artistic traditions – with the human body (usually naked, often female) featured in some allegorical context or other. Their work was neo-classical, high-minded and pompous (now it seems little more than kitsch).

In 1908, Rousseau said to Picasso: ‘We are the two great painters of this era, you in Egyptian style, I in modern style.’ By ‘modern’, Rousseau meant that modern, Academic style – he saw himself in a tradition that looked back to Titian or Michelangelo. This was one of the many silly things that Rousseau said.

There is a world of difference between Academic art and the art of Rousseau. It is a difference that a child could see; it is a difference as stark as that between children’s art submitted to CBeebies and the art of Cézanne. (That Cézanne’s extraordinary, revolutionary, transformative art was unfinished was another silly thing that Rousseau said.)

Another daft Rousseau-ism was that he saw himself as an innovator. He declared himself to the inventor of the portrait-landscape – which was a portrait of someone with a landscape behind him. Of course, declarations like this just made him appear sillier in the eyes of the critics.

This was Rousseau at his most Alan Partridge-like. Rousseau’s invention of the portrait-landscape is his ‘monkey tennis’ moment. It wasn’t just that he was oblivious to how the world saw his art, it was also that he seemed to have no self-awareness at all. There seemed to be a gulf between how he saw himself and how he actually was. Like Partridge, he sometimes comes across as a fool who was entirely oblivious to the fact he was a fool.

However, foolish he may have been, and he may not have been able to paint in the grand formal style of the Academy, but these things did not mean that everyone in Paris thought he was a terrible artist. Among the waves of howling laughter, Rousseau had his champions. And what was significant was that some of them were not exactly lightweights in the rather feisty, ‘elbows out’ art world of fin de siècle Paris.

One of Rousseau’s first champions was Alfred Jarry, a precocious, alcoholic, anarchic, attention-seeking whirlwind of a man. Like Rousseau, he was born in Laval, though some 40 years later, and it may be that their unlikely friendship arose out of this hometown connection.

Jarry is best known for his play Ubu Roi, a title which has come to mean ‘King Turd’ (mainly because it opens with the word merde being announced in an exaggerated, drawling way). The play tells the story (if you can call it that) of Pere Ubu – a powerful man-baby who, after becoming leader, rattles through the world seeking only gratification and adoration, and does so with no understanding of consequences. (Remind you of anyone?) It is an absurd, disruptive, fragmented, chaotic play that drags in references from Shakespeare, Sophocles and Rabelais.

Jarry is usually lumped in with the Symbolists and the most straightforward definition of Symbolism comes from Étienne Mallarmé, who wrote ‘paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces’. What was true of art was also true of theatre.

In Ubu Roi, fragmentation, chaos, outrage, nonsense and odd juxtapositions produce an effect which, on its opening night – December 10, 1896 – was explosive. The audience jeered and cheered, booed and fought. WB Yeats, who was there on that first night, wrote of the play ‘After us the Savage God’.

Yeats may seem a tad melodramatic here, but the case can be made that this play changed all art and that Modernism, as an art movement, can be dated from its staging.

Much about Ubu Roi is childish. Its origins lay in a play Jarry wrote whilst at school, mocking one of his teachers. There is no apparent logic and no satisfying dramatic structure. The action is propelled by impulses, as it careers from nonsense to chaos and back again. It is an assault on the Romantic belief in the sublimity of nature. It wilfully undermines any Classical or traditional trust in reason or metaphysical truth. Its only logic (if you can call it that) comes through the poetry and rhythm of its juxtapositions, fragments and chaotic assertions.

Ubu Roi is a play that seems to have crawled out of the id, or out of the subconscious. It is dreamlike, childish and inhabits the world of subjectivity.

It made sense (of sorts) in Paris during the Belle Époque, those 30 or so years of peace and prosperity before the First World War, when the city was, at least for the wealthy and the middle classes, a restless, rich and ridiculous place that gorged on flesh, sex and absinthe. Nothing seemed fixed; technology was transforming time and space with bicycles and cars, with aeroplanes and steel buildings, and with Haussmann’s architectural renovation of Paris. In this world it was argued by some that modern man was no longer a reasoned, reflective creature struggling to comprehend nature. Rather, he was all desire, appetite and impulse and was made ridiculous by a world that baffled him.

And that was what Jarry saw in Rousseau’s art. He saw something modern. He saw in its strange, flat plasticity, in its bizarre juxtapositions and misshapen forms, art that was of the modern age. It may have been lousy art when measured against the figures of the Academy, who felt that they had a claim on objective artistic truth and who believed themselves the be the voice of reason, or God, or tradition. And it was lousy art when compared to the Impressionists, who were trying to find the measure of their experience of nature.

Rousseau just did not have the skills, or even the depth of artistic understanding, to compete with the Academy or the Impressionists. But his art came from within himself. It was art that only made sense in terms of how Rousseau tried to make sense of what he put on the canvas. It was art that came through the processes of thought and from the subconscious.

It was Modernism before Modernism existed.

As well as Jarry, Rousseau also found a champion in Apollinaire. Poet, playwright, critic, novelist and all-around Modernist enabler, Apollinaire was everywhere in the early days of the Parisian Modernist avant-garde. He mythologised Rousseau and claimed that the painter had been a soldier in the Mexican jungles, where the inspiration for his jungle pictures had come from. The inspiration actually came from Paris’s botanical gardens, but that didn’t matter because what Apollinaire understood better than most was that in this new modern age men could be free to make themselves up how they saw fit. The truth was irrelevant.

Perhaps the most significant validation for Rousseau’s sense of himself as a great artist came from Picasso. In 1908 the Spaniard organised Le Banquet Rousseau. This was to be held in Le Bateau-Lavoir, the legendary Montmartre building where Picasso had his studio. The guests for the meal included Leo and Gertrude Stein, Braque, de Vlaminck, Apollinaire and Dalize – as A-list a guest list that Paris of that time could conjure. The party was a wild success. There was drunkenness, dancing, arguing and fighting. It was one of the great Montmartre nights of that heady bohemian time.

There have been some claims that the whole thing was a piss-take; that Picasso was mocking Rousseau and that everyone was in on the joke. But that seems unlikely because to accept this interpretation means we must go along with the sneering, braying, smug Parisian public (essentially, their mockery of Rousseau was bullying), and it means we ignore what Picasso himself said of Rousseau.

Like Jarry and Apollinaire, Picasso saw something vital in Rousseau’s art. He stumbled across one of Rousseau’s paintings (The Portrait de Mlle. M.) in a bric-a-brac shop on the Rue des Martyrs. He bought it for five francs and said of it: ‘Rousseau is not an accident. He represents the perfection of certain order of thought… It is one of the most truthful of all French psychological portraits.’

So for Picasso, Rousseau was an artist because his paintings contained an order that revealed psychological truth. What Picasso recognised in Rousseau was the great rupture that took place in Western art at this time.

He saw that this was art that had shifted to the internal side of seeing. Here was art that was free of nature and of the past. It was revolutionary and of the moment.

Jarry, Apollinaire, Picasso and Rousseau were among the first Modernists. Their work, which found recourse and meaning in fragments, juxtapositions, dreams, symbols and the subconscious, went hand-in-hand with the sort of impulsive, bohemian life you would expect of avant-garde artist types.

Jarry lived his life hell-bent on destruction. He would tear about Paris on his bike, his face painted green, drunk on absinthe. He annoyed or beguiled almost everyone he met. His life was every bit as absurd as his greatest play. He died, aged 34, in 1907.

As well as being a great poet and writer, Apollinaire was the great chronicler and publicist of early Modernism. He mythologised the works and lives of his Montmartre contemporaries (including Rousseau) and in doing so made the myths real, and perhaps this transformation of fanciful fantasy into ‘fact’ was his greatest Modernist masterpiece. His own life was full of adventure – he was even accused of stealing the Mona Lisa. After being severely injured during the First World War, he died in the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918.

Picasso’s status is now so great that his name is synonymous with Modernism. And in those years when Parisian artists were transforming everything, he was at the heart of it. He was the genius of Modernity, who changed everything.

And Rousseau? He died in 1910, and did so without his brilliance being recognised by anyone beyond a small coterie of Montmartre insiders. There were seven people at his funeral; five of these mourners were artists (Signac was one of them), the sixth was his landlord and the seventh was Apollinaire.

But almost immediately after his death the world started to catch up with Jarry, Apollinaire and Picasso’s opinion that Rousseau was a brilliant artist. In 1911 the Société des Artistes Indépendants organised a retrospective of his work. That same year, his work appeared at the first Blaue Reiter exhibition in Munich – one of the key moments in the birth of Expressionism.

These days, this technically inept, amateur painter is regarded as being one of the giants of Modernism and his paintings can be seen in the word’s greatest galleries. His best paintings – amongst which are Surpris!, his self-portrait of 1890, A Carnival Evening and The Dream, are unlike anything that went before in art. They appeared in the world on their own terms and you can only make sense of them in the context of their own existence.

His art is not organised by nature, God or tradition – and certainly not by skill or technique. It is art that is organised by what was going on with Rousseau’s artistic imagination. And he was an artist of the highest order. The work he produced is full of haunting tensions, conflicting impulses and compelling juxtapositions.

He may have a had ridiculous and comical lack of self-awareness, but that doesn’t matter because le Douanier, this man who never really got started with his life’s work until his late 40s, was one of the greatest, and one of the first, Modernists.

Magritte, Dietrich, Rousseau: Visionary objectivity at Zurich’s Kunsthaus runs until July 8

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