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Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris - Feature

Feature by James Haddrell

FOR the first time in almost 80 years, a major exhibition of work by the French artist Henri Rousseau has gone on display in London.

Tate Modern’s Jungles In Paris brings together almost 50 of Rousseau’s most celebrated paintings from around the world – but the first work in the exhibition is significantly not a Rousseau work. It is a life sized sculpture of a gorilla abducting a woman, first exhibited at the Paris World Fair in 1889…

Henri Rousseau was a dreamer. Whilst his best loved paintings are jungle scenes he never visited the jungle, so although the works are clearly designed to show real landscapes, packed with images of the flora, fauna and wildlife of the jungle, they are really flights of informed but imaginative fancy.

Emmanuel Frémiet’s sculpture, which curators Christopher Green and Frances Morris have selected to open the exhibition, is an example of where these flights began.

A better example occurs later, in a subsection of the exhibition dedicated to the magazines, postcards and museum exhibits with which Rousseau constructed his fantasy landscape.

One particular piece, exhibited at the Natural History Museum of Paris in the 19th Century, features a full-sized stuffed lion sinking its teeth and claws into a struggling antelope.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Rousseau’s The Hungry Lion Throws Itself On The Antelope clearly appropriates the two creatures, placing them at the centre of a rich jungle and surrounding them with the plants, birds and animals which Rousseau studied during his regular visits to the zoo and the botanical gardens.

However, this is not the end of the story. Rousseau was not simply a cut-and-paste painter, compiling his source material into a completed jigsaw.

Looking deeper into the same painting, an ominous creature seems to watch the attack from amongst the trees on the left, a gorilla with a bird-like head – something which clearly has no precedent in nature.

Two exotic birds sit in the trees, each bearing a strip of flesh from the antelope’s flank, which they could surely not have acquired with the struggle still going on. And a single tear falls from the eye of the terrified antelope.

Whilst the positioning of the creatures is directly lifted from the exhibit at the museum, Rousseau’s scene is more whimsical, more fantastic, more human than the stuffed animals. The identity of the mysterious creature watching the fight is unknown – could it be some embodiment of Rousseau himself, watching or even orchestrating the events? – and the crying antelope provides a prototype for Disney’s whole catalogue of anthropomorphic animals.

Although Rousseau will always be remembered as a jungle painter, there was a period of more than a decade after his first jungle painting in which he ignored the subject completely, and his work from this period is equally represented in the exhibition.

A full length portrait of the artist as a grand academic painter (another flight of fancy; at the time of painting Rousseau was still working as a customs clerk and was dismissed by most as no more than an enthusiastic amateur) shares a room with a pair of small, intimate portraits of Rousseau and his wife, later bought by Picasso.

Another room features numerous landscapes painted in a simplified, almost childlike way, including a painting of Rousseau at work with a model in the park – this one bought by Kandinsky.

Rousseau may have been branded a ‘Sunday painter’ in his own life time, ridiculed for his simplified style and whimsical vision, but his dream of being accepted as a respected artist was destined to come true.

The least successful works appear in the allegorical section of the exhibition. Although he was certainly a proud Republican, the paintings which celebrate the founding of the French Republic or its international prominence were designed as much to attract public commissions – which they failed to do – as to represent his own political feelings.

Lacking the passion which transported him in the jungle paintings and the light, fanciful touch with which he painted Paris his large-scale allegorical works have a laboured, unconvincing feel.

The best works between his first jungle scene and his return to the subject in the early years of the 20th Century are those which merge two worlds, which transport elements of the civilised world into the world of nature.

In Carnival Evening two costumed carnival performers are illuminated by a bright full moon, walking out of silhouetted woodland. Why they have apparently been abandoned in this bleak place is impossible to tell.

In Promenade In The Forest an elegantly dressed woman stands motionless in the forest, her hand raised in surprise – whether overcome by the power of the natural world or frightened by something which only she can see, we can never know. Maybe we are never supposed to know.

For Rousseau, civilised Parisians did not belong in nature so when he did place them there, the results were infused with a palpable sense of unease.

In the final year of his life, having retired from his job to paint full-time and returned to his cherished subject matter, Rousseau once again transposed a modern day Parisian to that imagined world, but The Dream, which features as the final painting in the exhibition, is very different.

In the heart of the jungle, a woman reclines on a chaise longue, surrounded on every side with rich tropical plants and trees. A snake charmer stands in the middle distance, playing a pipe, while a pair of lions and a half-seen elephant look on, but there is no sense of menace, no undercurrent of violence in this work.

Rousseau described the painting in a letter to a critic – ‘The woman sleeping on this sofa dreams that she is transported into the middle of the forest, hearing the charmer’s pipe’.

In his other jungle scenes, whether showing monkeys playing or carnivorous animals attacking their prey, the animals come to replace people. The dying antelope cries a single human tear; the tiger is caught in a moment of human surprise as the rain suddenly falls, while the real people caught in the forest seem out of place.

The Dream is different, because in her dream state the woman has followed Rousseau and entered the jungle through her mind. Literally stripping her of all the trappings of a civilised society, Rousseau has finally imagined another person who belongs in the rich, fantasy realm that he visited every time he picked up a paintbrush.

Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris
Until February 5, 2006
Sponsored by Aviva
Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG
020 7887 8888;
Sunday-Thursday 10am–6pm; Friday-Saturday 10am-10pm
Admission: £10; concessions £8