le Douanier Rousseau at the Grand Palais

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le Douanier Rousseau at the Grand Palais
How many Rousseaus can you name?  No, I don’t mean the titles of the paintings.  I mean the men associated with the name.  I’ve got three* who come to mind, but only Henri Rousseau is on show at the Grand Palais’ wonderful exhibition.    Well thought out, well researched, and intelligently displayed, this is a first-rate examination of the work of the man known as the Douanier, the customs officer.  He started to paint late in life and he never did quit his day job.  In fact, he was given little reason to quit as his work was mocked by critics and the public alike.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century it is really an historical stretch to understand just what was so ridiculous about his oeuvre.  If those critics could have only seen a generation ahead they would never have dipped their pens in ink.  But we all know that hindsight is 20/20.   The curators strongly emphasize the relationship between Rousseau and Paris.  They are very clear in their assertion that the Douanier worked only in Paris and experienced neither an African nor a tropical jungle.  What he knew about the exotic plants that inhabit his images he learned from the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.  What he knew about wild animals likewise came from the menagerie in the Jardin, the Museum of Natural History in Paris, and artistic representations of wild beasts.    To emphasize that point, the exhibition opens, rather startlingly, with a life-size sculpture of a male gorilla.  A wild animal indeed, and a sculpture that Rousseau may well have seen.  This work by Emmanuel Frémiet (The Gorilla and the Woman, or The Gorilla Abducting a Woman) was exhibited in the Salon of 1887, where it won the Medal of Honor.  The sculpture is not only of interest for its relationship to the later ape paintings by Rousseau but for its relationship to the story of King Kong.  The nineteenth century must have harbored a certain fear of these human “relatives” because the male imagination put helpless white women into their clutches.  It’s a short step from this figure to the tale of Kong and his threat to a woman.   Rousseau’s concerns with threats are more frequently implied rather than demonstrated.  You can see that in the tension of the alerted tiger in Surprise (1891).  Not his earliest work, but the first painting he exhibited, and the first of his large jungle pictures that we have.   We don’t know what the tiger sees but the threat to that unseen creature is implied in the intense stare, the sharp-toothed open mouth, and the crouching hind-quarters of this beast.    Even the weather is threatening.  The gray sky is streaked with lightening bolts.  The unmoving vegetation and the still air must be punctuated with the thunder of the approaching storm.   The artist seems already to have determined his modus operandi.  Detailed leafy plants press against the foremost plane of the picture.  Even a tree from the mid-ground extends its branches forward to the picture plane.  But yellow lighter tones recede in alternation with deeper greens towards the horizon.  Rousseau does not rely on chiaroscuro to render form three-dimensional.  There is no cast shadow, and shadow attached to any individual form is minimal.  This approach to the rendering of form is only a slight exaggeration of the approach taken by Manet twenty years earlier, and is not so different from the flattened figures and stylized approach to landscape used by Maurice Denis in the 1890’s.    But the subject matter is unique to Rousseau.  These jungles and the disturbing allegories (War/Discord, 1894) address the same angst felt by other artists.  All were concerned with the changing face of the city, a topography that was no longer familiar.  They focused on immortalizing the city itself while Rousseau turned away from the new Paris towards a world he invented in its place.   The curators were very smart to bring in contemporary photography; postcards of Paris untouched by Baron Haussmann, black and white Atgets, a record of Paris in the process of disappearing.  It’s a point well made.   They also want you to know that Le Douanier’s oeuvre was not submitted to unmitigated derision.  The Surrealist Movement saw in him an artistic ally as someone whose goal was not the reproduction and recreation of reality, but as an artist capable of creating an unsettling sense of the unreal with an implied sense of threat.  Of particular interest to them must have been The Promenade in the Forest (1886).     A well-dressed woman stops in the woods and turns to look back from where she has come.  She looks concerned.  Something has caught her attention.  Has someone called her?  Has she heard someone coming up behind her?  Why does she raise her hand as if startled by what she sees?  Nothing is happening, but it might.    Nothing is happening, but it already has.  Someone has come into this forest and high above the woman’s head, he has sawed off the limb of a tree, without apparent reason, without announcing his intent.  Who would do that and why?  We are mesmerized by an illustration that is non-narrative; an oxy-moronic creation of a story that is not told.   We are the ones who must spin the tale.   The exhibition shows us Rousseau’s place in the History of Art.  By no means an odd man out, we are lead by the intelligence of the installation to see how Rousseau used the art and artifacts of his time to create an art whose language remains uniquely his.   The team of writers and researchers has contributed some intelligent commentary to the website of the exhibition.  It is exceptionally well illustrated.   The website can be found at: http://www.rmn.fr/douanier-rousseau/index.html                               *The other two are Jean-Jacques, the eighteenth-century…
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