NEW YORK — In "The Autobiograpahy of Alice B. Toklas," Gertrude Stein recounts the story of a legendary 1908 banquet organized by Picasso at his studio, the Bateau Lavoir, in honor of the self-taught painter known as Douanier Rousseau. The old artist was enthroned at the head of the table and glowed like the Chinese paper lanterns overhead. He entertained the company by playing his waltz "Clemence" on his fiddle and announced tipsily to Picasso, "We are the greatest painters of our time, you in the Egyptian style, I in the modern."
The familiar story always poses the same intriguing question: What did Rousseau's artistic entourage actually think of him? Was the banquet truly an affectionate homage to the artist who produced exotic jungle scenes by studying the flora in Paris' botanical gardens, or was it a subtle send-up of a naif so spacey and gullible he nearly went to prison because he had been drawn into a bank swindle when he thought he was doing a friendly favor?
In 1910, Rousseau cut his leg while working in the studio. It was a minor wound, but the artist absent-mindedly neglected it, probably because he was pining over a 55-year-old widow with whom he was deliriously in love. He developed an infection and died Sept. 2 at age 66. Only seven people attended the funeral. Well, the old character is gone. No need to depress oneself at a burial. He was supposed to be amusing.
Such biographical enigmas are mere gossip unless they bear directly on the quality or expressive vectors of art. That these do is amply clear in a cobweb-clearing retrospective of Rousseau's painting that opened here Thursday at the Museum of Modern Art and remains on view to June 4. Astonishingly, its 60-odd works constitute the very first comprehensive overview of the artist. Most loans from French museums have never before been seen in the United States.
The show originated at Paris' Grand Palais. MOMA is its only American stop. It's another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The fact that our museums are able to offer such singular experiences a few times every year should not make us jaded. Unique is still unique despite strenuous efforts of copywriters and journalists to devaluate the word.
Unique is also the only term adequate to describe Henri Rousseau. He is the only artist of his kind to sit enshrined as a peer with the great innovators of modernism. Facile mental categorization tends to see him as the only "folk" artist to be taken completely seriously by the pros. For decades, he has been used as aesthetic justification for every cute, cunning, over-advantaged matron who wants to paint a little and for every New York illustrator who wants to act innocent while giving us a wise little wink. In short, a lot of bad art has been perpetuated in Rousseau's name, but that is not his fault any more than legions of amateur Assemblagists are Joseph Cornell's.
One good scan of this exhibition proves he was no folk artist. Aside from gut evidence, there is the piquant fact that a couple of landscape studies show he was perfectly capable of broad-brush observed notation from nature that is utterly beyond the grasp of the dogged conceptual procedure of a folkie.
In preparatory and finished versions of a view of the Ile Saint Louis, he starts off with a quasi-Impressionist study that is perfectly sensible spatially. He then seems to add the naive stuff like out-of-scale figures and diminished atmospheric perspective.
Who was this guy, anyway?
That question may never be answered, but one thing is sure--Douanier Rousseau is never quite who he seems. He liked, for example, to create the impression that his great jungle pictures like "The Dream" and the haunting "The Snake Charmer" were inspired when he was on youthful military duty in Mexico.
He never went to Mexico.
He liked to play up his own status as an autodidact but--probably through acquaintance with academic artists like Leon Gerome--Rousseau had a hard-to-get permit to copy in the Louvre. Asked how he retained his fresh vision, he replied, "If I have kept my naivete, it is because M. Gerome always told me to keep it."
Now there is a piece of cunning guilelessness to make Andy Warhol proud.
Rousseau did not even quite deserve his nickname. He was never a douanier , a person who collects customs duties at the national border. He had a minor post with Paris' toll-collecting service, the Octroi. He retired from it at age 49 with a tiny pension.
Artistically, however, Rousseau was something of a metaphorical customs man combined with traffic cop. No wonder the artists had equivocal feelings about him. Looking at his work must have been like being directed down the right road at a complicated intersection and thinking, "How did that guy know where I was going?"