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The Unique Rousseau: Art . . . And Gossip

February 24, 1985|WILLIAM WILSON

In some magical, pedestrian, bumbling, calculated, intuitive, stubborn way, Rousseau was in touch with every major artistic avenue of his time. His jungle pictures combine Post-Impressionist qualities, raking together Gauguin's individuality and exoticism with Seurat's methodical serenity.

Portraits like the lovely 1900 pair of the artist and his second wife, Josephine Noury, are at once as believable as photographs and as self-referential as Cubism. In a catalogue essay by curators Carolyn Lancher and William Rubin, they carry on so much about Rousseau's influence on Picasso it threatens to become a piece about the Spaniard. But there can be little doubt that Picasso found Rousseau already staked out on the turf of the mythic imagination that would absorb so much of his own creative energy. (When Rousseau's "The Sleeping Gypsy" turned up posthumously, it was thought for a time to be a prank faux Rousseau actually painted by Picasso.)

Rousseau managed to hark back to Italian primitives like Giotto, Piero della Francesca or Uccello, and cast his shadow forward over Leger, the Surrealists and recent primitive Neo-Expressionists like Charles Garabedian without ever either looking like them or allowing them to look quite like him.

The exhibition reminds us that Rousseau possessed remarkable pictorial and expressive range. He had a typical French love of simple, everyday events, domestic life and friendships. His landscapes and portraits are full of appreciation of the quotidian but without any of the associated sentimentality or conservatism.

His wonderful "Myself, Portrait Landscape" of 1890 uses his centrally placed monumental figure to represent his near-religious faith in the metier of the artist as a transcendent calling. In the background, he shows an air balloon and bit of the Eiffel Tower at a time when such "modern" subjects were considered subversive of the values of culture and beneath serious depiction.

Of overriding importance, however, is his technical and psychological treatment of form. There is virtually no overt emotive content. Things are simply placed, calmly, and their meaning grows from juxtaposition.

Formally, he concentrates on pattern outline and shape. There is no apparent source of light, but there is light so things either justify themselves as decorative surfaces or they seem to emanate their own glow, like those Chinese lanterns at the banquet.

The result is a kind of visionary flash that gives Rousseau's work the reality of hallucination. It always seems less like some object that we are viewing than a waking dream that materializes before us. Its magical aura lends mythic importance to a lightweight subject like "The Football Players" and takes the sting out of violent motifs. Also, like dreams, it has a matter-of-factness, so even a terrifying vision like "War" is not shocking. It is expressively more effective than a mere propagandistic jolt. Its message of dawning dread finally inspires horror that is as deep as war deserves.

In the best sense, Rousseau produced a kind of fantasy art that illustrators long for and never capture. It also must be admitted that he needs the supporting columns of his greatest work to foster proper appreciation of the rest.

"Liberty Inviting Artists to Take Part in the 22nd Exhibition of the Societe des Artistes Independents" might be mistaken for an oddity by an idealistic crank if the unforgettable chef d'ouevre , "The Dream," were not there to support it. "Old Junyer's Cart" might wax a trifle quaint without "The Snake Charmer" to prove the artist capable of humid sensuality and sinister intimation.

This is a bracing exhibition quite on its own. If we combine it with MOMA's epochal "Primitivism and 20th-Century Art" of last fall, it almost seems they are trying to tell us something.

"Primitivism" gave one the unsettled feeling that much of Modernism was a kind of rip-off of tribal art. The Rousseau exhibition presents us an artist whose personal integrity and artistic authenticity gave him an illusive but nonetheless real originality that outstrips that of some of the more obvious innovators.

Taken together, the two exhibitions may stand as a rebuke to excessive artistic careerism of whatever kind, especially the forced market and socially manipulative ambiance that taints the sphere today.

Rousseau was undoubtedly a bit of a fraud and is a bit of a cult figure. All the same, his little exaggerations and his friends' distortions all point to a borderline saint who sold masterpieces for a song, had an unshakable sense of wonder in life and produced art that encourages everyone to really be their own best selves.

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