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When Paris went wild

July 23, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

THE thing about Henri Rousseau is that he never seems to fit.

What to make of a self-taught artist who worked as a clerk in a customs office, took up painting in middle age and conceived of himself as an academic standard bearer but made his mark as an eccentric outsider? An artist who was glorified and denigrated for creating a strange body of work with knowing innocence and raw talent? A fabulist who painted wild animals as bloodthirsty beasts and as cuddly toys with smiley faces?

Today, nearly a century after Rousseau's death, his paintings hang in prestigious museums around the world. Art history books respectfully describe him as a folk artist of genius, an archetypal, untutored force whose dream-like paintings anticipated Surrealism and inspired many mainstream artists. Still, he remains a source of popular fascination and scholarly study partly because there is no one else quite like him.

And now there's "Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris," a major exhibition that opened last winter at the Tate Modern in London, moved on to the Grand Palais in Paris and is making its final appearance, through Oct. 15, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The show covers the full range of his work, including landscapes, allegories and portraits, but focuses on the jungle paintings. The exotic scenes of birds, beasts, reptiles and tropical plants are Rousseau's supreme achievement -- and all the more fascinating because he conjured them up without leaving his French homeland.

The curators have gathered dozens of clues to the sources and social context of Rousseau's work in photographs, stereographs, posters, magazines, newspapers and other documents, displayed in the exhibition and detailed in the accompanying catalog. But the jungle paintings and related material say as much about the heyday of French colonialism and the preoccupations of late 19th and early 20th century Paris as they do about the artist. The city that nourished Rousseau's imagination fed public hunger for foreign wonders and exotic dangers with a banquet of world's fairs, botanical and zoological gardens, museum exhibits, travel literature and picture postcards.

Rousseau (1844-1910) created his first jungle painting, "Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)," in 1891, two years after the 1889 world's fair in Paris. Staged as a centennial commemoration of the French Revolution, in the shadow of the then-new Eiffel Tower, the fair also celebrated colonialism. A grand pavilion overlooked reconstructions of villages from Africa, Asia and the South Seas, populated by natives.

The big cat prowling through the rain-drenched jungle in "Surprised!" came from Eugene Delacroix's 1862 painting "Tiger and Snake." But the world's fair may have awakened Rousseau's interest in such subject matter, and he had plenty of opportunities to see wild animals, live and stuffed, regularly in Paris. The Jardin des Plantes, a large botanical garden, offered a zoo and a natural history museum stocked with taxidermic specimens in dioramas and glass cases.

"Surprised!" got a rave review from critic Felix Vallotton, who deemed it "the alpha and omega of painting and so disconcerting that the most firmly held convictions must be shaken and brought up short by such self-sufficiency and childlike naivete." Despite the praise, several years passed before Rousseau pursued jungle paintings in earnest. When he did, he didn't have to look far for inspiration.

Brave new worlds

LIKE many other Parisians, he was probably taken with heart-stopping images of fearsome animals in the popular press. A 1909 cover of Le Petit Journal's illustrated supplement depicts a soldier pointing a gun to the mouth of a tiger that has pinned him to the ground. A humorous illustration from the same year portrays an artist at his easel being attacked by a boa constrictor unwinding itself from the body of a female model. Snakes also popped up in fine art. A bronze statue of a snake charmer by sculptor Charles Arthur Bourgeois was installed by the reptile house in the Jardin des Plantes. Rousseau painted his own snake charmer in 1907, depicting a nude, dark-skinned flute player with an audience of writhing black silhouettes on a tropical riverbank.

Scholars have not pinpointed sources for every last leaf, flower and animal in Rousseau's jungle paintings, but they have cited striking correlations. "Senegal Lion Devouring an Antelope," a taxidermic display prepared for the 1889 opening of zoological galleries in the Parisian natural history museum -- and on display in the current exhibition -- obviously inspired his 1905 painting, "The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope." "Lion and Corpse," a sculpture by Alfred Jacquemart in the Jardin des Plantes, was probably the model for the beast in Rousseau's nocturnal desert masterpiece, "The Sleeping Gypsy."

Making such connections is enlightening as well as great fun for exhibition visitors. But the sources don't fully explain the look of Rousseau's art. As the curators point out, his paintings were collages of visual information gathered from many sources and filtered through a distinctive sensibility. Rousseau was an artist of a particular place and time, but he was also his own person.

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