Henri Rousseau La Charmeuse de serpents/ L’Incantatrice di serpenti 1907 olio su tela, cm 167 x 189,5 Parigi, Musée d’Orsay © RMN‐Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski
An extremely unusual painter, Henri Rousseau is a unique figure in the history of European art. His work is, however, in keeping with his time, the dawn of the 20th century. Far from being yet another celebration of the Douanier Rousseau’s naïve style, this exhibition now at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (first presented in Venice in 2015, at the Palazzo Ducale) aims to show how much his work belongs within a western art movement which, in both America and Europe, from the 16th century until the first decades of the 20th, adopted a stylistic model that was archaic, by setting – consciously or otherwise – an “anticlassical” painting against the “official” painting of the various epochs.
By comparing this artist’s painting with several of his sources of inspiration: academic painting, new painting and the avant-garde artists who enthroned him as the father of modernity, The Douanier Rousseau. Archaic Candour exhibition will shed a critical light on his art by reflecting on the notion of archaism.
Works by Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Carlo Carrà, Diego Rivera, Max Ernst, as well as other lesser-known or anonymous artists will evoke the wealth of interconnections woven around the Douanier Rousseau, the catalyst who stimulated an original way of exploring modernity. The emphasis is on the Douanier Rousseau’s fundamental role in asserting the Parisian and the international avant-garde: Picasso, Delaunay, and the artists of the German avant-garde, at the forefront of which was Kandinsky.
These artists not only admired Rousseau’s work and took him as a source of inspiration for their own work, but also collected his paintings. Moi-même, portrait-paysage [Myself, Landscape Portrait] (1889-1890, Prague, Narodni Galerie) and the Portrait de Monsieur X (dit Pierre Loti) [Portrait of Monsieur X] [Pierre Loti] (1906, Kunsthaus Zürich) announce, at the start of the exhibition, the uniqueness of the work of the artist who asserts that he invented the “landscape-portrait” genre: in fact, this style goes back to the portraits of the old masters, demonstrated in le Portrait d’homme au bonnet rouge [Portrait of an Unknown Man with a Red Beret] by Vittore Carpaccio (Venice, Museo Correr); this work would, in turn, influence several generations of artists such as Fernand Léger who took his inspiration for Le Mécanicien [The Mechanic] (Montréal, Musée des Beaux-Arts) from Portrait de Pierre Loti.
Designed around this dialogue between echoes of the past and anticipation of the future, the exhibition is set out along the recurrent themes in the painter’s work: still landscapes, populated with anonymous figurines and “homage” to the new modernity of airplanes and airships, still lifes and portraits of solitary, and often disturbing, children (Pour Fêter bébé ! [To Celebrate the Baby!], 1903, Wintherthur, Kunstmuseum), which had made a deep impression on Picasso and Carrà in particular. This “family” dimension in his art developed in parallel with his dreamlike images of a wild and savage world: masterpieces such as Le Rêve [The Dream] (1910, New York, MoMA), a fantasy vision heralding the atmospheres of Surrealism, will be displayed alongside Jungles (Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope) [Jungles (The Hungry Lion throws itself on the Antelope], Bâle, Fondation Beyeler). “Enormous compositions in which the grotesque goes together with the tender, the absurd with the magnificent”, as Ardengo Soffici wrote in 1910, they remain a testimony to this visionary artist with “the innocent eye of a child”.