Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Promenade in the Forest

Jungles in Paris, the exhibition of Henri Rousseau paintings at Tate Modern prompts several questions about landscape.

Myself Portrait-Landscape (1890) is an example of a ‘new’ type of hybrid painting Rousseau felt he had invented. Hardly new, one might think, and it is easy to see the signifiers in the landscape as a poor substitute for the more subtle qualities of portraiture by a skilled painter. Trying to combine portrait and landscape can be viewed as a naïve error, like an amateur photographer trying to get ‘both in’ to a picture. But perhaps the strangeness of Rousseau’s vision lends both portrait and landscape a dreamlike quality pointing to the way we see people in our imagination.

An earlier work, Carnival Evening (1886), was Rousseau’s first painting for the Société des Indépendants exhibition. Far from being obviously ‘primitive’ it is an intriguing Symbolist landscape, although what gives the painting its arresting quality is not the mysterious characters and the moonlight, but the strange, sinuous shapes of the trees. The same could be said of his other early work: familiar-but-strange trees dominate Promenade in the Forest (c1886) and Rendezvous in the Forest (1889).

Henri Rousseau, Promenade in the Forest (c1886)

When Rousseau came to paint jungles he famously used as his source the tropical foliage on view in the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris. However, he did not use them realistically: the lilies in The Flamingos (1907) for example are simplified and inflated – dominating the canvas far more than the birds. Some of his plants are exaggerated versions of the flowers cultivated in Paris homes. Rousseau’s landscapes are more exotic than any real jungles.

When he turned to the landscape around Paris, Rousseau could provide an unusual perspective, sometimes bringing in aspects of the modern city in a dream-like way, as in Ivry Quay (c1907). However these paintings are not always as strange as one might hope – almost always less inspired than Rousseau’s jungles of the mind.

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