I heard a rumor that some artists went to visit Henri Rousseau and were shocked that he put one of his paintings on the floor for them to walk on because he didn’t have a rug. Was he naive? Crazy? Suffering from low self-esteem? It doesn’t matter. He was unique and so was his art. He developed his own unschooled way of painting images that made sense only to his imagination.
Pictures were the first way of telling stories, beginning on cave walls, then temple walls and palace walls. But museum walls now seem to claim that stories hurt the painting, and maybe with good reason—having been beaten over the head with the crucifixion image, one no longer wants to look at it no matter how well it is painted. But the stories of Rousseau’s paintings are mysterious poems rather than didactic lessons on morality.
What I love most about Rousseau’s paintings is that they are like Rorschach tests—they are definitely pictures, paintings of a story, but the story is unknown. There’s a vacuum in your brain and you start desperately—like a neurotic housewife—trying to fill in the story with your own problems. For instance, in The Dream (1910), why is a naked lady sitting on a red velvet upholstered couch in the middle of the jungle surrounded by dangerous animals? She is a sorcerer? Animals are friendly if you are naked? She is dreaming in the living room without any clothes on? I’m pissed off at my wife—she should get a job. You know why all the fucking plants look phallic? She’s cheating on me.
The Sleeping Gypsy (1897) painting is innocent, yet sophisticated, with a stillness that is timeless—but even the stars wear out. The only thing that is timeless is my subconscious (the mad housewife) because she doesn’t know what time it is. She starts filling in the story with a little guilty truth I have been trying to ignore. It steals into Rousseau’s canvas, stretches out like a cat and relaxes. Then, later on, it wanders over to the sleeping gypsy. He is my boyfriend and the lion, of course is me. So why am I not making lunch of his liver? Because I love him. When he wakes up I will be just a girl again and he will be another boy who dreams of being a rock star. He doesn’t understand where he is right now—in the desert of reality where the air gets thinner as you grow older.
With Rousseau the blocks are there but you get to build your own castle. I think he must have been unafraid, the kind of guy who would let you walk right into his painting.
Artillery Magazine Vol 8 Issue 4 Mar-Apr 2014