Back to the Future

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Sue Jones looks at the visionary art of Henri Rousseau.

Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) created some of the most instantly recognisable and best loved paintings of the modern era. He is most famous for his lush, dreamlike jungle paintings, many of which feature in this huge collection, the first exhibition of Rousseau's work in this country for over 80 years.

Rousseau was born into a petty bourgeois family in a small French market town. He served in the army and then found employment as a minor civil servant. He lived most of his life in poverty, outliving two wives and seeing six of his seven children die in infancy.

Despite this fairly desperate life, Rousseau taught himself to paint when he was in his forties. He never left France, and the jungle paintings for which he is now so famous were the dreams of a city boy. However, Rousseau was an artist of his time, and his paintings are very much a reflection of the dynamic age in which he lived.

At the end of the 19th century Paris was the place to be. It was the centre of the artistic and cultural world, and was at the forefront of progress in science and technology. The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889, and Paris displayed its achievements to the world in a series of huge World's Fair exhibitions. Rousseau was very enthusiastic about technological advances and proud of France. Although he is famous for his jungle scenes, he painted a number of landscapes of Paris where he explored the industrialisation of the city. The Customs Post (1890) is a depiction of Rousseau's workplace painted while he was still working there. Central to the picture, an integral part of the Parisian landscape is two factory chimneys. Other works show telegraph poles and wires, railways, and in Ivry Quay (1907) we see an airship floating serenely over sunny Paris.

The jungle paintings are also a response to Europe's imperialist expansion during this period. France colonised Cambodia and Tunisia, Stanley made expeditions into the Congo, and the Indian Empire was proclaimed. The public and press were fascinated by these exploits. Magazines, books and popular images celebrating the exoticism of the jungle and savage nature were available everywhere. Rousseau used images from periodicals and even studied stuffed animals as sources of inspiration, which may account for the slightly peculiar expressions on some of the animals' faces.

Rousseau's pride in the republic is illustrated in a number of allegorical works shown in the exhibition. The Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to Greet the Republic as a Sign of Peace (1907) is a rather sickly and overwhelmingly patriotic imagining of the Tsar, the Kaiser and King Edward VII coming together along with the colonies to celebrate France's power in the world. However, the one allegorical painting which was hardly likely to endear him to the establishment is War (1894). An insane child brandishing weapons gleefully gallops a nightmare horse through a landscape of destruction strewn with dead bodies. This is perhaps the most astonishing painting of the exhibition, and is thought to have been influenced by the violent smashing of the Paris Commune and the Franco-Prussian War. Despite the fact that throughout his life Rousseau yearned to be accepted by the conservative art establishment, this painting and the jungle landscapes in particular show a break with the traditional and herald the approach of Modernism.

Despite the presence of more rarely seen paintings it is still the jungle paintings that are the main attraction. Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised) (1891) was the first of Rousseau's jungle paintings. When this painting was first exhibited Rousseau was widely ridiculed and, as a result, did not paint another jungle scene for ten years. He did return to the jungle theme in later paintings. The Merry Jesters (1906) foreshadows the surrealists, as Rousseau shows the monkeys playing in the jungle with a backscratcher and a milk bottle, trappings of civilisation in the savage world. The Dream (1910), Rousseau's last major painting, confounded critics who were unable to understand why a naked woman should be lounging on a sofa in the middle of the jungle. Yet again this painting marks a break from the traditional style of realistic representation in art. And these paintings are beautiful. The foliage, some based on plants seen in the botanical gardens, some imagined, is amazing. Each individual leaf and blade of grass is clearly defined, and there are creatures peering from deep in the jungle. When I was a child I believed the jungle looked like this.

Rousseau was never accepted by the conservative French Academy and the traditionalists. He died in poverty and was buried in a pauper's grave. However, he was hailed as a great artist and visionary by Picasso, Magritte and Ernst, who admired Rousseau's primitive style of painting and viewed him as being part of a force that was changing the face of art.

Henri Rousseau - Jungles in Paris
Tate Modern, London
Until 5 February 2006