Merry Jesting

Rousseau_Carriole-Juniet

(Henri Rousseau, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (1908): Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.)

Published in the Partisan Review in the summer of 1939, Elizabeth Bishop’s appreciation of Gregorio Valdes made no claims for him as a great painter—‘sometimes he was not even a good “primitive”’—and observed that the artist himself saw no difference between ‘what we think of as his good pictures and his poor pictures’, that success and failure seemed to be merely a matter of luck. Most were copied from photographs or reproductions, nevertheless, ‘when he copied, particularly from a photograph, and particularly from a photograph of something he knew and liked, such as palm trees, he managed to make just the right changes in perspective and coloring to give it a peculiar and captivating freshness, flatness, and remoteness.’

Bishop commissioned Valdes to paint a picture of the Key West house she was living in with Louise Crane, and asked the painter for extras: more flowers, ‘a monkey that lived next door, a parrot and a certain kind of palm tree, called the Traveller’s Palm.’ She began her memoir by describing the first Valdes painting that she saw, ‘a real View’: ‘In the middle of the road was the tiny figure of a man on a donkey, and far away on the right the white speck of a thatched Cuban cabin that seemed to have the same mysterious properties of perspective as the little dog in Rousseau’s The Cariole of M. Juniot.’[1] In letters of that period, she referred to Valdes as ‘our new Key West Rousseau’ and ‘our local Rousseau’.[2]

In 1949, Flannery O’Connor met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, and subsequently moved into their house, Ridgefield, Connecticut, as a paying guest. In a letter to Janet McKane, 27 August 1963, O’Connor wrote: ‘Thanks so much for the museum bulletins with devilish dogs etc. The dog I like in painting is one in a painting of Rousseau. I don’t know the name of it but the family is in a wagon, all looking ahead and there is one dog in the wagon and one underneath, kind of prim diabolical dogs. It’s very funny. It used to hang in the Fitzgeralds’ kitchen (the people I lived with in Connecticut) but I have never seen it anywhere else.’[3]

OConnor-InaDillardRussellLibrary

(Flannery O’Connor: Ina Dillard Russell Library via New Georgia Encyclopedia)

It is, of course, the same painting, ‘La carriole du père Juniet’ (‘Old Juniet’s Cart’), by Henri Rousseau, commonly called ‘Le Douanier’, although ‘he was never a douanier (customs inspector) but a gabelou (employee of the municipal toll service).’[4] Like most of the work of Valdes, Rousseau’s painting began with a photograph, ‘which shows how he selected and revised at will. The bleak snapshot is transformed into a study of red wheels and shafts penetrating masses of black. In the painting the people sit in a compact arrangement in the cart, with space around them, instead of standing formlessly on the kerb. They have become, recognizably, creatures of Rousseau’s vision.’[5] (And four of the people in the picture plus one dog are, pace O’Connor’s memory, not looking ahead but rather at us—only old Juniet and two of the dogs seem to be looking ahead.)

Rousseau has consistently been mocked or celebrated, and sometimes both simultaneously, as was the case with most of the guests attending the famous banquet, given in Rousseau’s honour by Pablo Picasso and Fernande Olivier at the Bateau Lavoir, probably on 21 November 1908. Those guests included Guillaume Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, André Salmon and Georges Braque. Many years later, Picasso commented that it was ‘vraiment une blague [really a joke]. Nobody believed in his talent, only Rousseau took it seriously. He wept with joy.’ And yet Picasso was ‘the only person present who genuinely admired Rousseau’s work.’[6]

André Derain commented on the work of Henri Rousseau that, ‘“It seems hardly worthwhile searching and using technical training, when a person so simple, so pure, such a dope, in fact, can succeed in giving such an impression; his work is the triumph of the dopes.”’[7] Nevertheless, his influence on several other painters, notably Robert Delaunay, is often remarked, and Guy Davenport suggests that Picasso’s career-long habit of ‘combining full face and profile’, which became ‘a stylistic trademark’, prompted Rousseau’s ‘perfectly accurate observation, “You and I, M. Picasso, are the two greatest living painters, I in the modern manner, you in the Egyptian,” the full-face eye in a face seen sideways being the rule in Egyptian drawing.’[8]

So too, the impact of the Rousseau retrospective at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants (the year following his death) was considerable. The younger artists ‘conspired to present a retrospective exhibition’ of forty-seven of Rousseau’s paintings. ‘Esteemed as a true “primitive” by Delaunay and Léger, Rousseau was considered a precursor by the salon cubists, on a par with Cézanne, another modernist primitive’.[9]

John, Gwen, 1876-1939; A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris

(Gwen John, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris: Museums Sheffield)

There were other, perhaps less predictable, appreciations. ‘In the Indépendants a man named Rousseau had a collection of pictures which you would be very interested in, I’m sure’, Gwen John wrote in a letter of 22 August 1911. ‘He has died lately. He was a douanier and at fifty year[s] old he felt he must paint and so he painted, not knowing at all how to paint. His pictures are very remarkable works, as you can imagine, but they are works of art. I hope you will be able to see them some day, but I don’t know where they are now. I suppose they have gone to his family. The other exhibitors in the Indépendants are just mad people.’[10]

Among recent critics, Robert Hughes wrote that Rousseau meant his visions to be absolutely real, the authenticity of the jungle scenes resting on a tissue of fibs about serving in the French army in Mexico in the 1860s. It was important, Hughes went on, that these spectacles ‘should seem witnessed, not invented’ – and they had, in fact, been witnessed twice, once in Rousseau’s imagination, once more in the Jardin des Plantes.[11] In fact, Roger Shattuck comments, much of the ‘lingering falsehood’ stems from Apollinaire’s articles, in which he stated that Rousseau ‘went to Mexico with troops sent by Napoleon III to support Maximilian, and that it is the memory of the “forbidden” tropical fruits in Central America that obsessed him in his jungle paintings.’ There’s no evidence of such a trip but, as Shattuck remarks, ‘Rousseau’s imagination was capable of its own voyages.’[12]

So it was. His paintings are unsettling but oddly compelling, with their huge children and tiny animals, moustachioed figures frozen in peculiar poses, startling vegetation, sly self-portraits, the sleeping gypsy (who is, in fact, awake, though pretending to be dead), the velvety exoticism of his snake-charmer.

Rousseau_Merry_Jesters

(Henri Rousseau, Les joyeux farceurs: Louis and Walter Arensberg Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

‘Until we are willing to enter Rousseau’s world’, Guy Davenport writes, ‘we are going to misread all his paintings.’ (He has just discussed five such misreadings, of Rousseau’s Les joyeux farceurs.) And, ‘What, psychologically, was most useful to Rousseau was not childishness but a quality wholly mature: the ability to fool himself.’ That is, he saw his paintings as he wished to see them. ‘In this he was a kind of Don Quixote; and, as with the Don, Rousseau wins us over to his way of seeing.’[13]

In a letter to Hugh Kenner (1 March 1963), accompanying his long poem, Flowers and Leaves, Davenport signed himself ‘The Douanier Rousseau of Poetry’ (Kenner’s letter of 1 May 1963 began ‘Dear Mr Rousseau’).[14] * And, as Davenport mentions in the essay just cited, Monsieur Rousseau is there, in that poem:

Henri Rousseau’s garden jungle
Is sincerity’s domain.

And:

Mr Rousseau, master in the modern manner,
Has depicted us in forests of flowers, inquisitive
As catfish, intelligent as Miss Gertrude Stein.[15]

* (Currently scheduled for October this year, and keenly awaited in some quarters, is Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward Burns, published by Counterpoint Press: a total of 2016 – no, that’s not a date – pages: two volumes of a thousand pages each. Quoted price is $95.00 which, given that a lot of slim UK monographs come in at £70 or even £80 these days, seems a snip.)

 

 

References

[1] ‘Gregorio Valdes, 1879-1939’, in Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Library of America, 2008), 326-332.

[2] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 75; Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, 746.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 1190.

[4] Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, revised edition (New York: Vintage, 1968), 46.

[5] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 100.

[6] John Richardson, A Life of Picasso. Volume II, 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life (London: Pimlico, 1997), 110, 112.

[7] Derain, in Denys Sutton, André Derain (London: Phaidon, 1959), 27: quoted in Judi Freeman, The Fauve Landscape (London: Guild Publishing, 1990), 110.

[8] Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 68.

[9] Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten, editors, A Cubism Reader: Documents and Criticism, 1906-1914 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008), 120, 121.

[10] Gwen John to John Quinn, in Letters and Notebooks, edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 69.

[11] Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, revised edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), 229.

[12] Shattuck, The Banquet Years, 46.

[13] Guy Davenport, ‘What Are Those Monkeys Doing?’, in Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 14, 26.

[14] Edward M. Burns, ‘Questioning Minds: The Letters of Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport’, The Hopkins Review, 8, 3 (Summer 2015), 338-371 (349).

[15] Guy Davenport, Flowers and Leaves (Flint, Michigan: Baumberger Books, 1991), 91, 110.

 

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