Henri Rousseau

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, March 23, 1985 | Go to article overview
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Henri Rousseau


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


Of the many interesting facts to be gleaned from the catalogue for the exhibition of Henri Rousseau's paintings at the Museum of Modern Art through June 4, I found none more illuminating than Picasso's claim to have painted "The Sleeping Gypsy" himself. As nothing Picasso said about painting was ever less than profound, and as the authenticity of the painting is not in question, it is clear that some deeper truth was intended. With equal justification Picasso could have claimed that it was he who made those legendary African carvings photographed in his studio. Art historians are obsessed with tracking influences--for example, of Rousseau and primitive sculpture on Picasso--but Picasso was implying a deeper structure of historical consciousness, namely that it is we who constitute our pasts. It was precisely Picasso's use of primitive forms, proportions and motifs that transformed those fetishes from objects of ethnological or merely esthetic interest and made them part of the history of modern art. By claiming them artistically, Picasso released an artistic energy up to then unavailable in those figures. And it is something like that relationship that constitutes the truth in his otherwise extravagantly false claim to authorship of Rousseau's painting. Until Rousseau was acclaimed a master by those who saw him as their predecessor, he was a curiosity of fin de siecle bohemia. It took Cubism and Surrealism to awaken structures in Rousseau's work that had to have been invisible to his contemporaries and very probably to himself. The slumbering forms in "The Sleeping Gypsy" yield a parable for the philosophy of art history which it was Picasso's genius to articulate.

The mandolin, lying beside the gypsy, had to have looked awkward until a new vision of the way objects define space made it seem powerful and intense. The gypsy, seen from above, being nosed by a lion, seen in profile, had to have been considered primitive until a reinvention of pictorial space redeemed its visual authenticity. Looking down, or nearly looking down, as we do, on the gypsy, we see her as the lion must see her. The vulnerability of sleep is augmented by the vulnerability conferred by the angle from which she is viewed: the angle of an intruder, before whom she is helpless. Looking slightly up and sideways, we see the lion as the gypsy would see him, were she to awaken. The painting is the intersection of two dimensions of perception that define the space of a dream: we see the dreamer from without and the world of the dreamer from within. Peace and panic coexist within a single frame. Who in the nineteenth century but Rousseau could have achieved anything remotely like this? (The painting is dated 1897.) Painting had to be taken apart and put together in a novel way before this work could be understood. In its classical phase the Museum of Modern Art contained the two great paradigms of what it meant for art to be "modern," "The Sleeping Gypsy" and "Guernica." The discoveries that made the latter possible unlock the structures in the former.

Rousseau had to work hard to look naive. Nothing in the show is more instructive than the juxtaposition of his studies for paintings with the finished works. In a different period of art, when the energies of the loaded brush would be prized, when virtuosity would consist in defining a single form with a single stroke, these studies would have been considered achieved works.

Had the wonderful "Study for a View of Malakoff" (an industrial banlieue south of Paris) been painted in New York in the late 1940s, it would have been a finished work of unmistakable authority. Even in 1908, when the study was painted, it could have been shown with the Fauves and been striking for its restrained tonalities. All this bravura is submerged in the finished "View of Malakoff" in favor of hard-edged forms in paradoxical relationships to one another. We see the figure in the foreground, a woman with a wide hat and a parasol, from above, from an angle that truncates her.

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