“The hungry lion throws itself on the antelope, devours him. . . Birds of prey have each torn a strip of flesh from the poor animal that is shedding a tear! The sun sets.” Henri Rousseau.
The French poet Apollinaire once described how his friend Rousseau would quite genuinely become frightened by his own creations. He would tremble and rush away from his easel to open a studio window. For him, the images he was making took on a real life of their own. He once said that he didn’t mind sleeping in his uncomfortable studio. “You know when I wake up,” he said, “I can smile at my canvases.”
It’s this curious inner life of his which lend Rousseau’s images something extra.
The wilderness scenes that Rousseau depicts are all a product of his imagination. He never went to a jungle, never saw any of the exotic wild animals he depicted, not alive at least. He would use reference from botanical journals and visit botanical gardens to inspire his jungles. For his animals he used the stuffed variety. What Rousseau used most was his sinister imagination. Leaves and flowers are magnified even beyond the fantastic fertility of the tropics. Interwoven and interlocking, they form a barrier and convey a sense of the impenetrability of his jungles. Within his jungles and furtively there is always an ambundance of hidden life, full of menace. The rhythmic beauty of the repeated leaf shapes in Rousseau’s landscapes is extraordinary. As a decorator of a canvas expanse, he is difficult to surpass; but the real wonder of his painting lies in its imaginative realism, in its powerful conception, in the degree to which the artist is possessed by his subject until the scene he depicts comes alive in a strange, almost magical way.
Welcome to the jungle of Rousseau’s imagination.
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