One hundred years after the death of the French artist Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), the Fondation Beyeler
is devoting an exhibition to this pioneer of modernism. Forty outstanding works provide a concise overview of the development and diversity of his oeuvre. A customs official, Rousseau had no formal art training and initially painted in his free time. Many years passed before his art, non-academic and long considered merely naive, found recognition in the Paris salons. In addition to the legendary jungle pictures characteristic of his late work, Rousseau also painted views of Paris and environs, as well as figures, portraits, allegories and genre scenes. With Monet, Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin, Rousseau was one of the artists whose visual inventions paved the way for incipient modernism. After the great Impressionists and their direct heirs had developed a new view of the visual world, Rousseau tapped sources beyond the academic tradition for modern artists to come. Never having attended an art school and supposedly naive, he brought genres such as the imaginary, dreamlike landscape to an unexpected culmination in his jungle paintings.
The exhibition illustrates how Rousseau brought together aspects of civilization and nature and adapted highly diverse themes to his visual conception. Individual motifs such as leaves and trees, but also figures and entire compositional schemes or elements were transferred from picture to picture. These basic patterns, expanded by means of combination and variation into a rich range of motifs and genres, were applied both to French and exotic subject matter. Rousseau defined the picture space by staggering pictorial elements from background to foreground, a method that would later be adopted by the Cubists. This additive pictorial structure, in the form of painted collage, anticipated the autonomy of the picture plane that would become so characteristic of modernism and fascinated young artists such as Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger.
In order to bring out these special aspects of Rousseaus oeuvre, the exhibition employs two forms of presentation. On the one hand, it shows Rousseaus thematic focuses on the basis of groups of works distributed among the different exhibition rooms. An introductory documentation room is followed by rooms devoted to portraits and the small-format French landscapes, and finally by the large hall, whose effect is primarily determined by the jungle pictures. Within this arrangement, space is reserved for a selection of special groupings and pairs of paintings in which the conventional genre borderlines are purposely transcended. This enables us to trace the migration of motifs and play of oppositions that are so typical of Rousseau. For instance, the late jungle painting Forêt vierge au soleil couchant, c. 1910, is directly confronted with the figurative Les joueurs de football, 1908. The ball hovering over the players recalls a setting sun, spirited from the forest picture a well-nigh surrealistic composition that would later inspire Max Ernst and René Magritte.
Also for the first time in the present exhibition, three major Rousseau works will be shown in immediate proximity with one another, works in quite different genres yet based on a nearly identical compositional scheme: the rural scene La noce, 1904-05, La muse inspirant le poète, 1909 (from the series known as portrait landscapes), and Joyeux farceurs, a jungle painting of 1906.
Initially Rousseau painted mostly small-format pictures representing French suburbs and the surrounding countryside in his immediate environment. There gradually crystallized out a special interest in motifs in which transitional zones from rationally organized civilization and unorganized, wild nature came to the fore. In the small French landscapes, the wildnerness appears in the form of dense woods in the background, a separate visual realm where nature is visible through a fence or behind a fortification wall. In Loctroi, c.1890, for example, the transition point is marked by one of the customs offices in which the Douanier served until 1893. This passage from the well-ordered and familiar to the unknown and alien was an ongoing and crucial feature of Rousseaus compositions, as can be seen in Promeneurs dans un parc, 1907-08. In his famous jungle paintings the artist, who had never actually set foot in a jungle, finally succeeded in leaving the sphere of domestication behind at least in imagination and taking sides with the wilderness. Using much larger formats than previously, Rousseau lent these dreamed-of forests a compelling visual reality.
The culmination of the exhibition is accordingly formed by a significant group of Rousseaus renowned jungle pictures. Apart from his very first work in this genre, Surpris! of 1891 (National Gallery, London), the major, mysterious La charmeuse de serpents, 1907 (Musée dOrsay, Paris) deserves mention. A direct link with the Beyeler Collection is formed by the monumental major work Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur lantilope, 1895/1905, shown at Rousseaus first appearance at the Salon dAutomne in Paris in 1905. In March 1906, Ambroise Vollard acquired the sensational painting the first Rousseau ever to enter the art trade. It came into Ernst Beyelers collection in 1988, and, upon the inauguration of the Fondation Beyeler in 1997, the painting was given a room to itself and thus a special place of honor.
In addition, the exhibition focuses on Rousseaus well-documented interest in photography. A few of his compositions such as La carriole du père Junier, 1908 were provably based directly on photographs. In the course of the painting process he created an entirely new world, arranging its elements into an image layer by layer in front of his imaginary camera lens. Yet for all his photographic realism, Rousseau always strove to keep the depicted world at a distance, as in La noce, 1904-05, whose distortions of scale and proportions with respect to the original model are immediately obvious.
Rousseau introduced a new approach to imaginative vision into painting. His perception of reality was based primarily on observation, imitation and transformation of the visible. In this way, he taught modern artists how things unknown could be constructed using the building blocks of the known. He established a new logic and mechanics of compositional structure that profoundly affected subsequent artists, all the way down to the Surrealists. Among the first to realize Rousseaus outstanding significance were his close friend, the young Robert Delaunay, and Wassily Kandinsky. The Banquet Rousseau, held in his honor at Picassos studio in the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre in November 1908, has since become legendary. The guests included George Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Gertrude and Leo Stein. To reflect this link, works from the collection by Cubist artists, Picasso and Léger will be on view in adjacent rooms. This provides viewers with an opportunity to trace the way in which Rousseaus methods were adopted and developed by following generations.
Many renowned museums and collections in Europe and America have contributed to the success of the exhibition by their generous provision of loans. A great number of pictures come from the Musée national de lOrangerie and Musée dOrsay in Paris. Further lenders are the Musée national Picasso and Musée national dart moderne / Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the National Gallery, The Samuel Courtauld Trust / The Courtauld Gallery, and The Mayor Gallery, London; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; the Kunstmuseum Basel; the Kunsthaus Zurich; and a number of private collections.
The exhibition and accompanying catalogue were conceived by Philippe Büttner, Curator at the Fondation Beyeler, in collaboration with Christopher Green, Professor emeritus for Art History at the Courtauld Institute, London. Green was co-curator of the exhibition Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris, shown in 2005-06 at the Tate Modern, the Grand Palais, Paris, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.