Tag Archives: primitive

Henri Rousseau – The Dream

12 Aug

I recently watched the film “Love in the Time of Cholera” (2007) and I really liked the title sequence with a jungle-inspired animation, it reminded me of Henri Rousseau’s imaginative paintings.

Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910

Henri Rousseau’s life and paintings are equally fascinating. They are fascinating because he wasn’t a typical bohemian artist living in Montmartre and in fact started painting rather late in life when he was in his early forties and worked as a tax collector. He at last decided to fully devote himself to art at the age of forty-nine. Another thing which makes him fascinating as an artist is his subject matter; jungles and strange dream-like exotic places filled his canvases. Can you fathom the scope of his imagination when he conjured up such vivid and almost surreal scenes even in the greyness of Parisian winters. Cafes, boulevards, bridges, the Seine, dances and cocottes and dandies, such subjects were all right for Impressionists and Post-Impressionist, but Rousseau followed his own path.

Painting “The Dream” is perhaps Rousseau’s most famous work and an excellent representative of his style. In the middle of a jungle a nude lady is lying on a read couch, surrounded by many different trees and plants, each overshadowing the other with its intricate green colours and fine shadowing. The details seem realistic, while the composition all together is everything but. It is clear this isn’t a faithful portrayal of a jungle or a forest, but a place of Rousseau’s Parisian reveries, but nonetheless it is striking how he captured the mood of a place he never even visited. But perhaps I am wrong, for I have never visited a jungle myself! Anyhow, the nude long-haired lady is not alone. The place is bursting with life, from all corners some strange creatures are breathing, hearts are beating and wild eyes as yellow as amber are glistening strangely. Two lions are lying in the grass; both with mad stares, one is looking at her, and the other at us. Behind the lions stands a dark-skinned flautist, a motif which some art historians have interpreted as being erotic. Around the lady large blue flowers are protruding their petals, and birds are sitting on tree branches. An orange snake in the grass, you can really imagine its moist cold body moving quickly through the grass, hidden from the moonlight. The moon is white and full, and things are not as they seem.

Henri Rousseau, The Snake Charmer, 1907

Another interesting painting is “The Snake Charmer”. A nude dark-skinned woman is playing a flute and, well, charming the snake as the title suggests, but visually her dark horizontal figure is dividing the space on two different places, the lake on the left and the dark impenetrable jungle forest on the right. Three black snakes arise sinisterly from the grass, awaken to the beautiful mystical sounds of the flute which, I am sure, makes the leaves and flowers sigh with delight too. I am constantly amazed at how detailed Rousseau was with painting grass and trees, and how diligent, painting each one with care. Look at each leaf individually, the shape and dark matte colour makes it appear so unnatural, and when observed all together they appear even more surreal. Again, a full moon is shining low on the horizon, over the lake, but its silvery shine doesn’t reach the darkness of the forest.

Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891

Painting “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” is just amazing! Just look at the tiger’s face, full of expression, his mouth in a grin, his eyes wide open. And how vividly Rousseau has portrayed the tropical storm, the pouring rain that could drain you to the bone, the silver thunders, the swaying branches of trees and dancing leaves in many shades of green and yellow. There’s one chapter in Irving Stone’s book about Vincent van Gogh called “Lust for Life”, which is amazing by the way, where Vincent visits Henri Rousseau in his studio in a poor part of Paris. There they find the artist’s room full of jungle scenes on the walls and four boys with their violins waiting for the lecture to begin because Rousseau often gave violin lessons to earn extra money, and plus he loved playing the instrument as well. He is portrayed as someone very humble and detached from the world around him, in a good way, living in his imagination and not very worried about the things around him.

Paul Gauguin and Baudelaire: Exotic Perfume

24 Mar

”…A langorous island, where Nature abounds
With exotic trees and luscious fruit;
And with men whose bodies are slim and astute,
And with women whose frankness delights and astounds… (Charles Baudelaire, Exotic Perfume)*

1894. Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua) - Paul GauguinPaul Gauguin, Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua), 1894

Throughout history some artists felt a need to physically step away from their surroundings; Eugene Delacroix travelled to North Africa, Vincent van Gogh to Arles, while his ‘friend’ Paul Gauguin sought inspiration on the other side of the world – on Tahiti. Gauguin desperately tried to escape the rotten European civilization, he said: Civilization is what makes you sick, and he first set sail for Tahiti on 1 April 1891. Vibrant-coloured landscape, voluptuous women, warm sea, sunny weather, exotic trees and luscious fruit all undoubtedly had a lasting impact on Gauguin’s art.

Painting Day of the Gods (Mahana no atua) is a great example of Gauguin’s vibrant landscapes. It shows that he soaked up the atmosphere of Tahiti. Gauguin painted it in 1894, either in Paris or in the small Breton village of Pont Aven. It wasn’t the most productive year of his life; he was in poor health and in debts. However, the painting illustrates Gauguin’s thought ‘I shut my eyes in order to see‘; the landscape he painted came from the memory, and no matter how exotic and vibrant Tahiti was in reality, Gauguin’s painting is deliberately more colourful.

Subject of this painting is Polynesian religion. Central place in the background is occupied by a goddess Hina. I’m not particularly a connoisseur of Polynesian mythology and religion, so I’m going to quote Richard Brettell: ‘…idol Hina, which Gauguin derived less from Tahitian or Polynesian traditions than from Indian and Southeast Asian prototypes. For this reason, the painting can be interpreted as representing a universal, non-Christian religion.’ (source) A few more figures grace the background; two women carrying food, probably fruit, on a plate, possibly in order to offer them to the goddess, then a flute-playing woman that sits below the statue of Hina, and two dancers in red-orange tunics.Behind the scene we see a long beach with yellow sand, mountains and blue sky with clouds. Three interesting figures in the foreground symbolise the three Ages of Man — birth, life, and death, which is reminiscent of the story of Oedipus and Sphinx’s riddle. Sphinx’s question was: What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?‘ And Oedipus’ reply was: ‘Man.‘ The pool is perhaps the most interesting thing in the painting. Its surface is utterly unrelated to anything that goes on in the scene; it shows nor the reflections of the sky nor the figures on the beach, but the irregular spots of orange, indigo, light blue, red, green and yellow colour. This leads us to Gauguin’s perception of art, which is based upon symbolism, on dreams and metaphors.

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Do not copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction.* (Gauguin)

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Gauguin’s ‘getaway’ from Europe and his disgust with Western civilisation represent the sentiment shared across Europe within intellectual and artistic circles, in times of ‘fin de siecle’. Gauguin wanted to escape from ‘everything that is artificial and conventional’, and hoped to live a more pure, primitive life on Tahiti. Baudelaire embarked on a somewhat similar journey, thought not willingly. He was sent to India by his stepfather in order to break his bad habits of visiting brothels, drinking, not focusing on his studies etc. Although short, the trip infused in him a sentiment for exoticism, sea and sailing, and that resulted in poems such as ‘Exotic Perfume’. I often had similar thoughts myself; about purity of life somewhere on the island, untainted by civilisation, somewhere where one could walk barefoot all day, pick fruit off the branches and eat it, really feel the rain… But, just like Baudelaire, for me the reveries about exotic lands would be better than reality of actually living there. I’m a product of European culture, and that’s something I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to deprive myself from.