The Tate Modern’s current exhibition Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris consists of 12 rooms devoted entirely to Rousseau’s work—from allegorical patriotic paintings to portraiture and Parisian cityscapes. However, as the title suggests, the show’s focus is on the artist’s famous jungle paintings. Unlike many large-scale exhibitions on well-known artists, Jungles in Paris was conceived not merely to attract the ‘untapped masses’ who typically would not while away a Saturday afternoon in the silent half-light of a museum. More daringly, Jungles endeavours to give the viewer a road map to Rousseau’s imagination.
Rarely if ever do curators set about this difficult and dangerous task. Such an exercise of cartography is not only risky, it demands hours of historical research in pursuit of a necessarily illusive object. To deconstruct and reconstruct the visual, artistic, and historical hues that make up the imaginary palette seems a thankless and impossible task. However, the curators from the Tate Modern—aided by members of the Courtauld and the Musée d’Orsay—have largely achieved just that with their show.
Each of the tropical works in the exhibit is allowed ample wallspace to divorce the viewer from the museum and to be both fascinated and disconcerted by the often childish or at least non-academic paintings before them. Dramatic titles like ‘Tiger in a tropical storm (surprised!)’ and ‘The hungry lion throws itself on the antelope’ bring The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau more readily to mind than high art. The canvases leave the viewer comfortably behind a foreground of foliage while we watch the fantastic events unfold. Orchids, oranges, palm fronds, bananas, and exotic ferns abound, partially camouflaging a host of bêtes et hommes sauvages in sumptuously coloured ‘portrait landscapes.’ In short, we are voyeurs in Rousseau’s disconcertingly different world of the equatorial jungle.
This jungle, as the exhibit succeeds in establishing, is the product of an imagination nourished by a small number of pinpointable sources. Indeed, the art is almost eclipsed by the curators’ demonstration of how a life-long patent officer who never left France could call forth a world of gypsies, jungles, and tigers that would determine our ‘aesthetic of the exotic’ for the next century. Carefully chosen artefacts from Rousseau’s contemporary Paris et environs reveal both the bourgeois and popular fascination with the stories and images brought back by the Republic’s explorers in Senegal and the Congo. Rousseau, like most Parisians of the day, avidly read the Journal des Voyages and Le Journal Illustré which filled their imaginations with pictures of wild beasts and savages. Likewise, he frequently marveled at the tropical acquisitions at the Jardin des Plants.
The 1889 World’s Fair (which not insignificantly coincided with Rousseau’s first forays into painting) brought hundreds of thousands to the Place des Invalides to gawk at the mini-villages of Senegalese and Nubian ‘savages.’ To quote the exhibit’s literature, by ‘abolishing distances between home and abroad, the familiar and the exotic, the Worlds’ Fairs recreated the world within a city.’ Heaps of photos, post cards, movies, magazine covers, and even stuffed animals (taxidermy, not teddy bears) map out with great precision just how the bureaucrat Rousseau amassed the imaginary capital to succeed in giving the viewer a credible representation of ‘the jungle.’
If the curators are indeed ‘cartographers,’ the grand finale of the show—The Dream from 1910—could be thought of as Rousseau’s travel log along the journey from imagination to reality. A nude reclines on a divan, peering out incredulously on the scene in which she finds herself. Elephants and lions, snakes and birds, and a flute-playing ‘benevolent magician’ greet her (and us) in the world of her own imagination made manifest. The line between the real and the irreal is blurred when the nude is confronted with what she had taken as pure fantasy—much as Paris had been confronted at the 1889 World’s Fair. She goes through much the same process that we the viewer experience when seeing Rousseau’s paintings.
Here the artist is trying to represent not the jungle but the experience of the exotic. Rousseau’s cartoonish style and naïve treatment of distant realities is not, as some would suggest, a product of his own ignorance or provincialism, but rather his preoccupation with transporting the viewer into a world where the real and the imaginary are fused by the exotic. It is this endeavour that caused André Breton to remark in 1959 that ‘it is with Rousseau that we can speak for the first time of Magic Realism’.
By means of the meticulous work of its curators, Jungles in Paris shifts our understanding and experience of Rousseau’s paintings away from mere orientalist fetishism by showing us the reality out of which the images grew. The bizarre circumstances of the patent officer’s mediated contact with the flora and fauna of the jungle somehow allowed the artist to gain a certain ‘imaginary verisimilitude.’ One expects to find Rousseau’s surprised tiger and not Delacroix’s lions as much while exploring the equatorial jungles of Africa as when dreaming about them. The collection of artefacts at the exhibit plots the painter’s course from imagination to oeuvre, shedding light on the interplay between reality and fantasy in all of our imaginations.
Glen Goodman is an MSc student in Latin American Studies at Exeter College.