Shirley Manson as the Lion, Kelly Slater as the Sleeping Gypsy in ‘You Look So Fine’

Henri Rousseau

The Sleeping Gypsy | The Dream | A Carnival Evening

Henri Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897

FROM ‘MARA, MARIETTA’
Part Three Chapter 6

In borrowed apartments we navigate the jungle of self-knowledge, in borrowed bedrooms we chart the topography of love: Magnolia pinks and muted blues, gradations of yellowish green: On pale oak parquet, on double herringbone diagonals, a black rug with floral motifs recalls Douanier Rousseau’s Dream. On walls the colour of wet gypsum—a chalky, pink-tinged white—Carnival Evening and The Sleeping Gypsy confirm Baudelaire’s theme: ‘Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will’.

̶  I don’t like his drawing. Even if there’s dignity in his effort, he’s trying too hard.

So you say as, out of the burnous of my blanket, I stick my hand and take the glass you hold out to me: From a raid on Aravane’s bar you’ve retrieved a bottle of cognac.

̶  Thank you.
̶  It’s that combination of neatness and clumsiness that undermines it for me. It’s just too stiff, too dry.

Sitting crossed-legged on the bed, you swing a cashmere throw over your shoulders.

̶  Sorry Sprague, I don’t like Rousseau.
̶  Sorry? No need to be sorry. Cheers!

In the teardrop glow we clink glasses. Hot and velvety the cognac hits my palate.

̶  I wouldn’t have thought you’d like him so much.
̶  I do.
̶  Maybe I’m missing something.
̶  Maybe.
̶  Then tell me what you see. What’s it got going for it, The Sleeping Gypsy?

I could have spoken about the glow of the subtle colours, the rhyme of the precise lines, or the immediacy that springs from the flattened perspective, but instead I simply said:

̶  The enigma of the encounter between the man and the woman.
̶  You mean the lion and the woman.
̶  No, the man and the woman.

And thus I came to explain that if the lion is Rousseau, it is because his unconscious reveals itself in a confession: In the dreamscape of his painting, interdiction and desire contend, creating a tension that makes the work magic.

̶  Aren’t you reading his biography into the painting?
̶  No, his biography simply confirms what is already apparent.
̶  Explain.
̶  All right.

And so I came to share with you my experience of the painting: In an expanded present, in a vibrating space, a being confronts the mystery of what it means to encounter another: Condemned to failure, desire fills the canvas with foreboding. (That emotional charge, that feeling of doom, did it escape you so entirely? The Sleeping Gypsy’s unfathomable simplicity, did it really leave you so indifferent?)

̶  Rousseau was a man who loved women, almost indiscriminately. He painted The Sleeping Gypsy at the time he was busy courting the woman who would become his second wife. One year before his death, he fell madly in love with another woman. She—it’s clear from the letters—not only couldn’t handle the violence of his emotions, but actually disdained them.
̶  I could never have imagined he was like that. His paintings are so childlike, so full of innocence.
̶  He’s an artist. He turned his childhood fantasies into myths.
̶  And did he at least get that woman he wanted?
̶  No, he didn’t. Instead, he painted The Dream, one of his greatest works.

Dry apricot and honey greet my nostrils as I bring my glass to my lips; dense is the taste of being-with-you as I swallow a sip. Was I wrong to imagine, by the luminous amber of your eyes, that you tasted that taste too?

Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910

Our backs to the headboard, we sit side by side on the bed, suspended in A Carnival Evening. Arm-in-arm Pierrot and Columbine, aglow in their lunar costumes, float in a ghostly landscape. I salute their celebration of dispossession, their disporting in strangerhood: In this souvenir from a dream I feel at home. As I watch the couple balance precariously on the cusp of their adventure—jauntily, as if just freed from the puppeteer’s strings—I feel the grip of your hand in mine freeing me from the grip of my past.

Who’s that hatted man with a moustache peeping out from the kiosk? Maybe it’s not even a man, maybe it’s just a mask? In delight you squeezed my hand when I pointed out to you that typical Rousseau touch, making me believe you’re not totally immune to the Douanier’s enigmatic art. Indeed, charmed by A Carnival Evening, you turned to reconsider the silence of The Sleeping Gypsy. What if the sleeper is dreaming the lion, what if the lion is simply afraid of his own violence?

̶  Is it the moon, Sprague?
̶  The moon?

You point to A Carnival Evening.

̶  I’m bewitched! That mysterious face in the mirror!
̶  In the mirror? You mean in the kiosk?
̶  No. In the— Look! It’s my face!

I lean over to see my face displace yours.

̶  Of course it’s your face.

A boy slides open a shower curtain. Fǣringa! His heart leaps as a stranger steps out of a mirror. The boy stares into the glass: His face configures a double of the stranger.

̶  But I didn’t…

As you blush all my senses are seduced.

̶  It’s only the mirror’s way of dreaming, Marietta.

I take your hand and thread my fingers through yours.

̶ You didn’t know what you were doing there, did you?
̶  No, I didn’t. I’m sure that cat’s put a spell on me!
̶  No, that’s Rousseau’s magic. Most of his best paintings, the ones with the greatest evocative force, are the ones with a figure in a landscape, and you don’t know what they’re doing there.
̶  Just like in a dream.
̶  Yes.

Your eyes shine and I see mine in them.

̶  Lick my palm, Marietta.

You do so. I pass my hand over my face.

̶  Sprague, have you become a cat?
̶  Didn’t you say identity’s just a fiction, a set of ruses subject to revision?

Laughing, you turn towards me and lick my cheek.

Henri Rousseau, A Carnival Evening, 1886