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.
̶ 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.
̶ 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.
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?
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.
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.
And the story is the same in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, or the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Audiences still stop and stare at these strange and marvellous paintings; they are, in the simplest sense, popular. But if his pictures posed difficulties for contemporary visitors to the Salon, even 100 years on they are no easier to decipher.
There is nothing conspicuously ‘modern’ about the content of Happy Quartet; but the experience of looking at it is novel. Thus subject matter and appearance in Rousseau’s work often seem contradictory. Even certain of his landscapes present a similar paradox to Happy Quartet. To paint, figuratively, an image of a villa in the suburbs as Rousseau did in his House on the Outskirts of Paris is not an extraordinary undertaking in itself. As a task, it might even appear banal, leaving little scope for creativity. How surprising then, is this small canvas, which takes an everyday scene and makes it strange? Alongside the house, curving both skywards and into the forest beyond, is the strangest of paths.
What to make of such extraordinary images? Fortunately, though the look of the works remains the same, the task of ‘interpreting Rousseau’ may be easier with hindsight. There is, fortunately, an important difference between viewing Rousseau then and now. If in his lifetime and immediately afterwards the artist had seemed strange, it was not only because of the unusual look of his works. It was due to the way in which, as a person, he was quite unlike the people who praised him. ‘I was young, from a completely different milieu’, wrote Delaunay, one of his most ardent supporters. People like Delaunay—who came from privileged families—were unaccustomed to the petite bourgeoisie, its manners, interests and motivations. Consequently, in their analysis, they tended to dwell upon Rousseau’s character and to attribute the strangeness of his art to his personality. Both, no doubt, seemed rather exotic.
John Everett Millais
Tamara de Lempicka
Nicolas de Staël
Hans Holbein, Younger
Vincent Van Gogh
Caspar David Friedrich
Leda and the Swan