Henri Rousseau’s naif art paintings were mercilessly criticized during his lifetime. He struggled, and failed, to achieve acceptance by the art establishment. Within a couple of decades of this condemnation, his art was hanging in the world’s leading museums. So much for the establishment.
Rousseau was fascinated by jungles and the environment they produce. His work has a mesmerizing quality that makes you want to examine every detail. Without being ‘realistic’, these paintings are powerfully evocative of the lush vegetation, bright colors and the vigorous, animated animal life that goes on in these wild places. They are a celebration of the vibrancy of life – that which today has come to be called ‘biodiversity’ – a word that is wonderfully demonstrative of the power of the conservation community to drain any sort of passion and emotion out of life on earth.
Rousseau’s work also raised questions about the relationship between man, culture and nature.
A sleeping figure (above) seems perfectly peaceful and in harmony with a wandering lion. The scene is almost pastoral. No threat; no feeling of danger. The last picture he painted (The Dream, below) shows a female figure lying nude in the jungle, seemingly at one with the wild environment and the animal life surrounding her. What is the dream? A dream of humanity comfortable and as one with the natural world? A breakdown of the almost total separation that we are continuing to build between nature and culture?
Rousseau’s paintings were made well before environmentalism was invented yet they have a powerful emotive quality that the conservation community could benefit from.
There are a couple of other reasons why I picked Rousseau’s work for this post. The first is that he created these paintings without ever having been in the jungle. In fact without ever having left France. He got his main inspiration from visiting the greenhouses at the Jardin de Plantes in Paris. “When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream.” Yet today so many artists feel they cannot possibly create environmentally relevant art without also creating a huge carbon footprint by flying off to exotic locations and trampling through wilderness places before starting to put brush to canvas. I sometimes feel that this sort of behavior is more about creating the image of ‘the artist as intrepid explorer’ than it is about caring for the environment.
The second reason for choosing Rousseau is that tigers seem to feature not infrequently in his work (above and below). 2010 is a Chinese year of the tiger and the occasion is being used to mount an international effort to stop the drastic decline in wild tiger populations. Some countries like Russia have already made great strides forward over the past few years and there is hope that a concerted effort can be put together to extend that success to other countries. Read about the St Petersburg Summit here.