Wednesday, May 26, 2010

100 Years After Henri Rousseau's Death, the Guggenheim Devotes First In-Depth Exhibition

BILBAO.- One hundred years after the death of the French artist Henri Rousseau (1844–1910), the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is devoting an exhibition to this pioneer of Modernism—the first occasion that Rousseau has been seen in depth in Spain. The exhibition, coinciding with the centenary of the French artist's death in 1910 shows Rousseau's influence on subsequent modernist and avant-garde movements.

Organized by the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in co-operation with the Fondation Beyeler, Henri Rousseau presents a selection of approximately thirty masterpieces that provide a concise overview of the development and diversity of his oeuvre. From his famous jungle paintings in the later stages of his career, to the views of Paris and its environs, figures, portraits, allegories, and genre paintings, the exhibition gives a unique insight into the essential visual world of Rousseau.

A customs official by vocation, Rousseau initially took up painting in his free time and received no formal art training. Many years passed before his art, not academic and long considered naive, found recognition in the Paris art salons.

His importance within art history lies in his groundbreaking compositional mechanisms and painstaking technique, which greatly influenced younger generations of artists. Along with Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin, Rousseau’s visual inventions paved the way for the twentieth-century’s nascent Modernist movement.

A new visual idiom
For his works, which combined highly diverse themes of urbanity and the natural world adapted to his own visual conception, Rousseau mined resources beyond the academic tradition, relying heavily on postcards, photographs, and popular journals. His imaginary dreamlike jungle landscapes also took their inspiration directly from books on botany and his visits to gardens, woods and zoos.

The works included in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao reveal his unique working method of transferring individual motifs such as leaves and trees, figures, and entire compositional schemes from picture to picture, and combining them to create new visual compositions, painted with a painstaking, naturally refined technique.

Rousseau redefined the picture space by staggering pictorial elements from background to foreground, a method that would later be adopted by the Cubists. This built-up pictorial structure, in the form of painted collage, anticipated the autonomy of the picture plane that would become characteristic of Modernism. Younger artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger, both of whom admired and collected his work, were captivated by his technique.

A tour of the exhibition
Initially, Rousseau painted mostly small-format pictures depicting the French suburbs and the surrounding countryside of his immediate environment. In these landscapes, wilderness is represented by dense wooded areas on the background that the artist used to separate the visual realm by means of either a fence or behind a fortification wall, as in House on the Outskirts of Paris (Maison de la banlieue de Paris, ca. 1905, Carnegie Museum of Art). Gradually, he moved away from this rationally organized civilization toward an unorganized, wild depiction of nature. This passage from the well ordered and familiar to the unknown and alien defined his later work as can be seen in Landscape (Paysage, 1905–10, Philadelphia Museum of Art).

In his famous jungle paintings, Rousseau, who never actually set foot in a jungle, finally succeeded in leaving the sphere of domestication behind for his imaginary wilderness. Now working in a significantly larger format, Rousseau lent these invented landscapes a compelling visual reality. The culmination of the exhibition is formed by a significant assembly of Rousseau’s famous jungle pictures. Of special mention is the monumental painting The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope , 1895/1905, Fondation Beyeler) included on the occasion of Rousseau’s first appearance at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1905. In March 1906, art dealer and collector Ambroise Vollard acquired the sensational painting—the first Rousseau ever to enter the art trade—in which the artist’s talent for creating an imaginary new world comprised of various figures set against a stage like environment are shown.

In addition, the exhibition illustrates Rousseau’s well-documented interest in photography for source material. A few of his compositions, such as Old Junier’s cart (La carriole du père Junier , 1908, Musée l’Orangerie) were definitively based on photographs. In the course of transferring the photographic image to the canvas, he created an entirely new visual world, arranging its elements into another image layer by layer in front of his imaginary camera lens.

Yet for all his reliance on photographic realism, Rousseau always strove to keep the depicted world at a distance. This is especially seen in The Wedding (La noce, 1904–05, Musée l’Orangerie), a large-format painting whose distortions of scale and proportions with respect to the original model are immediately obvious. Indeed, the simultaneity of character and dream in Rousseau’s paintings, the flatness and lack of perspective, and his peculiar manner of lighting the picture plane, with both brilliant sun and shadowless figures, all combine to give his images a highly tuned Surrealist quality.

After the Impressionist painters and the succeeding generation created a new way to look at the visible, Rousseau introduced into his paintings a new approach to imaginative vision. His perception of reality was based primarily on observation, imitation and transformation of the visible. In this way, he taught modern artists how the unknown could be constructed using the building blocks of the known. He established a new logic and mechanics of compositional structure that profoundly affected subsequent generations of artists, most notably the Surrealists Max Ernst and René Magritte.

Many renowned museums and collections in Europe and America have contributed to the success of the exhibition by their generous provision of loans. These include the Musée national de l’Orangerie, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Musée national d’Art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris; The Mayor Gallery, London; Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel; the Nahmad Collection, Switzerland; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York; the Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts; the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C.; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; the Kunsthaus Zürich; and a number of private collections.

The first image shown is Maison de la banlieue de Paris (House on the Outskirts of Paris). The second image is Paysage exotique (Exotic Landscape). The last image is Les joueurs de football (The Football Players).

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