Dexter Dalwood Versailles in the Jungle 2003
Dexter Dalwood
Versailles in the Jungle 2003

Dexter Dalwood and Nancy Ireson explore the enduring influence and legacy of the self-taught French artist Henri Rousseau

Dexter Dalwood 
I had a reproduction of A Carnival Evening 1885–6 on my bedroom wall as a child, so I knew that painting in particular before I ever knew painting generally. Looking at it as a child, I didn’t relate to it as a depiction of a world I knew. It seemed to be full of the mystery of adulthood, the Pierrot figure holding a cigarette out at night with some strange woman in fancy dress. So I suppose I came to know Rousseau without seeing him through the prescribed idea of him as a naïve artist, aside from the myths about him that admirers such as Guillaume Apollinaire encouraged.

Nancy Ireson 
Yes, there does seem to be a gap between the image of his life that has filtered through the literature and the works themselves. I think this is the reason why, when I talk to painters, they are often far more positive about Rousseau than are art historians. There is an interest in the way he worked, in the technical aspects of what he did, in the quality of the images he produced. In academic circles, these considerations have taken second place, because so much emphasis has been placed on his biography. The prevailing image is still one of Rousseau as an innocent and unwitting participant in the early twentieth-century art world, but this simply wasn’t the case.

Dexter Dalwood Birth of the UN 2004

Dexter Dalwood
Birth of the U.N. 2004

© Private collection

Dexter Dalwood 
He wasn’t just this gentle, simple old chap, an ex-government employee who worked at a toll gate and who spent his Sundays painting, only to be discovered and launched into the art world. He was quite wily and difficult; he drank a lot and got into problems with money. He received a two-year suspended sentence for bank fraud. There was a lot more of the ‘street’ in him than some would like to believe. As for not knowing about art, we know that he visited a lot of shows, that he knew a lot of artists and their work. And, of course, he had serious ambitions of his own. He had his own way of working. Rousseau constructed a world from looking at other images such as photographs, engravings, newspapers and the work of other painters: then he would reconstruct something else in the studio. He painted an adult world that incorporated all the things that he liked. In Myself, Portrait landscape 1890, for example, he put the Eiffel Tower into the image, together with a picture of himself and the names of both his first and second wives. If you look at Quai d’Ivry c.1907, where there are people out walking, there is a factory chimney on the right, a patch of flat green water on the left, a bridge in the middle and a small airship floating in the sky. All the elements look like they shouldn’t really collaborate, but they hang together for that moment. You could say that in a way Rousseau was an early practitioner of collage. The areas of flat colour aren’t tonally rendered and he uses flat, non-recessional space, which makes his work look as if it had been done in the 1920s and early 1930s rather than the 1890s.

Nancy Ireson 
It seems to me as though Rousseau encouraged that sense of dislocation in his work. Max Weber – who saw him painting Père Junier’s Cart 1908 – remembered how the strange proportions in that image were deliberate. He asked if the dog wasn’t too large for the rest of the composition, but Rousseau was insistent that it had to be that way. Elsewhere, too, there’s an uneasy tension between the various elements of his pictures. It doesn’t come across at all when you see the work in reproduction, but when you get up close to it, Myself, Portrait landscape is really quite disturbing. He obviously reworked the image considerably. You can see that he went to some effort plotting the perspective; the layering of paint has caused a noticeable difference in textures. It is actually quite difficult to look at, because your eye struggles to take in all the information. Somehow, though, the composition works.

Dexter Dalwood 
I’ve always been a fan of the cut up process: in Godard’s films, in William Burroughs’s writing process, in David Bowie’s lyric writing method. It’s a very effective way to mediate information and rupture a traditional narrative structure. The collage-based composition within painting does a similar job, bringing a lot of information together and coalescing into something simpler and more direct. I think that playwright Alfred Jarry’s championing of Rousseau was involved with his delight in how Rousseau seemed somehow to tear up the visual world around him, working against conventional good taste.

Nancy Ireson 
Rousseau’s use of that method made him at once very much of his time and quite exceptional. The Dadaist writer Tristan Tzara likened the way he constructed his images to how film created narrative: both Rousseau and film, as he saw it, took just the essential elements of consecutive scenes of experience and condensed them to convey meaning in a limited frame. Ironically, by that reckoning, the complexity of Rousseau’s work that we have been talking about was actually caused by a process of simplification…

Dexter Dalwood 
But it is like Jarry said: ‘Simplicity does not have to be simple, rather complexity drawn taut and synthesised.’ That idea is one I feel very close to. I also have some affinity with that awkwardness in Rousseau. When I was in art school the main criticism I used to get was for how awkwardly I put things together in a painting. I always thought it was a real problem, but then I realised that actually the work could be about the construction of awkward elements to make the whole thing interesting. Rousseau is full of contradictions; the surface of his paintings is not modernist. He admired the academic painting of the time – artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and William Bouguereau – and his works reveal his obsession with finish. But at the same time, in his small studies he could employ an economical post-Impressionist style to record information quickly. It was when he transformed his sketches into large compositions that he made awkwardness the main part of the work.

Nancy Ireson 
You have quoted Rousseau in your own paintings.

Dexter Dalwood 
I have done two paintings where I’ve quoted a bit of him. One that refers to Rousseau is Versailles in the Jungle 2003, which features the palace of the Congolese dictator Mobutu which I’d read about. It was part of an Oz-like city, built in the rain forest in the Congo, which now lies derelict. I wanted to attempt an image of a grand marble monstrosity constructed in the jungle, so I borrowed a section from one of Rousseau’s paintings and invented the palace by piecing together elements of architectural imagery I had found. It was a way of depicting the decaying aftermath of colonialism. The other is Birth of the U.N. 2004. I was interested in Rousseau’s The Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to Greet the Republic as a Sign of Peace 1907; of all his paintings I thought this was the weirdest. It has such a definitive title that you think the scenario must have happened in real life. When you realise that none of these characters ever stood together, the work appears like an early version of Photoshop. Here is a completely fictional event, one that he constructed from separate portraits found in the press.

Nancy Ireson 
Were you interested in the fact that Rousseau had wanted to attract government patronage with images such as The Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to Greet the Republic as a Sign of Peace? He claimed it was a big success because its debut coincided with the second Hague conference of 1907, where a great number of foreign delegates were present. Although there is little evidence in the press of the work having been praised – and he seems to have got muddled up with the conference dates – it is interesting to think that his imagery would have had contemporary relevance to viewers. Birth of the U.N. certainly seems to be of its time.

Dexter Dalwood 
In the light of the political climate last year I wanted to reflect upon the optimism that had prevailed in the 1950s when the UN was founded. Rousseau provided a path into that. In the corner, children dance around a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, while De Kooningesque brushstrokes obscure the figures on the podium. There is a parallel there between political and artistic hopes for the future.

Nancy Ireson
Do you think an artist today could retain credibility by being openly pro-government, as was Rousseau? The fact that he was republican is made clear in a work such as Liberty Inviting Artists to Take Part in the 22nd Exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants 1905–6, where the French flag takes such a prominent place. Audiences at the Salon des Indépendants where he exhibited would have recognised the symbols he employed, yet his admirers tried to ignore his politics during his lifetime. It is almost as though they were embarrassed by them.

Dexter Dalwood 
It’s interesting how many details get written out of art history. Cézanne, for example, was latterly extremely right wing. If his work had any of that in it, it would have been discredited. I suppose it’s difficult with Rousseau to know whether he was playing at being naïve when it suited him, to avoid getting into trouble, or if he was actually trying to make a good impression to get a legion of honour and be part of the whole establishment. It would be quite hard to imagine a consciously pro-government artist today. His works do seem to touch on historical contexts though. His War 1894 is an example. It’s such a thumping, viscous painting. I can’t think of any other image of this period which so clearly says ‘this is how awful war is’. It’s a late nineteenth-century Guernica 1937; it is such a bizarre image. Crows bloodily tear carrion off a landscape of dismembered corpses, while a mad-looking girl child on a black steed rides rough shod across the picture plane, like an image of Kali from Hindu mythology. Imagine the shock of seeing that in 1894.

NANCY IRESON:
People have tended to overlook Rousseau’s allegories – and his landscapes – because the jungle pictures are so popular. But those works, mostly painted between 1905 and 1910, represent just a fraction of his output. How would you describe the appeal of his exotic paintings?

Dexter Dalwood 
I think it is involved with experience. Take The Snake Charmer 1907, for instance. It has such an odd aura. It’s a depiction of an inner world, but it is also a world that is tangible, one which is very different from the escapism of Magic Realism. He created a particular type of fiction: he wasn’t into great flights of fancy. The jungle pictures are not populated by great winged beasts. They feature the kind of animals he saw on his visits to the zoo, combined with occasional other figures that he dropped in.

Nancy Ireson
There is also a sexual aspect to a work such as The Snake Charmer, which must have enhanced its appeal to the avant-garde. Artists such as Picasso and Delaunay knew Rousseau. They knew about his hopeless love affairs, and they knew that he wrote plays and poems that engaged with amorous themes. Rousseau wasn’t “innocent” in any straightforward way. When The Dream 1910 featured in the major MoMA show of 1985, the curators wondered whether the combination of flowers and the nude might have had deliberate Freudian undertones.

Dexter Dalwood 
His works do have a heat to them. He expressed himself through nuances of suppression. The Snake Charmer is a strangely erotic painting; it is as if Rousseau was thinking: ‘I’m going to do Orientalism, but not in the same way that artists such as Gérôme did by putting everyone in cosy fictional bathhouses. I’m going to put both people from the street and naked natives in the scary unknown jungle.’ It is all slightly risqué, this different take on those Orientalist ‘soft porn’ paintings (such as Gérôme’s own The Snake Charmer from c.1870). The results are extraordinary: he created humorously threatening, yet psychologically timeless images.

Nancy Ireson
Rousseau started painting when he was in his forties. He had no formal training, but despite the prejudices of the establishment, he managed to make a name for himself. Has so much changed in terms of being an artist now? Would it be any easier for a self-taught painter to succeed in the contemporary art world? Certainly, for the young avant-garde, Rousseau’s unorthodox background added to his appeal.

Dexter Dalwood 
The paths that artists take now are less strictly defined. Sigmar Polke, like a lot of German artists of that generation who emerged in the 1960s and had come from East Germany, started making painting after work which had a directly political intent through performance and photography. Polke’s early paintings were like clever jokes. I am thinking of the sausages and doughnut paintings. They started off as comical works. Only later did he shift a gear and became more complicated and serious. Rousseau’s success was very much involved with the enthusiasm he inspired in certain of his contemporaries, Picasso in particular. I think they were fascinated by the primal force and ‘shock of the new’ of his imagery; I think they loved the fact that it was so impolite compared with academic painting. Also, the sense of him being a late starter gave him a mystery, for the idea that he had already lived a very different life was something which could be projected on to his work. Hence Apollinaire’s allusions to Rousseau’s military service in Mexico, the memory of which was meant to have inspired his jungle paintings, when it turned out he’d been no further than the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. The Joseph Beuys pre-artist history is somehow comparable. But being self-taught gave Rousseau a special position: the discovery of an artist who hasn’t come through the ‘normal’ channels is always exciting.

Nancy Ireson 
Some of those who admired Rousseau while he was still alive talked about him as a grandfather, or a father, of modern art. Where would you place him?

Dexter Dalwood 
I would say that he is a stubborn cornerstone at the onset of modernism. You can look back and see that he did pre-empt something, that he opened new possibilities for a mixed language in painting. He seems to have informed Picasso’s move from analytical Cubism to synthetic Cubism, for instance. Picasso was capable of incorporating almost everything around him – in his Three Musicians 1921, he overlaps planes and collage images to make a flat image that works across the surface. There is something of that intention in the Rousseau Portrait of a Woman c.1895 that Picasso owned and attached such importance to. In addition to connecting with collage-based composition, you might say that Rousseau was a proto-Postmodern painter. Think of an artist such as David Salle, who combined several images in a non-hierarchical fashion across the picture plane, linking advertising, photography, fine art. Rousseau’s methods were not so far removed from that. You can look at him now, in the beginning of this century, and that weight of the late nineteenth century just evaporates from the paintings.