- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my. The wild beasts that in- habit the paintings by French artist Henri Rousseau are as enchanting as the anthropomorphic creatures in “The Wizard of Oz.” They are the best part of a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, which succeeds in broadening our understanding of Rousseau’s childlike “primitivism.”

The enjoyable “Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris,” which opens tomorrow, presents the fin-de-siecle painter as more of a populist than a proto-modernist. It reveals how he borrowed imagery from tabloids, world’s fairs, taxidermy and academic sculpture to create a lush world of green forests and exotic animals without ever leaving France.

In doing so, the exhibition revises the view that Rousseau was an innocent who presaged high-style modern art such as surrealism with his dreamy, off-kilter compositions. It portrays the self-taught painter as completely aware of the art of his day, admiring not the avant-garde — he disliked the work of Paul Cezanne, for example — but, rather, the establishment.

A customs officer who started painting in his 40s, Rousseau was shrewd, ambitious and far from naive. In 1864, he spent a month in prison for cheating his employer out of money, and in 1907, he committed bank fraud.

The “Jungles” exhibit teases by starting with the artist’s first foray into the exotic, the sumptuous, rain-streaked “Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!),” painted in 1891, then switches to small, dull scenes of suburban Paris. About half of the 50 paintings in the show are urban landscapes, portraits and old-fashioned allegorical pictures, revealing the artist’s more conservative side.

The best of these convey the same spooky intensity as Rousseau’s more familiar tropical fantasies. The eerie “Carnival Evening” juxtaposes a white-costumed couple against blackened earth and forest. The disturbing, allegorical “War” suspends a strange, toothy lady of liberty on horseback over corpses being scavenged by black birds.

Most of the big jungles are concentrated at the end of the show, culminating with the 1910 showstopper “The Dream,” a wild kingdom surveyed by a reclining nude on a velvet divan. (Disappointingly, another famous Rousseau work, “The Sleeping Gypsy,” is not part of the exhibit but remains ensconced in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.)

Where did Rousseau get his inspiration for these spectacular creations?

Too poor to travel to a real jungle, the Parisian visited the local zoo, botanical gardens and museum of natural history to study big cats, hothouse plants and stuffed animals posed in mortal combat. He saw “living exhibits” of African tribes at the 1889 and 1900 world’s fairs in Paris.

Postcards of greenhouses, wild animal photography books, and Le Petit Journal, a magazine for which Rousseau briefly worked as a sales rep, also supplied him with exotic subject matter. Lurid illustrations of snarling lions and pouncing tigers influenced his punchy, graphic style.

The exhibit heaps on this source material to portray Rousseau as an entertaining artist more in tune with novelists Jules Verne and Rudyard Kipling than with other French painters, such as Eugene Delacroix and Paul Gauguin, who more directly appropriated exotica from Africa and Oceania. Delacroix, who visited Tangiers, and Gauguin, who fled to Tahiti, used “savage” imagery from their travels to critique the “civilized” European society of the 1800s.

By the early 1900s, when Rousseau began his late jungle paintings, most of Africa had been colonized by France and other European nations. The artist capitalized on popular support for this expansionism, hoping to grab attention for his colorful, uncritical interpretations of what was then called the Dark Continent. But instead of becoming a superstar, he was ridiculed and only appreciated by a younger generation of modern artists who liked his bright colors and lack of perspective.

His jungle paintings neither assert Western superiority nor present scenes of colonial conquest. They are alluring travel posters for a leafy land where mischievous monkeys cast fishing rods and flute-playing natives serenade snakes and elephants. Lacking the specifics of place and peoples referenced in the work of Delacroix, Gauguin and the academic Orientalists of his time, Rousseau’s decorative flora and silhouetted black figures Europeanize the exotic.

The neat, flattened shapes of his jungles make us think Rousseau wanted to be a modernist, but he yearned to paint like the expressive Delacroix and the artists of the salons, and he used their work as material for his own. The exhibit offers just a few of the artworks he admired (the barren last gallery could have used a lot more examples), including a pair of dramatic bronze sculptures by Emmanuel Fremiet that almost steal the show. One, a fierce gorilla carrying off a naked maiden, recalls King Kong.

Rousseau portrayed similarly dangerous pairings, but the placidness of his painting style tames the violence. The intended ferocity of “The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope” falls flat as the wide-eyed predator sinks his teeth, as even as dentures, into his prey. In other paintings, skirmishes between a gorilla and an American Indian, a jaguar and a horse are so incongruous as to be comical.

These oddities are a big part of Rousseau’s charm. Like children’s stories, his paintings require us to put aside logic and believe in the magical powers of the enchanted forest. They ask us to accept, for example, a pigeon and a bottle of spilled milk in the jungle. No wonder younger artists such as Pablo Picasso, who also sought inspiration from Africa, were such Rousseau fans: The mysterious visions of this academic wannabe were as imaginative as their own.

WHAT: “Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: Tomorrow through Oct. 15; Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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