Henri Rousseau and his naïve world

Henri Rousseau exhibition running till Jan 15, 2017 @ National Gallery in Prague

From the many European modernist-era artists, Henri Rousseau is known as the most naïve one. He was not in the favor of critics at the beginning of the 20th century, but he is much respected by them now, and he is even more loved by the public. In cooperation with the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, an exhibition of some of Rousseau’s most important works is currently at Kinský Palace, in Old Town Square, till the 15th of January, 2017.

Rousseau (1844-1910) was a Sunday and self-taught painter. Though he received some advices from two established Academic painters, Felix Auguste-Clement and Jean-Leon Gerome, he never acquired a formal art education. So, his works were considered primitive and invaluable until Pablo Picasso recognized his genius and held a grand banquet in his studio in Rousseau's honor. Picasso introduced his paintings to the high society, and he played an important role in making Rousseau more popular.

The exhibition “Douanier Rousseau: Painter’s Paradise Lost” starts with one of his later works. “The War” completed in 1894 is one of his most dynamic and serious works. A girl in a white dress represents the war itself; she is furious and unstoppable. She flies on her own; her hair is the same texture as the hair of a wild beast beside her. This painting illustrates the artist’s feelings about the war, which he experienced while serving in the French army before he retired and fully concentrated on his creative work.

Some of the works of the artist look almost childish: the people have disproportional bodies, and the backgrounds are done in a very naïve way. Rousseau once said: “If I have preserved my naiveté, it is because Monsieur Gerome…as well as Monsieur Clement…always told me to do so.” For example, on his portrait of Madame M (ca 1896), the woman’s arms are very big comparing to the size of her body, and the cat on the right side of her is impossibly small, while the garden in the background looks like it has been painted by a child.

The works of many famous modernist artists are placed beside Rousseau’s paintings, and the exhibit is divided into sub-topics: women’s figures, de rerum natura, strange places and lost paradise. While Frida Kahlo’s “Lady in White” (1929) adds to the topic of women’s bodies, the next room is devoted to de rerum natura, with an impressive collection of still lifes completed in different techniques, from the traditional and realistic style of Antonio Songhai to a completely abstract work by Pablo Picasso.

Paul Signac and George Seurat contribute to the “strange places” with two exciting pointillist landscapes. At the end, the “lost paradise” room includes the works of famous Czech artists such as Emil Filla, Josef Procházka and Toyen, who were influenced and inspired by Rousseau himself. After all, one of Rousseau’s most famous works in this exhibition, “Myself, Portrait-Landscape” (1889-90) is taken from the permanent collection of the National Gallery, in Prague.

Oddly, Henri Rousseau is most famous for his paintings of jungle scenes, though he had never traveled to exotic places. For example, “The Snake Charmer” (1907) was commissioned by the mother of the painter Robert Delaunay in the memory of her travels to India. Rousseau had never been to India but he created a masterpiece, painting his emotions that were based on the stories that he had heard, by using his extraordinary imagination. He drew his inspiration from visiting Parisian gardens and forests, museum exhibitions and the circus.

Rousseau combined his love for the woman’s body, jungles and exotic animals in his painting “Eve” (1906-1907). He managed to add originality to such a common topic and made it recognizable for anyone who has seen his works. And undoubtedly, everyone should see the paintings of Rousseau at least once.

This exhibition was first shown at the Museum d'Orsay in Paris. However, only in Prague can visitors see such unique works of other artists, like the busts of the Czech sculptor, Otto Gutfreund, or paintings by Jan Zrzavý from the collection of Prague’s National Gallery. It is open daily from 10a.m to 6p.m.

For more information visit www.ngprague.cz

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