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Henri Rousseau: Art of the Fantastic

One artist who prefigured the Surrealists' idea of fantasy with his fresh, naïve outlook on the world was the Frenchman, Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). Like Paul Klee, he defies all labels, and although he has been numbered among the Naïves or Primitives (two terms for untrained artists), he transcends this grouping. Known as Le Douanier, after a lifelong job in the Parisian customs office, Rousseau is a perfect example of the kind of artist in whom the Surrealists believed: the untaught genius whose eye could see much further than that of the trained artist.

Rousseau was an artist from an earlier era: he died in 1910, long before the Surrealist painters championed his art. Pablo Picasso, half-ironically, brought Rousseau to the attention of the art world with a dinner in his honor in 1908: an attention to which Rousseau thought himself fully entitled. Although Rousseau's greatest wish was to paint in an academic style, and he believed that the pictures he painted were absolutely real and convincing, the art world loved his intense stylization, direct vision, and fantastical images.

Such total confidence in himself as an artist enabled Rousseau to take ordinary book and catalogue illustrations and turn each one into a piece of genuine art: his jungle paintings, for instance, were not the product of any first-hand experience and his major source for the exotic plant life that filled these strange canvases was actually the tropical plant house in Paris.

Despite some glaring disproportions, exaggerations, and banalities, Rousseau's paintings have a mysterious poetry. Boy on the Rocks is both funny and alarming. The rocks seem to be like a series of mountain peaks and the child effortlessly dwarves them. His wonderfully stripy garments, his peculiar mask of a face, the uncertainty as to whether he is seated on the peaks or standing above them, all comes across with a sort of dreamlike force. Only a child can so bestride the world with such ease, and only a childlike artist with a simple, naïve vision can understand this elevation and make us see it as dauntingly true.

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