From France to The Jungle of Imagination: Henri Rousseau’s “Archaic Candour”

A few years ago I was writing the dissertation for my BA in Communications delving into the History of Cinema. I approached this field by focusing on a very specific film: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Vittorio Storaro’s mesmerising cinematography struck my eye immediately and I started to research what influenced the Italian “master of light” when he conceived the film’s unique visual design.

Back then I was lucky enough to visit “Scrivere con la luce/Writing with Light”, an exhibition at Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Verona which covered his career, and I got the unique chance to have a private tour with Storaro himself. While the cinematographer was going through some of the painters that had an impact on his sensibility, most notably Caravaggio, he spent some time on an artist that was less known to me: Henri Rousseau, a.k.a. Le Douanier (the customs officer). During the tour Storaro noted how a very specific painting of the French painter, titled Snake Charmer, had been crucial in his attempt to conceive the illumination of the jungle in Apocalypse Now.

"The Snake Charmer" by Henri Rousseau (1907).

This week I took advantage of the Easter break to spend a few days in Italy and had the chance to visit another exhibition that, in some respects, comes full circle to the one in Verona. “Henri Rousseau. Il candore arcaico/Archaic Candour” is hosted at Palazzo Ducale in Venice and provides an overview of Rousseau’s unique contribution to the avant-garde movements. Among the over 100 paintings showcased in the event organised by Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Snake Charmer was there in all its seductive beauty, as part of a cycle focused on jungle landscapes that the French painter visited only through his imagination.

Finally I realised why Storaro was so impressed by Rousseau’s style, and it’s not something completely clear when you just see a reproduction of his works. You have to see them in the flesh to understand why staring back at the gaze of the Snake Charmer is one of the most captivating experiences you can get in front of a painting.

Henri Rousseau, "War or The Ride of Discord" (1894).

The plus of the exhibition, which is on display until July 5, is the wide angle under which Rousseau’s contribution to the avant-garde movements is framed, not to mention an interesting comparison between his unique style and a selection of Old Masters and Rousseau’s own contemporaries. His relationship with intellectuals and artists is therefore under the spotlight, as well as former misleading interpretations of his art as dominated by an ingenuous archaism and naivetĂ©.

The minus is that a few works are still not showcased due to a delay in obtaining the documentation required to have the paintings shipped to Venice (not to mention the overabundance of typos in the Italian translations from English and French). Anyway this does not undermine the genuine attempt of going back to Rousseau’s unique life and career with a fresh point of view.