What do we mean by calling an artist ‘a primitive’? Leonard Adam, writing on the subject in 1940, quotes G A Stevens:
Primitive art is the most pure, most sincere form of art there can be, partly because it is deeply inspired by religious ideas and spiritual experience, and partly because it is entirely unselfconscious as art; there are no tricks which can be acquired by the unworthy, and no technical exercises which can masquerade as works of inspiration.
But Adam added a warning note:
In point of fact the ‘primitive’ artist is not always as naive as one would like to think.
This paradox is neatly presented within the enormously attractive yet mysterious paintings of the Douanier Rousseau . He is called a ‘primitive’ or ‘naive’ painter because his work suggests, anyway at first glance, that he was either sublimely unaware of other more sophisticated schools of painting – he was an exact contemporary of the Impressionists – or that knowing of them he lacked the skill to paint in such advanced modes himself. One might be even more inclined to classify him as a naive on learning more about his character: he clearly had a kind of sweetness and innocence that impressed all who knew him. Yann le Pichon, in The World of Henri Rousseau, describes the way in which he would keep and paste up in a scrap book all the jeers and sarcastic comments from the newspapers that greeted his work when it was first shown, taking the criticism as evidence that his work was being noticed and discussed. It positively encouraged him; it was evidently a useful kind of innocence, if that is indeed what it was.
But how naive are the paintings themselves? Le Pichon’s choice of illustrations indicate very clearly the way Rousseau proceeded. He has brought together the many sources and references that provided the inspiration for the paintings, and is able to display the original postcards, photographs, statues and paintings themselves. The Douanier’s wild beasts came from engravings in the periodical Musée des Families, or the volume Bêtes Sauvages published by the Galeries Lafayette; his exotic flora from still other journals, from the tapestries in the Cluny Museum or the Larousse dictionary, as well as from his imagination. Le Pichon’s carefully researched background to the most familiar of Rousseau’s paintings enables him to demonstrate graphically the painter’s ability to combine and transform this raw material into works of art.
From this alone it is possible to see that Rousseau did not just stumble upon his strangely dream-like effects. On the contrary, he worked diligently to achieve them, and the curious childlike simplicity of his paintings, far from being something he struggled to progress beyond, was precisely what he strove to achieve. Such consciously applied skill cannot be called ‘entirely unselfconscious as art …’ By the time one reaches his late flower pieces, for example, one finds work that could be mistaken nowadays for the work of a modern master much influenced by Morandi. In the same way, the vigorous preparatory oil sketches look for all the world like work by his famous Impressionist contemporaries. How much less therefore the subtly simplified and confidently executed finished paintings deserve to be classified as ‘primitive’.
The text that accompanies the impressively well-researched and finely reproduced illustrations is less helpful than the graphic material. It reads as though it were rather too literal a translation from the French , but is in addition so passionate and adoring that one is left wishing the author had been struck speechless as well as senseless by his ardent love for the painter and his work:
He then respectfully grouped the colours on his virgin canvas with his brush …
I can hardly go on:
He made his tubes ejaculate voluptuously – yellow ochre, naples yellow, chrome yellow, yellow-green …
This kind of nonsense renders some passages virtually unreadable. But there are also illuminating sequences to be found, particularly the quotations from contemporary admirers, often other painters, some of whom were very quick to recognise the gifts of this remarkable man. In 1886, shortly after Rousseau’s first paintings appeared, Pissarro noted
the naivety of the drawing, the quality of this art, the precision of the hues and the richness of the tones.
Appollinaire sprang cheerfully to Rousseau’s defence when the artist’s portrait of the poet was scoffed at:
The journalists were unanimous in their conclusion: this portrait bore no resemblance whatsoever to me. Now if the portrait didn’t resemble me how could they possibly have recognized me? Upon consulting the Exhibition catalogue I saw the painting bore only these words, ‘The Muse Inspiring the Poet’. I had to admit that this portrait was such striking likeness that it dazzled all those who saw the resemblance but couldn’t believe it.
Gradually the laughter and criticism gave way to profound respect. Though he never became rich, by the beginning of the twentieth century he had been discovered and taken up by the avant garde, and honoured by those he most admired, who appear to have combined with their genuine admiration for his art a certain delight in the baffled reaction it produced in the public. Picasso owned several of Rousseau’s paintings. He kept two portraits in his studio and told of how he felt the need to test the quality of his own paintings by confronting them with Rousseau’s.
However high Rousseau may already ride in the reader’s esteem, this superbly produced book will, for all its faults, raise him still higher. It ends with a brief compact biography, which lays out clearly the somewhat sad and often touching details of the life of this remarkable artist. If he is to be termed a primitive or naive painter, it cannot, after reading this book, be understood to imply that he was an ignorant or untutored genius, but rather that he used his experience and skills to express in the most direct way he could the innocent delight with which he regarded the world. There is something magnificent about his ability to remain true to this vision no matter what scorn or praise came his way. The book leaves one with an impressive sense of his achievement.
No painter could conceivably differ more from Rousseau than the withdrawn and secretive Balthus. There is a weighty and oppressive stillness in his pictures. The rooms are almost empty and featureless. There is no suggestion that his seductively sprawling girls might ever move again. In the landscapes too everything sleeps. The artist himself will not speak about his work and he dislikes being discussed in print. He rarely gives his paintings titles and once described them all as ‘utter failures’. When asked to submit biographical details for an exhibition catalogue he cabled: NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS, B.
Gently breaking the silence in which the artist would have us regard the pictures, Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, who incidentally is Balthus’s eldest son, begins the short introduction to his book Balthus by urging us not to attempt to analyse the paintings but to endeavour instead to worship them. Unable to take such absurd advice himself, he goes on to offer some misleading notes on Balthus’s pictures of pubescent girls, a subject to which the artist has returned again and again. These erotic adolescents with their clothes provocatively disarrayed, or removed altogether are, he says, ‘nothing whatsoever to do with sexual obsession … ‘ The author goes on to explain: ‘These girls are in fact emblematic archetypes belonging to another higher realm.’ Whatever they are, they certainly are not that. They are representations in paint of an internal preoccupation from, I would guess, a fairly basic realm. In these paintings at least, the mysterious and even disturbing quality of Balthus’s work can be traced to the deliberate lack of congruence between the abandoned posture of the girl and the complete absence of the emotion that would normally accompany such an invitation. This kind of sexuality has an autistic quality in that it does not belong within a relationship: the viewer’s response is of no interest to the subject, or one would guess, to the painter. These paintings are messages to himself and the viewer’s role is relegated to that of voyeur.
Some of this autistic quality is apparent throughout Balthus’s work, with the possible exception of the more straightforward portraits and still-lifes; however much of its air of being separate from reality can also be attributed to its origin in the work of the surrealists. Yet the surrealists, in order better to express their interest in going beyond the mere representation of reality, invented a neutral space in which figures and objects could congregate in new relations with each other. Balthus employs no such convention. He studied Piero della Francesca and Poussin, was influenced by Seurat and Cezanne and uses what he learned from these masters of description of the external world to investigate and represent the working of his own internal life.
The result is disturbing, partly because of a confusion resulting from the use of external reality primarily to convey pressing internal information (content seems to dominate the swamp form) and partly, it must be said, because Balthus’s internal world seems to contain an uneasy mixture of barely suppressed violence and a rather sickly sentimentality. This might go some way towards explaining why the still-lifes and portraits are the most successful of his pictures. There the superb technique gives the motifs a reassuring solidity (form is no longer subservient to psychic content) without the provocation and ambiguity of the larger figure compositions – although there are two disquieting still-lifes, where loaves of bread are stabbed to the crumb by large sharp knives.
The reproductions in de Rola’s book, chosen with the help of the artist, are of a very high quality and it is a pity there are not more of them; a pity too that there are no examples of the artist’s masterly drawings or delicate water colours. But the greatest lack is the total absence of any information about the man himself. It is possible to sympathise with Balthus in his desire for privacy and for his stubborn insistence that the pictures must speak for themselves. But no art was ever created independently of its time and place and to be able to begin to understand it, and more fully to appreciate it, some knowledge of it is necessary. Nevertheless it must be acknowledged that Balthus has won recognition throughout the world as one of the most important artists of this century without, as far as I know, opening his mouth once.
Two brief notes on Balthus in Edward Lucie-Smith’s selection Masterpieces from the Pompidou Centre dare to tell us much more about the man than de Rola does: that he was born in 1908 and learnt painting by actually copying from Poussin and Piero della Francesca, and that his preoccupation with childhood and adolescence, and the suppressed violence in his work, emerged at an early stage. The note on Rousseau is also helpful incidentally, and it quotes Kandinsky who said Rousseau combined ‘the greatest possible realism with the greatest possible abstraction.’ It also notes that Gauguin, who was not always quick to praise others, thought Rousseau’s black figures the most beautiful ever seen. The book is very like a quick stroll through the Pompidou Centre. Starting with Rousseau, one passes on to the lovely Fauves, Expressionists and early abstracts of Kandinsky and Malevich, arriving soon at a collection of ravishing Matisses and Bohnards. Suddenly, like being involved in a car crash, one is among the nightmare of Mathieu and various modem abstract artists, a world of vast faecal canvasses and constructions of crushed metal and bits of string. In the real gallery one can walk quickly by these exhibits and count oneself lucky that the way out lies past the earlier work; it is possible to leave with a Picasso or a Derain or a Leger rather than a Warhol in the head. With the book of course, you can simply turn back to the beginning.