Art: Rousseau at Tate Modern

    If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise ... Rousseau is a revelation for Waldemar Januszczak

    The preposterous Rousseau should never have happened either. His career is among the least likely in art. The fact that he did happen is a tribute to two potent shaping forces. The first was his Frenchness. Being French allows certain individuals to take certain liberties with the usual order of things. If the incident of the fluffed penalty does not convince you of this truth, then here are two words that must: Gérard Depardieu. Voilà. The second force that made Rousseau possible was the heroic openness of modern art in its early years: its initial generosity. The rule book was being rewritten, and all manner of unlikely achievements and influences were being welcomed. Which planet did Seurat’s stiff and spotty contribution arrive from? Or Gauguin’s absurdly unrealistic paradise playing cards? Or the dwarfish Toulouse-Lautrec’s obsession with motherly lesbians? Look with fresh eyes at the things that were allowed to emerge in art between 1870 and 1910 — something Tate Modern’s life-enhancing Rousseau display encourages you to do — and you must be struck by the sheer peculiarity of many of them.

    Rousseau’s unlikeliness is the supreme unlikeliness. As everyone knows, because it is so obviously amusing, he was a Parisian customs officer — un douanier — who managed, somehow, to take up painting. Every year, Henri Julien Félix Rousseau would enter his pub-sign portraits and nursery-foyer jungles in the Salon des Indépendants, the notorious Parisian forum for all-comers, and every year the public would burst into laughter at the sight of him. But the mockery didn’t deter him. He was French. Convinced of his own genius, he gave up the customs job and kept entering the salon until, eventually, a generation of younger artists, bullied into noticing him by his persistence, began to appreciate his vivacity and courage. He was in. And once he was in, his influence became profound, wide-reaching and invaluable.

    Tate Modern’s look at Rousseau is supposed to focus on his most famous achievements: his jungle pictures. But a perfect quantity of other material from other bits of his career — portraits, allegories, views of Paris — tells you pretty much everything else you will ever need to know about him. This has to be the definitive Rousseau experience. It highlights his cheek, celebrates his optimism, indicates his range, wallows in his charm, details his lunacy and, to cap it all, notes his profundity.

    The opening gallery achieves some inventive mood-setting by sidestepping the man himself and confronting us instead with another Parisian jungle fantasist called Emmanuel Frémiet, who contributes a life-sized sculpture of a gorilla that has kidnapped a wriggling French nude and taken her to a mountaintop to show her off. This ludicrous sculpture must surely have acted as some sort of inspiration for King Kong. Frémiet was the resident artist at the Jardin des Plantes, the inner-city Parisian zoo at which Rousseau picked up the tiny smatterings of zoology that inform his reliably unreliable jungle fantasies. By kicking off with the girl-grabbing gorilla, the show achieves an instant plunging of its audience into Rousseau’s atmosphere: wide-eyed, fantastical, unintentionally comic, with a hint of genuine terror about it, and some decidedly edgy sexual stirrings.

    His first attempts to succeed at the Salon weren’t jungle pictures, but charming scenes of costumed lovers on secret meetings in make-believe forests: a clown and a dancer, a soldier and a princess. The yearning for romance blurted out by these sweet imaginings is fierce, but the paintings are pleasantly calm, as if the act of painting them were part of a healing process. It is one of the lessons of the show. Rousseau’s art never arrives with the blunt force of a revelation, but with the ruminative, repetitive rhythms of a daydream. The excellent unveiling of these early romances, painted when he was still a full-time douanier, shows Rousseau to have had a thing about forest clearings, and cleverly awakens us to the erotic implications of his jungles. During his lifetime, it was believed that he had taken part in the French expedition to Mexico, and that it was during these army days of his youth that he had picked up his jungle appetites. We now know he never left France. The taste for tropical thrills was acquired at the Jardin des Plantes and from various lowly media displays in books, posters, magazines and leaflets, many of which have been collected for us in an unusually helpful documentary section that commands the crossroads of the show.

    The first jungle picture, done in 1891, was that exciting scene of a tiger hunting in a rainstorm, from the National Gallery: the one that seems to be have been painted by the light of a lightning flash. Having arrived at his great theme, Rousseau promptly abandoned it, only returning to the rainforests of the mind a decade later. Between 1901 and 1910, he painted lots of jungles. All the best ones are here. Many will be familiar, because they are so eminently reproducible, and so many nurseries have borrowed their colours and moods. But in the flesh, Rousseau has a fabulous glow to him. His pictures appear lit from behind: extra-vivid. It is as true of his delightful scenes of suburban Paris as it is of the banana-packed Edens.

    Because he was always painting at the outer limits of his ability, as self-taught artists must do, he never progressed in the traditional way. The charming love scenes that introduce us to him, from 1886, are as competent, or incompetent, as the final paintings from 1910. This absence of a traditional journey of progress allows the show to arrange some thematic punctuation for him, to replace the missing chronology. It is ridiculous to pretend he ever achieved standard competence in anatomy, or conquered perspective, or reached any sort of botanical accuracy — he didn’t. But it matters not a jot.

    What you get instead are beautiful jungle melodies on assorted emotional themes, achieved with much charming distortion of the Darwinian truth. One such cluster highlights the jungle’s peacefulness with a lovely gathering of pink flamingos by a lake, from 1907. A second painting alerts us to the violence, with lions savaging antelopes and the like. A third finds humour among the bananas, with cheeky monkeys clambering about being naughty and ever so human. The helpful clustering makes clear that Rousseau’s jungle doesn’t constitute one stretch of imaginative terrain, but many.

    There is, however, one important development in his art that can be followed chronologically: the extraordinary growth of his ambition. Basically, his pictures get bigger and bigger. The final room contains the hugest. The Musée d’Orsay has sent The Snake Charmer, my favourite Rousseau, in which a pitch-black silhouette of an Indian pipe-player, who is hung with snakes, tempts closer a pink approximation of a roseate spoonbill. Moma, in a rare display of generosity, has lent that immodestly whopping tropical love fantasy The Dream, in which a nude on a settee has somehow ended up in a clearing surrounded by hungry lions, one of whom — the one staring most keenly — is surely Rousseau in furs.

    What both these great paintings make clear — and it is made even plainer by a tiny Eve in the same gallery — is that the Parisian paradises had a quasi-religious set of ambitions: they were paintings about temptation, love, sin and loss. Seemingly so innocent, Rousseau’s urban jungles were actually meditations on the loss of innocence. That is how they acquired the unexpected glow of profundity that is this event’s most important discovery.