Palazzo Ducale

Doge's Palace

HENRI ROUSSEAU. Archaic candour

Room 9

Archaic candour

March 6 – July 5, 2015
Venice, Palazzo Ducale – Doge’s Apartment


Extended until September 6, 2015



One of the most complex and surprising relationships is the one between Rousseau’s work and the German Blaue Reiter movement of Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee and others, which championed the renewal of the art through a return to its origins in the early years of the 20th century.

While it soon moved towards forms of abstract art, the group identified the Douanier as a precursor. Kandinsky encountered Rousseau’s work as early as 1906–07 during his stay in Paris with Gabriele Münter. The intermediary for the nascent Blaue Reiter group was once again Delaunay, through whom Kandinsky also received a copy of the monograph recently published on the Douanier by the collector and theorist Wilhelm Uhde.

The Russian master was so impressed by Rousseau’s work as to buy two of his paintings. One is the Poultry Yard, on show here and exhibited in the first Blaue Reiter exhibition in Munich at the end of 1911. The other work bought by Kandinsky is Painter and Model, of which the Russian master made a sketch in pencil  dated 1934. In that period, having abandoned Germany and moved to Neully-sur-Seine near Paris, he appears to have thought of selling the canvas and it is for this reason  that he produced the drawing of the work together with a description and the price.

The showcases present a series of works connected with the artists of the Blaue Reiter group and the famous Blaue Reiter Almanach of 1912, which was advertised with  a brochure featuring Rousseau’s Poultry Yard. The almanac focused on the meaning  of art as represented by examples from different civilizations with an alternation  of “high” and “low” or popular artwork. The Blaue Reiter Almanach, an original  copy of which is exhibited as well as a complete video version, is important both  for an understanding of Rousseau’s success in the years immediately after his death  and as the place where Kandinsky published his essay on the question of form (Über die Formfrage).

This is illustrated with numerous works by Rousseau as well as others drawing on the popular, realistic tradition, including Gabriele Münter’s portrait of Kandinsky, whose simplified forms and bright colours establish dialogue with the Douanier’s frontality and stylization, as well as votive paintings from the cathedral of Murnau, recently restored and present here in Venice as exceptional loans.

Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter left Munich to paint in this picturesque town  in upper Bavaria in 1908, often in the company of two artist friends of Russian origin, Marianne von Werefkin and Alexei von Jawlensky, later associated with the Blaue Reiter group. The “Chinese” painting on show was instead used by Franz Marc to illustrate his article in the almanac together with other examples from the most remote and least-known civilizations and cultures, from China to Alaska, and from different centuries and contexts, from the mosaics of San Marco in Venice to Bavarian folk art.

The almanac also included reproductions of works by Paul Klee, who soon joined  the group in Munich and took part in their second exhibition in 1912. The friendship between Kandinsky and Klee was then to continue in the 1920s in the extraordinary creative wsorkshop of the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau. Together with Lyonel Feininger and Jawlensky, they later formed a new group called Die Blaue Vier (the Blue Four).

Henri Rousseau has opened up the way to the new possibilitiesof simplicity. This merit of his highly complex talent is the most important for us at this moment.” These works appear in Kandinsky’s essay on the question of form (Über die Formfrage) in the Blaue Reiter Almanach of 1912.

In this fundamental work, the Russian master rebuffs the accusations made against his first abstract paintings and presents the first extensive exposition of his theory of abstraction and realism as the twin paths of art. Illustrated by no fewer than seven of Rousseau’s works including three on show here, the Portrait of a Woman from the Picasso collection, the Wedding Party and the Poultry Yard, the essay resolves the dichotomy of the two expressive forms of pure abstraction and pure realism through a focus on the role of the spiritual in art, a synthesis that transcends every question of form. This view had already been developed a few years earlier in his Über das Geistige in der Kunst (On the Spiritual in Art).

Rousseau is given a key role as the father of the new type of realism, where what matters is not so much the form or shell of the work, which is reduced to the bare minimum, simplified and purified almost to the point of banality, as the spirit or “inner sound” of the object, the interiority of the thing represented.

As Angela Lampe writes, “For Kandinsky, Rousseau’s spiritual greatness and strength in content derive precisely from his apparent formal limitations. In his view, this reduction of the artist’s means to the bare minimum, which is typical both of Rousseau and of Arnold Schönberg’s paintings, is the most effective form of abstraction.” While the importance attached to realism in modern art by the Russian master in the 1910s may appear contradictory at first sight, it was also taken up a few years later by Franz Roh, one of the leading theorists of Magical Realism, the more classical wing of the German Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity movement based in Munich.

Roh’s book Nach-Expressionismus – Magischer Realismus (Post-Expressionism, Magical Realism), published in Leipzig in 1925 and exhibited here in the showcase, opens with a reproduction of Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy. In the various schools of realism that developed in Europe all through the 1920s, the relationship with Rousseau was one of influence rather than direct derivation, as is evident in the “frozen” atmospheres of the Italian Magical Realism of Felice Casorati, Cagnaccio di San Pietro, the Roman artist Antonio Donghi and the writer Massimo Bontempelli.