Hearing a Painting

March 29, 2007

I recently visited a retrospective art show at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, of the work of the French surrealist artist, Henri Rousseau. I have been attracted to his painting since I became aware of it, sometime in the 60’s, probably, as an art student. His work has a primitive feel and commonly uses themes of jungle, animals, and native peoples. For me, it conveyed a feeling of innocence, potential violence, and mystery.
This seemed to be a very comprehensive show, showing early work, magazine and other artifacts of the culture of the time that were related to the images he painted, and later work including his last painting, and masterpiece, The Dream.
As I approached this large painting I was enveloped by the sensuality of it- the large size, the rich color, the repeating patterns of the foliage, the rhythm of the composition, and the mystique and mystery. As I allowed myself to be absorbed in this sensuality, I realized that I was experiencing it like music and, as I opened up to that experience, I began to “hear” the painting as music, a phenomenon known as synaesthesia. As I stood in front of this wonderful painting I heard the rhythm of the leaves and dark dots placed throughout the work; I experienced the objects such as the figures and animals as musical counterpoints, different instruments in an orchestra of sound. As long as I stood there, the music persisted and only waned as I reluctantly left the piece to move on.
This was a one-of a-kind experience for me, so far, that, even if I never experience again, I will treasure. When I get some time between my other projects I hope to try to re-create that music I heard- we’ll “see” about that.
From Wikipedia:
Henri Julien Félix Rousseau (May 21, 1844 – September 2, 1910) was a French Post-Impressionist painter in the Naive or Primitive manner. He is also known as Le Douanier (the customs officer) after his place of employment. Ridiculed during his life, he came to be recognized as a self-taught genius whose works are of high artistic quality.

Addendum: May 21, 2008

On this day in 1844, Rousseau was born in Laval, France. Read the Encyclopedia Britannica article here.

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