“Un soir de carnival” has always been for me one of the most enigmatic paintings produced by Henri Rousseau. A seemingly typical moonlit landscape is inhabited by two figures, supposedly on their way to a costume ball. Or are they lost in a forest? And, are they unaware of the shadowy cabin in the background, with a ghostlike face staring out at this scene?
The majority of his other landscapes depict exotic and naïve scenes and situations that invite us in to his personal and fantastical world. This painting, however, relies upon all of the same elements and yet it is disturbing. The unfamiliar? The threatening? The dark and looming landscape?
“At intervals during his steady production of works that record the mutual attunement of landscape and the human figure, Rousseau painted canvases that surpass both landscape and portraiture. All are large compositions in which a distinct feeling of awe and catastrophe has intensified his style without basically modifying it. Their thematic content is uniform: in either a totally barren or an unnaturally verdant countryside, a living creature confronts a mysterious presence. Rousseau did not himself separate these paintings from the rest of his production, yet in them he contrives to express an almost undefinable experience.”[i]
This is how Roger Shattuck describes some of these qualities in Rousseau’s work, especially a handful of larger and more enigmatic paintings. This feeling has not been lost on the poet Linda Pasten in her collection titled, Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems which includes several ekphrastic examples including: “Le Sens de la Nuit, Magritte, 1927,” and “Still Life,” and a “Detail from the Altarpiece at Ghent.”
Carnival Evening Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas
“Despite the enormous evening sky
spreading over most of the canvas,
its moon no more
than a tarnished coin, dull and flat,
in a devalued currency;
despite the trees, so dark themselves,
stretching upward like supplicants,
utterly leafless; despite what could be
a face, rinsed of feeling, aimed
in their direction,
the two small figures
at the bottom of this picture glow
bravely in their carnival clothes,
as if the whole darkening world
were dimming its lights for a party.”[ii]
[i] Shattuck, Roger; The Banquet Years; Vintage Books, A Division of Random House; New York, New York; 1968; p. 91.
[ii] Pastan, Linda; Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p. 39.
“So we walked in the pouring rain, Daddy, Mummy, and I, each with a school satchel and shopping bag filled to the brim with all kinds of things thrown together anyhow.
We got sympathetic looks from people on their way to work. You could see by their faces how sorry they were they couldn’t offer us a lift; the gaudy yellow star spoke for itself.
Only when we were on the road did Mummy and Daddy begin to tell me bits and pieces about the plan. For months as many of our goods and chattels and necessities of life as possible had been sent away and they were sufficiently ready for us to have gone into hiding of our own accord on July 16. The plan had to be speeded up ten days because of the call-up, so our quarters would not be so well organized, but we had to make the best of it. The hiding place itself would be in the building where Daddy has his office.”
Above are some of the entries from Anne Frank’s Diary, made on the first day of her family’s hiding. Below are the notes that she made a year and a half later. One cannot imagine what they were really experiencing during those times, even after reading the Diary.
One summer Anne McKenzie Nickolson and I visited several major cities in Europe, including Copenhagen, Hamburg, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels. It was almost a year after the 9/11 attacks and security was evident everywhere, even walking down Vermeerstraat, or visiting the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam, but especially while visiting the Anne Frank House Museum on 13 June 2002. Somber. It was not raining that day, nor was the sky grey, but still it was somber.
In just two days we visited three important museums: the Rembrandt House, the Anne Frank House Museum, and the Vincent van Gogh Museum. Each one was organized in chronological order, including Rembrandt’s studio and Anne Frank’s attic, so that going through them felt like walking through their lives. Especially the photographs and posters still glued to the walls of Anne Frank’s room.
Coming out of the museum, we walked along the canals and around the block in order to completely see the outside of the house and annex. Amsterdam is a beautiful city, tree lined streets and canals, with many references to its great artists and historical events. Later, looking through the Anne Frank House Museum Guide Book, I found the axonometric diagram for both the house and the annex. It is a beautiful rendering in its own right, and gives one a clear idea and sense of the place.
“When someone comes in from outside, with the wind on their clothes and the cold on their faces, then I could bury my head in the blankets to stop myself thinking: ‘When will we be granted the privilege of smelling fresh air?’ And because I must not bury my head in the blankets, but the reverse—I must keep my head high and be brave, the thoughts will come, not once, but oh, countless times. Believe me, if you have been shut up for a year and a half, it can get too much for you some days. In spite of all justice and thankfulness, you can’t crush your feelings. Cycling, dancing, whistling, looking out into the world, feeling young, to know that I am free—that’s what I long for, still, I mustn’t show it, because I sometimes think if all eight of us began to pity ourselves, or went about with discontented faces, where would it lead us? I . . . . don’t know, and I couldn’t talk about it to anyone, because then I know I should cry. Crying can bring such relief.”
“It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank” Linda Pastan
“It is raining on the house
of Anne Frank
and on the tourists
herded together under the shadow
of their umbrellas,
on the perfectly silent
tourists who would rather be
but who wait here on stairs
so steep they must rise
to some occasion
high in the empty loft,
in the quaint toilet,
in the skeleton
of a kitchen
or on the map—
each of its arrows
a barb of wire—
with all the dates, the expulsions,
the forbidding shapes
And across Amsterdam it is raining
on the Van Gogh Museum
where we will hurry next
to see how someone else
could find the pure
center of light
within the dark circle
of his demons.”[iii]
[i] Frank, Anne; The Diary of a Young Girl; Bantam, Doubleday and Random House; New York, New York; 1993; p. 16.
[ii] Frank, Anne; The Diary of a Young Girl; Bantam, Doubleday and Random House; New York, New York; 1993; pp. 123-124.
[iii] Pastan, Linda; “It Is Raining on the House of Anne Frank” Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems 1968-1998; W. W. Norton & Company; New York and London; 1998; p. 96.