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Henri Rousseau exhibition proves huge hit in Paris

He was once regarded as a bit of a joke. A self-taught "Sunday painter" who couldn't do hands and who was laughed at by other artists for his amateurish technique.

Henri Rousseau exhibition proves huge hit in Paris
A woman looks at a painting by French artist Henri Rousseau. All photos: AFP
But a century after he died penniless in Paris, the public has taken Henri Rousseau to their hearts.
   
An exhibition of his greatest work has become one of the biggest hits of the decade at the Musee d'Orsay — in spite of a sharp dip in tourist numbers in the French capital.
   
“The Customs Man Rousseau” which closed at the weekend, had nearly 480,000 admissions, the museum said on Wednesday, “one of our greatest successes of the last ten years”.
  
The most unlikely avant garde hero in art history worked as a toll booth attendant who only started to dabble with oils when he was in his forties.
 
   
Rousseau would spend his weekends in the Louvre museum and Paris' botanical gardens and zoo, Le Jardin des Plantes, which inspired his famous jungle and tiger paintings.
   
Picasso bought several of his naive works and threw a wild bohemian banquet in his honour in 1908, when the hard-drinking Rousseau was 64.
 
Comic personality 
 
“We are the two greatest painters of the time, you in the Egyptian genre, me in the modern genre,” Rousseau — slightly worse for wear — reportedly told him at the end of the evening.
   
Despite being championed by Picasso, Kandinsky and Max Ernst, the Montmartre modernist set weren't averse to poking fun at his obvious limitations, or his comic, unflappable personality.
  
Rousseau never let reality get in the way of a good picture. His flowers and plants may seem startlingly real on the canvas, but many were figments of his imagination.
   
And “the most exotic of exotic painters” as the poet Apollinaire called him, rarely set foot outside Paris.
   
His extraordinary African and Indian jungle locations came from penny dreadful magazines about the “dark” continents.
 
   
Similarly his landscapes of Algeria were straight from his imagination.
   
Curator Beatrice Avanzi said that did not stop him being a big influence on naive painters and the surrealists, as well as loved by Paul Gauguin, Robert Delaunay, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.
   
The latter two also helped support him in his final poverty-stricken years.
   
“Rousseau was certainly a one-off artist, an autodidact, who you could call a 'Sunday painter', but we wanted to show that he was also an artist of his time. So the exhibition is not a classic biographical show,” she told AFP.
   
The Musee d'Orsay's record entry is for a 2014 show “Van Gogh, the Suicide of Society”, which had nearly 655,000 admissions over a similar four-month period.
   
The Rousseau show travels to the National Gallery of Prague in the Czech Republic in September where it will run until January 15th.

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ARCHITECTURE

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles

Rising high beyond an ancient Roman arena in Arles, a tall, twisted tower created by Frank Gehry shimmers in the sun, the latest futuristic addition to this southern French city known for its World Heritage sites.

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles
Gehry's Luma Tower opens in Arles, France. Photo: H I / Pixabay

The tower, which opens to the public on Saturday, is the flagship attraction of a new “creative campus” conceived by the Swiss Luma arts foundation that wants to offer artists a space to create, collaborate and showcase their work.

Gehry, the 92-year-old brain behind Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum and Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, wrapped 11,000 stainless steel panels around his tower above a huge glass round base.

It will house contemporary art exhibitions, a library, and offices, while the Luma Arles campus as a whole will host conferences and live performances.

From a distance, the structure reflects the changing lights of this town that inspired Van Gogh, capturing the whiteness of the limestone Alpilles mountain range nearby which glows a fierce orange when the sun sets.

Mustapha Bouhayati, the head of Luma Arles, says the town is no stranger to
imposing monuments; its ancient Roman arena and theatre have long drawn the
crowds.

The tower is just the latest addition, he says. “We’re building the heritage of tomorrow.”

Luma Arles spreads out over a huge former industrial wasteland.

Maja Hoffmann, a Swiss patron of the arts who created the foundation, says
the site took seven years to build and many more years to conceive.

Maja Hoffmann, founder and president of the Luma Foundation. Photo: Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Aside from the tower, Luma Arles also has exhibition and performance spaces in former industrial buildings, a phosphorescent skatepark created by South Korean artist Koo Jeong A and a sprawling public park conceived by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets.

‘Arles chose me’

The wealthy great-granddaughter of a founder of Swiss drug giant Roche, Hoffmann has for years been involved in the world of contemporary art, like her grandmother before her.

A documentary producer and arts collector, she owns photos by Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus and says she hung out with Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York.

Her foundation’s stated aim is to promote artists and their work, with a special interest in environmental issues, human rights, education and culture.

She refuses to answer a question on how much the project in Arles cost. But as to why she chose the 53,000-strong town, Hoffmann responds: “I did not choose Arles, Arles chose me.”

She moved there as a baby when her father Luc Hoffmann, who co-founded WWF,
created a reserve to preserve the biodiversity of the Camargue, a region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhone river delta known for its pink flamingos.

The tower reflects that, with Camargue salt used as mural panels and the
delta’s algae as textile dye.

Hoffmann says she wants her project to attract more visitors in the winter, in a town where nearly a quarter of the population lives under the poverty line.

Some 190 people will be working at the Luma project over the summer, Bouhayati says, adding that Hoffman has created an “ecosystem for creation”.

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