If there’s one exhibition Tate Modern has mounted which needed the attentions of a sympathetic designer it’s this one. Never have such vibrant paintings begun to seem so dull, displayed to disadvantage on the drab, no-colour walls of the unsympathetic boxes of the temporary exhibition galleries on Level 4. There’s something intrinsically disheartening about the proportions of these rooms: they don’t encourage study or celebration, and their spaces seem oppressive to the extent of being claustrophobic. For a moment, as the visitor steps into the first room to discover jungle-patterned walls, there is hope that this exhibition — so potentially full of a wild richness — will bring these dreary galleries to life. But as you move into the second room, hope drops from you: the familiar lineaments of ‘Tiger in a Tropical Storm’ from the National Gallery are entombed in an empty off-white cube, stark and bare and devoid of any of the subtle enhancements that an intelligent design could bring to it. It’s as if a mission statement had been uttered: we are showing Rousseau the Modernist, the hero of the avantgarde who needs no adornment. Step back all those who think otherwise.
This singularity of approach is a sad diminishment of Rousseau, for it undercuts his essential complexity. There are three main strands to his artistic identity — firstly, the way he thought of himself; secondly, how his detractors perceived him; and thirdly, how his admirers saw him. Rousseau the self-taught artist yearned to be accepted as an Academic painter, his highest ambition to be numbered among his heroes Gér