Happy New Year Henri Rousseau

by SJ Griffin

I have had a sudden and severe attack of New-Yearitis, a very brief disease that thankfully lingers for a couple of hours at most. Some bouts I’ve gotten over in minutes. Some people are not so lucky. For journalists online…um, let’s say, erm…commentators it seems to last for a few weeks, straddling the festive period like a syphilitic gorgon. During this difficult time I decided that maybe I would unsubscribe from some mailing lists. I am not sure why I thought this would eb a good thing to do because I have a total of zero unread emails in my inbox. I suppose New-Yearitis is never rational.

A potential victim of this needless cull was the weekly Brain Pickings  email. I like Brain Pickings a good deal. Apart from a tendency to refer to Neil Gaiman and Zadie Smith in the same breath as people like Camus, Hemingway and Sagan which makes my hair crawl around on my head with horror, there is always some treasure to be found there. For instance, just now I discovered that Joan Didion’s handwriting is, on first glance, unreadable but does reveal itself on closer inspection. She is fond of A Farewell to Arms it seems. I would have gone for The Sun Also Rises myself but I suspect the great Joan and I have absolutely nothing in common. My handwriting is far superior for one thing. In all other matters I suspect she bests me. Being called Joan, for one. I am rubbish at that.

What prompted the end of New-Yearitis (it occurs to me that we must start a fundraiser for the poor sufferers of this horrendous, disfiguring affliction) was a piece in the Brain Pickings email about Henri Rousseau.

Henri Rousseau painted this, which I am 90% sure you will have seen, gentle reader:


It’s called Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) which is a hilarious and brilliant title. If only the Mona Lisa had been called Moody Looking Strumpet (Wind!).

Rousseau was a toll collector in Paris and didn’t decide that he had to paint until he was 40. I imagine that before that he had lived in that miserable land where self-expression is a strange country that you don’t have the visa for. Everyone else seems to though – ever noticed that? And then when did paint he painted what he wanted to paint which was, on the whole, the natural scenes that he saw in books and in the glass houses at the Jardin des Plantes. He was self-taught. I cheered this. Critics hated him. They laughed at him. But Rousseau carried on and became friends with Picasso, who loved his work. And now his work hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery in London. He persevered even though he had to stay a toll collector – what is that I wonder – until he was 49. He enjoyed what he had to do so he got on and did it. No one wants to be laughed at, or have people hate their work, but he didn’t let it stop him from doing what he wanted to do.

And what’s more, he didn’t let the fact that he was not young and had a tedious job, put him off. So when New-Yearitis makes you read the lists of hot new things for the 2014 and they’re all 12 years old don’t feel despondent. Say what would Henri do? When you have to go to work to do a thankless, tedious job to pay the rent, say what would Henri do? He would do this: he would paint. I will do this: I will write. And I will hope that you and your inner Henri will do want you want to do. Never mind the time of year or how old you are.

New Year. Up it’s bum, that’s what I say.