Art Thoughts, Week 43 -- Rousseau & Signifiers

Woman with Basket of Eggs, Henri Rousseau (French, 1844—1910), c. 1910, oil on canvas, BF544.

There is a certain institution which has a logo consisting of a bounding boy with a toy airplane, a tree, and a jumping pet dog, all silhouetted in emerald green on a grassy knoll. Without some context or explanation, the casual viewer would never guess that this is a logo for a group of holistic treatment centers spread across America, called the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. I puzzled over this one morning while stuck in traffic next to one of their be-logoed limousines: what does this logo – essentially a group of items united ostensibly by the medium, i.e. color and silhouette – have to do with cancer, or the treatment of cancer? Or more generally, what is the connection between its purpose – to advertise an institutional idea – and its form, which is almost pastoral? What does the institution want us to think when we see this image?

Of all things, I thought of Henri Rousseau, the Douanier, while pondering this logo – one of his paintings in particular, Woman with Basket of Eggs – and through this the two images began to overlap and help each other make some sense. This painting is a small one, depicting a vacuously gazing woman in a straw hat holding a basket of eggs and posing as if for a snapshot before turning to continue on her way to the tiny village beyond the trees. She stands before a copse made of the typically-Rousseau backdrop of dry greens, in a gradation sequence almost as regular as the steps of a ziggurat. On these blocks of green is emblazoned a loose pattern of leaves, dabbed on systematically with similarly sized filberts. What initially caused this odd mental pairing of logo and painting was the realization that they begged similar questions. The Rousseau asks, what about this scene and woman has to do with the life of the painting, and is its purpose connected to its depiction? In other words: what did Rousseau want us to think when we saw this painting?

A possible answer to this is that each of these images exists for us to see through to something else, to gain a particular sense: they are signifiers. We may not admire or even like them for what their surface is, but what they signify may be of value. For a logo, this is a typical role; for the painting, however, this is one possible role among many. When we gaze on the green flatness of the CTCA logo, we see certain items, but we should think about the things beyond them: if we don't, then it's simply a cute logo, and has no efficacy outside of its cuteness. But, as it is, we see the fruits of a disease in remission: a return to an idyllic state that once was or hasn’t yet existed; a carefree existence, and the ability to enjoy one’s offspring or companions, pets and property; a life cleaned of the leaden weights of worry, angst and the wracking of disease; the reality of a spring of hope past the implied winter of cancer. And how should we think about the painting? This woman is not particularly attractive; neither the copse (nor the basket of eggs) looks particularly fresh; the town doesn’t look particularly quaint. Rousseau’s purpose in painting this scene was not to proffer a paragon of French lifestyle. Its function, rather, is to remind us, in a pure example of audience manipulation, of that favorite person we once met along our way and admired, or a person we’d like to meet; that particularly flavorful and memorable meal or food we once enjoyed; the picturesque village that means so much to us, and which we’d like to visit again, and so on. Having looked through the logo and painting, into ourselves and our own memories and desires, we return to the image with a renewed respect – and the images thereby gain that much more power.

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