Naive art in Europe and Latin America: from Henri Rousseau to Noé León

Updated: May 31

Noah Leon. Henri Rousseau. Two names that shine with the same brilliance in the firmament of naive art; only the shores of the Atlantic and a century separate these two giants, true icons in their respective countries.


As proof, art historian Germán Rubiano says de León is "the only great figure of Colombian primitivism, above all for the authenticity of his work. To become this one great, naive Colombian figure, de León was inspired above all by the daily lives of Colombians and by the Caribbean ecosystem, more particularly that of Barranquilla and the department of Atlántico, but also by the works of Rousseau, as he said bluntly in several interviews.


Forêt tropicale avec des singes, Henri Rousseau 1910

Rendija en la Selva, Noé León 1966

The two works reproduced above, entitled respectively “Tropical Forest with Monkeys” and “Surrender in the Forest”, demonstrate the undeniable affiliation between the two painters, but also Leon's desire to be inspired by the great French master and not to copy him.


This desire for affirmation is visible on several levels, from the abundance of detail to the strong use of warm colors. In “Rendija en la selva”, the composition reveals an extreme variety of animal and plant species represented, an effective means of translating the great diversity of Caribbean fauna and flora. Moreover, when Rousseau gives the impression of wanting to convey to us his imagined vision of the tropical landscape; we must not forget that he has never traveled and knows these species only through design boards consulted in the Galeries Lafayette, Leon, he offers us a vision of reality and of the landscapes he has seen, contemplated, before which he has felt emotions, which he transcribes on the canvas. “Rendija en la Selva” perfectly illustrates this trend and opens a window to the biodiversity of the Caribbean. The repetitive use of yellow and orange, in particular, highlights the brightness, beauty, and exuberance of the landscape, as we would see when opening this window or through the eyes of the Lion himself. Thus, it is possible to argue that if Lion offers an idealized vision, sometimes bordering on a dreamlike reinterpretation, of the reality he observes, Rousseau projects his imagined conceptions into reality.


Le Rêve, painted in 1910, enshrines this imagination and shows a clear return to nature, which clearly appears as the living environment of the human being, highlighted by the space occupied by fruits, flowers, and animals in the composition.


Le rêve, Henri Rousseau 1910

The human being, symbolized by a naked woman named Yadwigha, seems rejected but in reality, plays a role as important as nature; the contours are reinforced by a luminous border and the burgundy back of the sofa brings out her pink body, in the middle of all this greenery, through an ingenious chiaroscuro. Like Eve installed under the tree of sin, she seems to find her lost paradise.


Noé León, on the other hand, shows a particular interest in representing the daily life of Barranquilla and the Caribbean ecosystem, especially represented by the forest and the Magdalena River, as illustrated by the Barranquilla Bolívar (1970) and Barco el Adelaida (1968) routes. Through the treatment of scenes from the daily life of Barranquilla and its surroundings, León thus reinforces this tendency to want to affirm his style marked by chromatic bias and movement, a kind of mark that would make his work immediately recognizable, like that of any great master. In this way, he honors the long tradition of Colombian amateur painters, whose first representatives practiced their art in the 16th century, thanks to the exuberance and colorful character of their works that make them accessible, easy to understand, true books of images that put the tropical environment on the canvas.


Barco el Adelaida, Noé León 1968

To contemplate a painting by Noé León is to live a truly sensorial experience, to open the window that it offers us on Barranquilla and the Caribbean. From there, the heat of the Caribbean invades you. Little by little, the steam and humidity adhere to your skin, clouding your vision. I experienced this feeling myself, as I left my hotel, determined to explore the banks of the Magdalena, I received the Caribbean heat in my face, a slap in the face from those who invite you to surrender to pure beauty. The same beauty that Leon captures with a single brushstroke. The vagaries of time did not allow him to meet Rousseau but we bet that if the meeting had taken place the French master would have seen in him a worthy representative of primitivism and would have felt honored to pose for posterity next to the "Colombian Rousseau".


Antoine Troccaz

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