Our too familiar eyes. Turn the binoculars the right way round and… Wow! It is overwhelming! Marvellous! Ouch! Hitting our nose on the strange we see stars. What? Yes! We have entered a cartoon and become a caricature. Retreating into a pompous naivety we transform the new into the odd, the weird, the bizarre; seeing the new in its proper size the new becoming the exotic becomes a fabulous beast, a giant; and we…we are now pigmies to our own familiarity; we think of an ordinary bush next to a luxuriant palm tree; a hedgehog under a parasol… New images flooding the mind, this picture sinks from sight and we sail over the sun bled waters with centaurs for company. Though even now, in this imaginary jungle, we wear them still: our eyes, our workday spectacles. It is why on this spit of land, a pike in the middle of an African river, the natives shrink to such meagre scale, smaller with every passing glance; too commonplace to be noticed much.
The picture is a formula, measuring the ratio of strangeness to normality. The humans tiny, the trees are about right - palms little different from cypresses or cedars - the birds bigger than they should be, but since already seen in books smaller than the flowers that Henri is seeing for the very first time. Not even a flamingo can compete with the magnetism of the new.
The flamingos, whose shapes were derived from the picture book Bêtes Sauvages, stand out against the water upon which float flowers of unbelievable dimensions. A similar exaggeration in the depiction of plant life can be found elsewhere, but here the proximity of the birds makes it especially obvious. These are dream flowers, emerging from the water like human apparitions, their petals shaped like lips or mouths. (Henri Rousseau, one of the crowd from The Museum of Modern Art New York)
Our friendly guide has been here too long. It is why he reverses the geography of Henri’s exoticism, turning these flowers into men and women, carting a French village to the banks of the Congo. We shoot the poor chap. Then chuck him in the river. These flowers their own creation they suck up, bite into - those petals sharp, hard teeth - the facts of this scene to feed a fantastic greed. Imaginary creatures need no similes. His eyes their servants who bring to these Pantagruelian plants their monstrous lunch; scraps only left for the rest, who starve and wither away; the men almost invisible, Henri is struggling to keep the flamingos inside his oval frames… The exotic an enormous throat swallowing down the banal and the recognisable. We speak in images not metaphors. The petals are not like but are lips and mouths; the real thing. That pike chewing up our unfortunate fellow leaves but an ankle, stuck like a meerschaum pipe in a sailor’s mouth. We give him tobacco and a few lessons. Soon, only the make-believe will be living here.
Henri calls the work The Flamingos. It seems a strange lack of perspective, that mistakes a minor subject for the main theme. These flowers, the sequoias of a hothouse imagination, deemed too commonplace for a title. Henri has given himself away. For him these wondrous plants are normal, prosaic. Living inside a fairy tale he doesn't notice that the tale itself is unreal, so picks one of its little details, these flamingos on the edge of the story, to name it; to identify it as a scene from The Tropics. It is the word itself - flamingos - that is exotic for him, it is the name that contains the magic of this magical place. Inside the imagination the imaginary is real, its strangeness therefore unrecognised, unseen. These dream flowers are no dream at all. Just flowers seen for the first time. Exciting yes. Extraordinary of course. But flowers all the same. Now, to call this picture The Flamingos….