Madeleine Rousseau (1895-1980)
Madeleine Rousseau (1895-1980)
By Philippe Bourgoin
Madeleine Rousseau was an influential figure on the Parisian art scene from the 1940s through the end of the 1960s. Born into a petit bourgeois family in Troyes, she grew up in an environment that was open to art. In 1913, she went to Paris for her higher education, but she soon abandoned this pursuit to devote herself to painting, which she had practiced since childhood. She enrolled at the École du Louvre in 1931. After graduating from there, she taught courses on 20th century French art at the British Institute of the University of Paris, and began her career as an attaché at the Musée du Luxembourg and as a lecturer at the Musées Nationaux.
Madeleine Rousseau and two friends at the Louvre circa 1954
In 1936, Madeleine Rousseau was part of the small circle of directors of the Beaux Arts de Paris along with art critic Jean Cassou (1897-1986). They met with the creators, commissioned orders and increased state purchases, especially for the occasion of the 1937 International Exposition. She collaborated with General Director of the Beaux-Arts Georges Huisman (1889-1957), and met Under-Secretary of State for Sports and the Organization of Leisure Activities Léo Lagrange (1900-1940), who put her in touch with the founders of the Association Populaire des Amis des Musées, or APAM (Popular Association of the Friends of Museums). The APAM was launched by an appeal for the creation of Musées vivants (Living museums) by ethnologist Jacques Soustelle (1912-1990), which published on June 26th 1936 in the weekly magazine Vendredi, in the name of curators, teachers, association and project directors, and trade unionists, to promote making museums more effective instruments for popular education.
Its three founders, Paul Rivet (1876-1958), professor of ethnology and director of the Musée de l'Homme, his heir apparent Soustelle, and Georges-Henri Rivière (1897-1985), director of the French collections, were trained scientists as well as citizens committed to democracy and the struggle against fascism and racism. The Association included politicians, curators, professors and artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara and André Lhote. Madeleine Rousseau immediately became involved and took charge of Le Musée Vivant magazine (1937-1969), ensuring that the columns on community activities would flourish. Her presence grew ever more important over the months that followed, and she became assistant general secretary of APAM in 1938. After the liberation of France, the magazine was reborn and Madeleine Rousseau, who had now been professor of visual arts at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC) since 1943, was promoted to general secretary.
Film director Alain Resnais (1922-2014) was one of Rousseau's students at the IDHEC. He had great admiration and respect for her and it was probably as a result of her influence (she introduced him to painter Hans Hartung) that in 1947, he directed a series of short films, or "studio visits", on contemporary painters. She also participated in the making of the film Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die) (Chris Marker and Resnais, 1953).
After the war, the emergence of the Négritude movement and meetings with black intellectuals led her to take a fresh look at Africa and art. In 1944, she resumed her role as a lecturer for the APAM and sought to show the face of contemporary art in its two essential aspects: abstract art with Magnelli, Hartung and Schneider, and figurative art with Lapicque and Bazaine. She wrote the preface to Hartung's first private exhibition organized by the Lydia Conti Gallery in February of 1947. In 1949, Madeleine Rousseau was expelled from the French Communist Party by Laurent Casanova (1906-1972) - then a member of the party’s Central Committee and in charge of relations with intellectuals - for having admired abstract art and participated in debates organized at the Centre de la Rue Cujas (Université Panthéon-Sorbonne).
The year 1948 undeniably marked a new stage in the opening to Africa. It was in that year that France celebrated the centenary of its abolition of slavery. In November, Le Musée Vivant published 1848 Abolition of Slavery - 1948 Evidence of Negro Culture, presented by writer Richard Wright (1908-1960) and ethnologist Michel Leiris (1901-1990). This issue put Madeleine Rousseau squarely on the Parisian Africanist scene. She was no longer just a collector now, but had become a specialist while still maintaining her involvement in popular education. Beginning in 1949, she was put in charge of courses on “Art Nègre” for the "curriculums for educators in Black Africa and Madagascar" which were offered at the École Normale Supérieure in Saint-Cloud.
The next issue was devoted entirely to Oceanic Art - Its Presence. It was produced with the participation of Rivet for the introduction, and of various German, British and French specialists. They described the discovery of Oceania, its culture and the role that poets and artists played in bringing it into the Western mental and artistic universe.
For Rousseau, African and Oceanic art could no longer be approached without taking into account the societies that created them or without consideration for the rise of the will for emancipation. She traveled the roads of the provinces; there were lectures and conferences on contemporary art held alongside others on Africa. She was invited to many university cities for cultural events, lectures, conferences and for the loans of objects.
Her work directing the Beaux-Arts and her involvement with APAM, but also the relationships she developed as an artist, led her to frequent and become part of a variety of circles. In December of 1937, Jean Bazaine introduced her to the Mai 1936 group of painters, some of whose meetings were held at Pierre Vérité's Carrefour gallery. It was in this gallery, where a crate from Africa was being unpacked, that she fell in love with “Art Nègre”. Her love at first sight for this art resulted in the purchase in 1938 and 1939 of about twenty African pieces from Vérité. In 1940, she also acquired Oceanic and Pre-Columbian objects. She became a true collector and was evidently very active on the market for about fifteen years. She bought from Vérité, Ratton, Roudillon, Le Corneur and Le Veel. From 1942 on, she was also active on the supply side of the “Art Nègre” market. She sold to her friends, including painters Bazaine, Lapicque, Gromaire, and Jean Pons. Other names appear, such as those of gallery owners and collectors Louis Carré, Roger Valentie, Ascher, Rasmussen, Breton and Maurice Girardin, for whom she acted as advisor. She was also in contact with Maurice Bonnefoy (D'Arcy Galleries) and Pierre Matisse, gallery owners in New York. She established quite close ties with Hélène and Henri Kamer, a couple who had a gallery on Boulevard Raspail. She collaborated with Marie-Ange Ciolkowska (link to Provenance essay) and also had personal contacts with many residents in the field, particularly in West Africa.
Rousseau’s little apartment on rue du Val-de-Grâce in the Latin Quarter became a meeting place in which she held "salons" surrounded by her collection of modern art and "Art Nègre". It was a venue for encounters and exchanges between her friends, painters, gallery owners, art lovers and APAM organizers. During the liberation, American soldiers also joined her along with black intellectuals and students, notably including Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sendar Senghor, Sékou Touré, and Cheik Anta Diop. In 1944, Madeleine Rousseau met a young student named Geneviève McMillan through the latter’ future husband, American officer Robert McMillan. She bought her first objects from Rousseau and presented her as her mentor.
In the early 1960s, Rousseau’s collection was still important as much for the number of pieces it contained as for the quality many of them displayed. She was solicited for exhibitions, such as Les Arts de l'Union Française, organized by Gilbert Granval in Saarbrücken in 1954, the one two years later at the Cercle Volney organized by Vérité and, in 1957, the one organized in Cannes by Hélène and Henri Kamer at the Palais Miramar.
Rousseau regularly sold objects not only in order to keep Musée Vivant magazine solvent but also to manage her living expenses, as her financial situation was always quite precarious. In 1962, she put a large part of her collection up for public auction at the Hôtel Drouot. After this, she refocused her collection on sub-Saharan Africa with objects she obtained from her African contacts and then gradually withdrew from the art market.
She became a member of the UNESCO council for education and culture from 1956 through 1960. The Musée Vivant remained her main tool for elaborating her positions on contemporary art, traditional African art and present-day Africa. In 1960, she published an essay titled Blancs et Noirs au jour de vérité (Whites and Blacks on the Day of Truth), with a preface by Abel Goumba, Prime Minister of the Central African Republic at the time.
In 1977, Madeleine Rousseau chose to spend her final days in the little town of Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert. She died in 1980 in the rest home there and lies in the area’s cemetery not far from her collection, which she donated in 1967.
Art critic, organizer of cultural events, collector, ethnologist, and even art broker – she had been all of these things, at various times in the course of her activities throughout a pivotal period in relations between Africa and the West, while always maintaining a strong sense of social purpose and engagement.