Was Henri Rousseau's painting A Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised) (1891) one of the influences of Yann Martel's novel, Life of Pi, a book that was eventually turned into an Oscar winning film by director Ang Lee? An analysis of Rousseau's painting unlocks the hidden meaning and symbolism of Life of Pi.
Nineteenth century French artist Henri Rousseau is perhaps best known for painting exotic flora and fauna, as he does in The Dream (1910) and The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope (1905). Tigers appeared in many of Rousseau's jungle paintings, especially in this painting, A Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised) (1891). Was Life of Pi director Ang Lee inspired and influenced by the life and art of fin de siecle French artist Henri Rousseau? The real life biography of Henri Rousseau actually has many similarities with Life of Pi's fictional hero, Piscine. Like Piscine, Henri Rousseau was an imaginative storyteller with a penchant for embellishment and exaggeration, which is also a theme in Life of Pi and a key to understanding the movie's symbolism and true meaning.
As a struggling artist trying to set himself apart in the competitive turn-of-the-century Parisian art market, Henri Rousseau felt it necessary to start spreading stories around about his many trips and foreign adventures in South America, perhaps in an attempt to better explain his personal fascination with painting dreamlike paysage exotique, or jungle landscapes. Unfortunately for the artist, too many people started asking questions about his worldly travels, so Rousseau was eventually forced into confessing that he "never traveled further than the hothouses in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris," his hometown. Rousseau was probably embarrassed to admit that his dreamlike paintings were not based on real life experiences, but came only from knowledge he'd gleaned from museum exhibits, children's books, dreams, and the powers of his own imagination. Although Rousseau's art was largely rejected by critics at the time, it is perhaps fitting that A Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised) was specifically praised by critic Felix Vallaton at the time for its "childish naivete," much like Life of Pi.
Unlike the artist Henri Rousseau who lived out his adventures only vicariously through jungle paintings, the Life of Pi hero Piscine (also known just as "Pi") really does take part in an adventure that takes him far away from his home, leaving him stranded on a lifeboat and then a tropical island with none other than a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. While Pi's adventure unfolds in a magically real way, by the ending of Life of Pi, however, we are left to analyze the overall truthfulness of Piscine's story, much like the journalist who plans to write a book about Pi's adventures. Is Piscine's fantastic version of events "real" or is he just a storyteller and exaggerator like artist Henri Rousseau? Are the exotic island landscapes and tigers Piscine peppers his story with just figments of his imagination, fantastic symbolism and imagery he, like Henri Rousseau, picked up mostly from the studies and books of his youth?
There are many interpretations and analyses to account for the dreamlike and almost surreal quality of Piscine's adventures in Life of Pi. A psychoanalytic interpretation of Piscine's story may focus on the impact of psychological stress and even the onset of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Maybe Piscine is not necessarily lying about his island adventures with a tiger, but his memory has been severely impaired by the trauma and overwhelming stress of the shipwreck and the loss of his family. Like many trauma survivors, Piscine may have blocked out the "truth" and "rewritten history" to add meaning and beauty to an otherwise painful and tragic event in his life. Suffering from PTSD, Piscine may have evoked the powerful, beautiful and miraculous stories he encountered through his religious background as a coping mechanism to help him deal with tragic events in a different, more "meaningful" manner.
In the beginning of Life of Pi, we learn that the Indian youth Piscine is not strictly monotheistic, but enjoys learning about all world religions, including not just the Hinduism he grew up with, but also Islam and even Christianity. Knowing the hero's religious fascination, doesn't it seem a little "fishy" that fish fall from the sky shortly before Piscine and Richard Parker the tiger starve to death on their raft? While Piscine thanks the Hindu god Vishnu for the fish, the idea of food falling from heaven is also referenced in the Biblical Old Testament, when manna, or bread from heaven, was delivered to the Israelites while they wandered the desert. Did Piscine really live through a miracle involving a tiger, an orangutan, a zebra and other jungle animals, or did his religious background, along with psychological stress, influence his interpretation and recollection of how the adventure transpired?
And what about Richard Parker the tiger in Life of Pi? Pi's father warned him as a child that the maneater is not his "friend" and will kill him if given the chance, but Pi and Richard Parker come to rely on each other during their ordeal on the raft. It's possible that Pi's father was just wrong about this particular tiger, but it is more likely that the tiger has a symbolic meaning in Life of Pi.
Tigers symbolize power and beauty in Hindu religion and mythology in particular, perhaps partly due to the fact that tigers pose a very real danger to human life in the Indian coastlands. While the tiger might play a religious role in the meaning of the movie, the writer figures out at the end of Life of Pi that the tiger is above all a symbol of Pi himself.
Artist Henri Rousseau's painting Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised) is striking because the artist catches the otherwise powerful tiger, the king of the jungle, in a moment of uncertainty, surprised and caught in the rain. Some of Life of Pi's most powerful imagery involves Richard Parker the tiger also caught out of his element, starving, drenched by rain, or swimming in the ocean. While a tiger's natural habitat is definitely not a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, in Life of Pi we also see that a raft is not the ideal environment for humans, either. Like all living creatures trying to make it through a traumatic event alive, Pi also must acquire a tiger's ferocity and instinct for survival in order to find the courage and strength to survive on the raft even when stranded in the middle of the ocean.
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