Updated: Oct 19, 2020
When I was about eight years old, my Mum took me to the National Gallery. We lived north of London at the time and a trip ‘into town’ was still an exciting, relatively rare event. I was filled with anticipation. Walking down a stairway with my Mum, I saw this painting:
This is Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised) by Henri Rousseau. I immediately adored it; I remember it through my child’s eyes as an enormous, dynamic canvas of life and colour. For a dreamy little girl who loved to spend hours messing about in the garden or the woods, it was a gateway to exciting, wild places. The tiger, frozen forever in a moment of pure movement, transfixed me.
23 years later I moved into my current flat. I’m lucky enough to have a big living room, formerly the main bedroom of the grand Victorian building. A huge wall in that room demanded a picture large enough to do it justice, and as I thought about what I wanted, the tiger came back to me. I ordered the biggest print I could find and he hangs above me as a write this.
Just looking at the picture now takes me back to the excitement, the fear, the potential that so resonated for me as an eight-year-old. It makes me want to get out in the woods again, or to set off on a jungle exploration. I’ve got rent to pay so I’ll hold off on grabbing my kayak, but the impulse remains, and it’s a joy to re-connect with it in odd moments during my day.
What Rousseau captures so beautifully and powerfully is the dynamism of his subject, forever waiting to leap to action. The tiger is potential movement personified, coiled like a spring. Around him the storm surges, the grey sky crisscrossed by whipping branches.
When I managed to track down a print of this painting I was confused by its description, which I hadn’t seen as a child. Rousseau claimed that his tiger was caught not only in a storm, but in the moment just before pouncing on his prey, who are just off-canvas to the right.
But I disagreed; whenever I saw this painting in my minds’ eye, and even when I look up at it now, what I see is a tiger on the run, caught out in some way by the gaze of the observer. I can accept it the other way, but it is never my first response. For me this tiger is less the hunter, rather more hunted.
But there is something inherently uncertain and ambiguous about the stormy scene itself, perhaps encapsulated in the tigers’ unclear intentions. Everything is to play for; nothing is certain. Rousseau captures the ambiguity of this moment so starkly, yet poetically.
In the 25 years that the tiger has travelled with me I have known my own storms, from gentle rain showers to the great walloping hurricane our tiger is trying to find his way through. In those storms, my choices have not often been so different from the tiger’s. Am I in pursuit, or am I turning tail? Although I get the sense that conscious decision-making is not a high priority for my tiger.
But then consciousness is far less a clear-cut part of much decision-making for us humans than we like to admit to ourselves. And it is in our stormy moments that some of our most primitive decision-making kicks in, our fight-or-flight responses. The conscious mind gives way to the emergency task forces of the body, and the tiger within takes hold.
I am not the tiger and I have choices, even if they are not immediately clear. But my instinctive nature has responded like the tiger at times, sometimes unnecessarily. Where we have faced storms in the past, our animalistic responses can become hypervigilant; this is how trauma imprints on the body. It has taken emotional work in adulthood for me to disentangle some of that, to be able to respond to life’s storms in more calm ways.
I am aware that the tiger part of me will always be there, forever ready to run, or to pounce. His startled expression reminds me of the uncertainty woven into life, and the helplessness we can all feel in those moments. He demands my attention and my respect. But there are other parts of me too. Unlike the tiger, I can often step away from the canvas and see the storm will pass, or that there is a different perspective I could work with.
For the eight-year-old in me, the tiger evokes romantic adventures in far-flung jungles; for my adult self, he is a companion who helps me recognise my inner wildness, and the uncertainty of life. I’ve had that painting on my wall for a while now, and I wonder if seeing him every day has helped me come to terms with some of this.
Because in acknowledging that in some ways, I am just like that tiger in the storm, perhaps I can also acknowledge that I’m able to see things differently too. And unlike my tiger, forever trapped in his moment of potential movement, I’m fortunate enough to be able to make choices – and to enjoy the sunshine between life’s storms.