Jean Dubuffet's La coiffeuse, painted in April 1950, is one of the earliest of his celebrated series of Corps de dames and was included in their first exhibition at Pierre Matisse gallery in 1951. It is a tribute to the quality and importance of these notorious and iconoclastic works that they hold an important place in the Twentieth Century canon: many are currently in museum collections including MoMA, New York, Tate, London, Centre Pompidou, Muse national d'art moderne, Paris, the Nationalgalerie in Berlin and the Hamburger Kunsthalle. In total, public collections account for at least thirteen of the Corps de dames, more than a third of the 36 oils in the series.
The fact that this painting presents a coiffeuse-- a hairdresser-- adds to its sense of iconoclasm. Dubuffet has taken a subject whose profession involves beautification, bringing out the qualities that will make a woman appeal more to the aesthetic notions of those around her. However, this woman is not presented as an object of beauty. Indeed, her hair is hardly perceptible, especially dwarfed as it is by the sheer expanse of body below. Dubuffet is therefore further attacking what he regards as a sham and a charade, the deference to ideals of beauty that are transient and fickle. Beauty, according to this picture, is a concept that is either profound and animal, or a mere human imposition, a mockery that glosses over the realities of life.
Holding her arms towards her head and apparently reclining with her legs brought up towards her, La coiffeuse mimics in many ways the traditional body language of sex and sensuality. She appears to be reclining like an Odalisque in an erotically redolent posture, either waiting for the artist or for a lover. The flimsy arms mean that this pose both echoes and mocks an artistic tradition that included Corot, Ingres and even Matisse, making a reference to their art while belittling it. The main focus of this painting is the earthy expanse of the woman's body itself, the unadulterated desire that she shows and that Dubuffet thrusts towards the viewer. The composition, with the woman taking up most of the canvas, means that she almost envelopes the viewer, drawing us into the painting and into herself. By this means, Dubuffet adds an incredible immediacy to the work. There is no mitigating layer of formality, no porcelain skin or visual ideal to distance us from the subject, but instead an unfettered and raw image, an almost tangible sense of the woman's feelings that spills into our world. La coiffeuse is the perfect example of the art that Dubuffet aimed at: 'an art that is directly plugged in to our current life, an art that starts out from this current life, that immediately emanates from our real life and our real moods' (Dubuffet, Anticultural Positions, loc.cit., 1987, p. 127).
In his earlier works, Dubuffet had produced his distinctive landscapes and portraits; in his Corps de dame pictures, he launched an attack on what was arguably the most hallowed theme of all Western, and not least French, art-- the Woman. Be it in the Madonna or the Odalisque, as the object of reverence or lust (or in some cases a combination), the woman as a subject in French art stood as the pinnacle of the aesthetic, the embodiment of all that was graceful and beautiful, a subject that raised the level of the artwork itself. Dubuffet brooked none of this. He objected to the hierarchical nature of Western aesthetics, and sought an art that was more immediate and more true. In his famous lecture Anticultural Positions, given in Chicago the year after La coiffeuse was executed, Dubuffet stated that:
'For most western people, there are objects that are beautiful and others that are ugly; there are beautiful people and ugly people, beautiful places and ugly ones.
'But not for me. Beauty does not enter into the picture for me. I consider the western notion of beauty completely erroneous. I absolutely refuse to accept the idea that there are ugly people and ugly objects. Such an idea strikes me as stifling and revolting...
'The so-called savages do not believe in this at all. They do not comprehend what you mean by beauty. This is precisely the reason why we call them savages. A name reserved for anyone who fails to understand that there are beautiful things and ugly things and doesn't really worry about it either' (Dubuffet, Anticultural Positions, 1951, quoted in Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality, ed. M. Glimcher, New York, 1987, p. 129).
It was this 'savage' understanding of beauty and of the world that Dubuffet sought to capture in his paintings of women. He completely ignored the sensualisation of the woman as an art-object, and instead created something with an untamed, unharnessed rawness, an earthiness that explodes off the canvas into the viewer's domain. In La coiffeuse, as in the other Corps de Dame paintings, the woman seems almost filleted, her contents spread across the breadth of the canvas. The flattened presentation makes her body appear like a rudimentary map, with the various key body parts spread about almost willy-nilly. So it is that the breasts appear as strange, discreet disruptions in the general texture placed near the armpits, while the buttocks are shaped as though they were the sides of an arrow pointing towards the vagina while the head is almost an autonomous area, a peninsula floating off to the north. This is an assault not only on the aesthetics of painting women, but also on concepts of women in general. Dubuffet unflinchingly presents La coiffeuse as a carnal beast, removing her from the pedestal upon which Madonnas and mothers perch.
This map-like appearance reflects the important changes that were occurring in Dubuffet's art during this period. Having completed his third trip to Algeria the previous year, Dubuffet was full of ideas about art. This ranged from his interest in more 'savage' perspectives in his painting to the actual flatness with which he has presented La coiffeuse. This itself is in some way reminiscent of the flat expanse of the desert itself, giving the woman a landscape-like feel, a sense that she is a world in her own right. She is an earthy domain reminiscent of the ancient, pre-Classical Mother God figures that so intrigued the artists of Dubuffet's age, filled with their strange sensuality and alien concept of beauty. While Dubuffet had painted many people before, usually focussing on the head and face, it was only in April 1950 that he truly began to tackle women, and especially their bodies, as an explicit subject matter, La coiffeuse being one of only four of these works that he painted in April at the very beginning of this celebrated series.