‘[The Paysages grotesques demonstrate] not only a new approach to landscape, which arose almost automatically from the new technique, but also a new type of figure, characterized by balloon-shaped heads and correspondingly formed bodies … the viewer becomes directly involved in the genesis of the image; our gaze gradually “feels” its way across the material phenomena toward an interpretation of the landscape and its internal relationships’
‘The Paysages grotesques in general are an outgrowth of Dubuffet’s pursuit of the automatic and the uncontrolled which has engaged him for a long time. His predilection for the spontaneous as well as the barbaric, his complete rejection of objective standards, his romantic interest in the untrained “folk”, and his stress on unbridled invention, imagination and fantasy led to his occupation with l’art brut’
‘We came back from [the Sahara] absolutely cleansed of all the intoxications, really refreshed and renewed, as well as enriched in the ways of savoir-vivre’
‘Perhaps it was the time I spent in the deserts of White Africa that sharpened my taste ... for the little, the almost nothing, and especially, in my art, for the landscapes where one finds only the formless’
A quivering field of raw graphic sensation, La Vie Agreste (The Rural Life) is an exceptional early example of Jean Dubuffet’s Paysages grotesques. Three insouciant figures stare outwards from the canvas, carved into thick layers of paint like ancient graffiti upon a weathered rockface. Around them, a vast terrain of mysterious marks hovers in and out of focus, oscillating between foreground and background with primal, rhythmic energy. Executed in May 1949, shortly after the artist’s return from his third and final trip to the Sahara, it extends the revolutionary cycle of works inspired by his time in the Algerian desert. Far from the constraints of Western civilization and tradition, the white sands of Africa and their nomadic inhabitants had a profound impact on Dubuffet’s practice. His nascent interest in uncultivated, unprocessed visual languages – a phenomenon he termed art brut – was amplified by his engagement with the sprawling dunes and the tribal rituals of the Bedouin people. Embedded in the surface of the painting like footprints in the sand, his figures became potent symbols of elemental wisdom: charged with the primordial mystery of prehistoric remains, their forms came to embody the primeval relationship between man and nature. In the Paysages grotesques, Dubuffet magnified this notion by applying a layer of light-coloured impasto over a dark ground, creating literal geological strata from which his figures could be excavated. The gesticulating characters of his desert-inspired paintings morphed into strange, balloon-like beings, imbued with childlike naivety and pastoral innocence. Devoid of perspective and proportion, their unwieldy forms predate the landmark Corps de dames series created the following year, as well as the bucolic tableaus Dubuffet would produce during his self-imposed exile to rural Vence in the mid-1950s. At times almost indistinguishable from their surroundings, his three protagonists bear witness to the powerful union between figure and landscape – between the topographies of flesh and earth – that would go on to drive the development of his practice.
Dubuffet and his wife Lili made their first trip to the small oasis of El Goléa in February 1947. Driven to its warmer climes by coal restrictions during a freezing Parisian winter, they returned periodically over the next two years. In the dreary aftermath of the Second World War, the Sahara offered Dubuffet ‘a bath of simplicity’ – an opportunity to escape the confines of historical tradition and strip back his art to its most embryonic form. Writing to Jacques Berne after his first excursion, he described how ‘we came back from there absolutely cleansed of all the intoxications, really refreshed and renewed, as well as enriched in the ways of savoir-vivre’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in H. Damisch (ed.), Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, vol. 2, Paris 1995, pp. 247-248). For Dubuffet, who had spent the past few years observing the art of children, psychics and mental health patients in a bid to liberate his hand from the teachings of the Western culture, the unfettered forms of representation he encountered in the Sahara resonated deeply with his aesthetic ambitions. In particular, it was the fluid tactility of sand – its ability to conjure forms and dissolve into nothing in the blink of an eye – that had the greatest impact on his artistic outlook. As he later suggested, ‘Perhaps it was the time I spent in the deserts of White Africa that sharpened my taste ... for the little, the almost nothing, and especially, in my art, for the landscapes where one finds only the formless’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in M. Glimcher, Jean Dubuffet: Towards An Alternative Reality, New York 1987, p. 9). In the infinite, ever-changing spaces of the deserted Saharan landscape, the mind was free to roam: to expand, to digress and to reinvent itself. In a world that bore the recent, all-too-painful scars of war, its wide-open planes offered an opportunity for spiritual rebirth: to celebrate mankind anew as a primal source of knowledge and power.
Dominating the artist’s oeuvre between May 1949 and January 1950, the Paysages grotesques evolved directly from Dubuffet’s desert paintings. Etched into layers of pigment like fossilised traces, his figures extended the corrosive graphic language of lacerations and incisions that had defined this previous body of work, informed by his experiments with engraving and lithography during the early 1940s. As Andreas Franzke has explained, ‘the viewer becomes directly involved in the genesis of the image; our gaze gradually “feels” its way across the material phenomena toward an interpretation of the landscape and its internal relationships’ (A. Franzke, ‘Erfundene Orte und Situationen: Landschaftswiedergaben im Werk Jean Dubuffets’, in Dubuffet: Retrospektive, exh. cat., Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 1980, p. 171). By making physical matter the primary subject of his work, Dubuffet came to understand figure and landscape as two sides of the same coin: a conviction that would go on to inspire the billowing carnal topographies of his Corps de dames. ‘Portraits and landscapes should resemble each other because they are more or less the same thing’, he asserted. ‘I want portraits in which description makes use of the same mechanisms as those used in a landscape – here wrinkles, there ravines or paths; here a nose, there a tree; here a mouth, there a house’ (J. Dubuffet, letter to J. Berne, 13 January 1947, in H. Damisch (ed.), Prospectus et tout ecrits suivants, Vol. 2, Paris 1967, p. 432). In La Vie Agreste, the human body becomes a surging terrain in its own right, imbued with all the visceral energy, raw tactility and innate rhythms of nature.