Painted on 20 August 1964, Le bateau II dates from the exciting early period during which Jean Dubuffet explored what would become his signature style: the Hourloupe. This is vividly expressed in the manic blue and red hatching of this picture showing one of his favourite subjects, the boat, which forms a part of the Ustensiles utopiques, one of the subsections of the series which focussed on objects such as typewriters, wheelbarrows and of course, boats.
It was during 1964 that the Hourloupe style exploded onto the international stage in a series of exhibitions beginning with an eponymous show in Venice, at the Palazzo Grassi, inaugurated only a couple of months before Le bateau II was created. Later in the year, several other exhibitions would showcase the Hourloupe style, which would become a template for Dubuffet which was eventually used in a range of works from large-scale sculptures and set design to lithographs and even a pack of cards.
Dubuffet had earlier looked for inspiration in Art Brut, in the drawings of children and of the mentally ill, and so it appears almost logical that he should have allowed himself to be inspired by his own doodles in the case of the Hourloupe: this fantastically energetic, frenetic style was the result of an accidental discovery, as was recounted by Max Loreau in the fascicule of the catalogue raisonné devoted to these works, published only two years after Le bateau II was created. Essentially, while on the phone in July 1962,
'Dubuffet let his red ball-point pen wander aimlessly over some small pieces of paper, and out of these doodles emerged a number of semiautomatic drawings, which he struck through with red and blue lines. The painter cut out these as yet undetermined compositions and quickly observed that they changed aspect as soon as they were placed against a black background' (M. Loreau, Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, Fascicule XX, Paris, 1966, p. 15).
Here, that same aesthetic has been introduced into the formerly hallowed realm of the oil on canvas: Dubuffet's technique of using découpage and collage techniques to make the original images is echoed in Le bateau II in the white background of the various 'forms' and in the black background against which they have been placed. In this way, Dubuffet is blurring the boundaries and origins of this iconic aesthetic, a disruption that was all the more perfectly captured by the un-pin-down-able neologism of the series name itself: Hourloupe was created as a typically Dubuffetian play on words combining references to mockery, cartoon characters and bodily features: Dubuffet himself touched upon these by listing hurler, hululer, Riquet la houpe and Maupassant's Le Horla as just some of these influences.
Interestingly, Le bateau II dates from a turning point in Dubuffet's approach to the Hourloupe. While formerly, he had allowed the doodles and découpage to dictate the ultimate forms of his images, now, he was exploring the process in reverse. Writing on 8 August 1964, he explained:
'I am working actively at Le Touquet. I have to develop this grand Hourloupe enterprise. That which was at Venice indicated the path, only the path. Now I must give body to the enterprise, build the castle of the Hourloupe.' (Dubuffet, quoted in D. Abadie (ed.), Dubuffet, exh.cat., Paris, 2001, p. 391).
Dubuffet's playfulness in the Hourloupe series was underpinned by a highly serious strategy, embodied in the faux-biro lines themselves and reinforced by this reversal of his process. Dubuffet was removing any sense of depth, any sense of interior hierarchy of form within the image. While the shape overall is evocative to the viewer, the details remain deliberately elusive, yet somehow teeter on the brink of comprehension. In this way, he was, 'abolishing all particularities, all categories (by which I mean the usual classifications adopted by our reflexive mind which makes distinctions between one notion and another: between the notion of chair for example and that of tree, that of human figure, cloud, ground, landscape, or anything else) so that this consistently uniform script indifferently applied to all things (and it should be emphasised, not only visible objects but also invisible inventions of our thoughts, imagination or fantasy; mixed together without discrimination) will reduce them all to the lowest common denominator and restitute a continuous undifferentiated universe; it will thereby dissolve the categories which our mind habitually employs to decipher (better to say cipher) the facts and spectacles of the world' (Dubuffet, quoted in Margit Rowell, 'Jean Dubuffet: An Art on the Margins of Culture', pp.15-34 in Jean Dubuffet: A Retrospective, New York, 1973,
Thus, the shifting forms of Le bateau II are echoed in the very intangible nature of the image, a mirage-like agglomeration of forms that has only the loosest anchorage in reality and indeed encourages us to retain a distance from reality.
Executed after he left the watery world of Venice, Dubuffet's enthusiasm, though, his love of line, of paint, of images, even of boats, is more than evident in the sheer joyousness of the meandering lines in Le bateau II. This is a revelation, filled with energy. It is not an image of the world as the artist sees it; instead, as he explained in his preface to the 1964 exhibition in Venice, it is a picture of the world as he wished to see it, a notion expressed in the idea of the boat as one of his Ustensiles utopiques.