Jean Dubuffet’s Les Grandes Artères is a masterful example of the artist’s celebrated Paris Circus series, which is regarded as the artist’s greatest body of work. Buzzing with frenetic energy, Dubuffet convenes a vibrant cast of bustling characters, cars and storefronts across the surface of his canvas, expertly capturing the sense of liberation enjoyed by Paris as it emerged from the darkness of the Second World War. “My desire is to make the site evoked by the picture something phatasmagoric, and that can be achieved only by jumbling together more or less veristic elements with interventions of arbitrary character aiming at unreality,” the artist stated of his newly found joie de vivre. “I want my street to be crazy, my broad avenues, shops and buildings to join in a crazy dance, and that is why I deform and denature their contours and colors” (J. Dubuffet, quoted in A. Franzke, Dubuffet, New York 1981, p. 148). Using his signature naïve style, Dubuffet lays out the French capital’s grand boulevards with renewed vigor. Such is the standing of this series in the post-war artistic canon that many examples are housed in such important international collections including Tate, London; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Flattened against the foreground of the canvas, four cellular cars commanded by their own drivers are rendered immobile against the bustle of city-goers that crowd above them. The titans of 1960s automobiles, Dubuffet has lined up the Ford, Citroën, Simca and Fiat as a representation of the pillars of artistic and industrial ingenuity spawned by the powers of France, Italy and the United States. In Dubuffet’s cityscape, gone is the omnipresence of the grand monuments of the past and the architectural icons that tourists still flock to today, and in their stead the seemingly humble car. And yet, Dubuffet celebrates the artistry and purpose of the automobile as one would celebrate the façade of a great church, much in the same way that Roland Barthes described the Citroën DS in 1957: “I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object” (R. Barthes, “The New Citroën,” Mythologies, Paris, 1972, p. 88).
An optical bacchanal transcribed to canvas, Les Grandes Artères is a faithful testament to Dubuffet’s cry for intoxication and delirium in art—the agitated brushwork and composition providing no rest for the roving eye. Thickly impastoed, this Parisian street scene of shops, cars and characters presents a remarkable and incredibly dense surface that jostles the viewer from one point to the other. And, while the cellular mash up of cars derives its lineup from actual automotive companies, the storefronts and signs of Dubufett’s Grand Boulevard do not depict the real Paris, but a rather bizarre and sometimes ludicrously imagined city. Infused with a high degree of shrewdness and a remarkable sense of wit, the shop lined street of Les Grandes Artères is flanked with stores of Dubuffet’s own creation. Rough-hewn gestural markings, reminiscent of chalk pavement drawings, here, give way to the surging visceral terrains of the Paris Circus. Drawing from the small boutiques that began to populate postwar Paris, much of Dubufett’s canvas is labeled with popular storefront names or consumer products—cosmetique (cosmetic), banque (bank) and caramels. Yet, in a tragic twist of fate, Dubuffet emphasizes the dark result of Guy Debord’s famous statement that “the spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained total occupation of social life” (G. Debord, “The Society of the Spectacle,” Paris, 1967). Such phrases as a l’issue fatale (fatal outcome), societe l’indercrottable (hopeless society), fruits et legumes du desespoir (fruits and vegetables of despair), and faillite (bankruptcy) emerge from the composition, signaling the existential anguish of the consumer world. Dubuffet’s gestural vocabulary disables our spatial awareness to the point of psychedelic rapture: figures advance and recede within our vision, creating a richly kinetic optical effect. Les Grandes Artères conjures a new artistic handwriting, equipped to translate sensory experience and, in doing so, to suggest new ways of comprehending our daily existence.
Indeed, throughout the 1960s an invigorating energy swept the globe, in which every day phenomena were seen through fresh eyes. While the immediate postwar years continued to devastate large areas of the continent, the late 1940s began to see dramatic change with the introduction of Marshall Aid and, in 1958, the rise of the Fifth Republic under President Charles de Gaulle—a period of time which would be known as the “thirty glorious years.” During the ten years that de Gaulle occupied the presidency, France experienced rapid economic growth, accompanied by the building of new offices, houses and the rehabilitation of historic Parisian neighborhoods under the direction of de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, André Malraux. Under the direction of de Gaulle, for the first time in the city’s history, buildings (which were previously mandated to be no higher than 35 meters) began to rival the tallest structure in the city, the Eiffel Tower. The prewar cultural epicenter was becoming reinvigorated with business and commerce, and in the midst of this, Dubuffet had returned from a six year self-imposed hiatus in the Vence country side just in time to greet it.
Averting his attention from the nuanced physicalities of the earth, Dubuffet was struck with the reawakened splendor of the ever changing city. “Over and done with the mystical jubilations of the physical world: I have become nauseated by it and no longer wish to work except against it,” Dubuffet declared. “It is the unreal now that enchants me; I have an appetite for nontruth, the false life, the anti-world; my efforts are launched on the path of irrealism. …I continue moreover to think, as I always have, that truly violent and highly efficacious effects are arrived at by skillfully dosing marriages of irrealism with realism, the presence of one seeming to me necessary in order to manifest the other. In the paintings I now plan to do there will only be aggressively unreasonable forms, colors gaudy without reason, a theater of irrealaties, an outrageous attempt against everything existing, the way wide open for the most outlandish inventions” (J. Dubuffet, quoted in A. Frankze, Dubuffet, New York, 1981, p. 147).
As in Paris, across the globe artists were reacting to the growing emphasis on consumerism. In London and New York, Pop Art was born as artists such as Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg began to investigate the unique auras surrounding quotidian objects, fearlessly appropriating the daily images that flooded their consciousness. In France, amidst the throes of New Wave cinema and sexual revolution, Dubuffet created a new liberated language that sought to convey a riddled existence that latched the tethers of consumption with the unbounded joy of daily living—of walking in the city, of riding a bicycle through the countryside, of simply being. Reminiscent of the nineteenth century Parisian flâneur centered at the heart of such paintings by Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte, Dubuffet explained, “My art does not seek to include festivities as a distraction from everyday life, but to reveal that everyday life is a much more interesting celebration than the pseudo-celebrations created to distract from it” (J. Dubuffet, quoted in Jean Dubuffet, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, 2001).
Quivering with sensory traces and radiating a palpable life-force, Dubuffet transforms Paris into a circus viewed through a kaleidoscope, where the imagination triumphs over reality, and a painterly phantasmagoria rules. In this hyper-reality—not dissimilar from the pre-war Dresden street seen of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner with their heightened uses of color and almost fauve-like pigments—depicts a jarring city life. In 1962, “critic Max Kozloff decided that Dubuffet’s color called for a special vocabulary combining ‘the rarest orchid perfumes’ with ‘digestive fantasies’: ‘caramel pollen, sulphur, peacock blue, burnt brown sugar, orchid, cochineal” (P. Schjeldahl, “1942 and After: Jean Dubuffet in His Century,” J. Demetrion (ed.), Jean Dubuffet 1943-1963: Paintings, Sculptures, Assemblages, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., p. 16). With his unique collage of disparate painterly effects and twisted physical forms, Dubuffet constructs a unique visual script.
While Dubuffet was overwhelmingly inspired by this vast sea of change, the Paris Circus cycle is, indeed, more of a reconnection and rediscovery of the dynamic metropolis than a new encounter. Having disposed of his wine company—which had not only sustained the artist, but sometimes also distracted him—in 1943, Dubuffet began to use the capital city as both his studio and model. Forging a new path on the streets of Paris, the artist abandoned the perceptions of his previous mentors and teachers—not to mention the entire artistic canon. Undeniably, from the moment he decided to devote himself entirely to painting, Dubuffet’s work revealed a distinct distrust for cultural values and aesthetic conventions. Constructing often crude images that were seemingly unworthy of a mature artist, from the start Dubuffet’s figurative paintings pointed to sources in the unschooled art of children, drawings of schizophrenics, eccentrics and outsiders who were wholly indifferent to both cultural expectations and aesthetic norms. Painting in a new, idiosyncratic way that would become so iconic and influential, Dubuffet’s pictorial investigations of what he later termed L’Art brut, discarded the demands of imitation in favor of giving creative impulse full reign. While nearly two decades earlier, Paris was the backdrop for his first true steps into the realm of art, as art critic Peter Selz has commented, “These recent brightly painted city scenes resemble the view of Paris and subway pictures of the early forties although texture, space and deployment of figures have become more complex” (P. Selz, quoted in ibid., p. 147).
Keeping with Dubuffet’s combative position against the criterion for pictorial construction, the composition of Les Grandes Artères strikes down traditional organizational format of fore, middle and background in a renewed flattened composition. Seemingly composed of a vast network of cellular forms of brushwork and color, each articulation exists as a unique entity spontaneously proliferating into those around it. In Dubuffet’s kaleidoscopic world, color changes are abrupt and vitally direct creating a deluge of optical exuberance. “The eye itself is in constant drift: shifted, swept toward a neighboring form which tends to agglutinate itself into the one before it; weaving an invisible fabric over the alveolus dispersed in the picture,” Max Loreau has described of the Paris Circus cycle. “In the canvases articulated on the basis of shop windows, the cells that fit one into the other are completed, but each line serving to delimit one of them is prolonged into another, depends on a neighboring cell, engaging the viewer in a moment of continuous side-slipping” (M. Loreau, quoted in ibid., p. 151). It is by these means that Dubuffet has guaranteed an energetic and dynamic world that is entirely unconcerned and disinterested with how the viewer is commonly used to seeing and observing the world around them. Placing before us a fictional world of hallucinogenic optical experiences, Paris Circus remains an artificial city that never was nor could ever be.