‘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. 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 colours’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in A. Franzke, Dubuffet, New York 1981, p. 148).
‘Both Dubuffet and Basquiat were engaged in a methodical exploration of states of perception, knowing, and being. They used the means that best suited their purpose, arriving at remarkably similar artistic forms’ (L. Rinder, quoted in Dubuffet and Basquiat: Personal Histories, exh. cat., Pace Wildenstein, New York, 2006, http://www.pacegallery.com/newyork/exhibitions/11804/dubuffet-and-basquiat-personal-histories [accessed 3 June 2014]).
Vast, exuberant and electrifying, Jean Dubuffet’s Le gai savoir is an outburst of pure joy that captures the intoxicating furor of the 1960s Parisian heyday. With its two romantic lovers engaging in flirtatious fling, the work was executed in 1963 and represents the birth of one of the very first purely urban aesthetics, heralding the dawn of contemporary street art. As chalk-like scrawl surges forth amidst a vibrant explosion of thick impasto and schismatic gestural markings, mesmerizing optical depth emerges from a rich collision of colour and texture. The work pulsates with the same raw vitality that Cy Twombly was exploring among the ancient façades of Rome, and which Jean-Michel Basquiat was later to harness in the post-Punk chaos of 1980s New York. Eminently prophetic, Le gai savoir is one of the largest and most impressive canvases from Dubuffet’s greatest period: a period defined by a flourishing dialogue between the celebrated aesthetics of Paris Circus and l’Hourloupe. In Le gai savoir, the two come together to create an extraordinary display of joie de vivre. Background and foreground fluctuate in an undulating rhythm; we feel the energy of Dubuffet’s paintbrush and the visionary sweep of his eye, the life-force of the metropolis and the noise of the city. Dubuffet’s quixotic figures are carefree flâneurs in this heady cosmos, dancing through the streets of Paris. They are powerful symbols of a new generation swept along by the social euphoria of the 1960s – a mood that, in America, was driving the development of Pop Art. The work’s unbridled optimism is further evoked by its title Le gai savoir: a title shared with Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1882 treatise Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. According to Nietzsche, the phrase invokes the poetry of thirteenth-century Provence: ‘that unity of singer, knight and free spirit which distinguishes the wonderful early culture of the Provençals from all equivocal cultures’, elegiacally expressed in the book’s final poem – ‘an exuberant dancing song’ (F. Nietzsche, quoted in W. Kauffman (ed.), The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, New York 1968, p. 750). Evoking this ancient folk legacy, Dubuffet injects a thread of romanticism into his contemporary zeitgeist, ushering in an untamed visual language for a new urban culture. A preparatory study for the work, La Gaya Scienza, was part of the artist’s gift to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris in 1968.
When Dubuffet left Paris for the countryside in 1955, it still bore the physical and associative scars of war. Yet by the time of his return in 1961, the city had been transformed into a thriving social and cultural epicentre. Emerging from the dark material aesthetic he had cultivated during the 1950s, Dubuffet lifted his eyes from the ground to the cosmopolitan splendour that surrounded him. Paris Circus was the celebrated series that emerged from this new stance. ‘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. 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 colours’, Dubuffet has said of the series (J. Dubuffet, quoted in A. Franzke, Dubuffet, New York 1981, p. 148). The ebullient, almost hallucinogenic pictorial flair of these works fed into the burgeoning aesthetic of l’Hourloupe that developed from the artist’s distracted biro scrawling during a series of telephone calls. Over the course of the early 1960s, these twin styles nourished each other, forging a path of mutual enhancement that reaches an apotheosis in Le gai savoir. Two charismatic figures, curiously alien and yet strangely human, engage in a dynamic altercation. Dialogue strains to be heard; movement courses through high-heeled shoes and outstretched hands, and the couple dance their way through Dubuffet’s wild and effervescent infrastructure. This backdrop imports specific elements from Paris Circus, including the yellow and white circles that recall Dubuffet’s articulations of Parisian shop windows. At the same time, its rough-hewn multi-coloured markings recall chalk pavement drawings, feeding off the primitivistic energy of art brut and throwing the cellular figures into oscillating chaos. Mining the depths of his own artistic language to create a surging visceral mind-map, Dubuffet forges a new hyper-reality that immerses us in the ecstasy of his own vision.
Through his own stylistic transmutations, Dubuffet stakes a claim in the art-historical canon as the godfather of contemporary street art. With his unique collage of disparate painterly effects and twisted physical forms, Dubuffet constructs a script with the potential to overwrite the history of representation. His gestural vocabulary disables our spatial awareness to the point of psychedelic rapture. Like Twombly’s deliberate un-training of his hand, Le gai savoir instigates a new artistic handwriting, equipped to translate sensory experience and, in doing so, to conjure new ways of seeing the world. In this sense, Dubuffet operates as the pre-eminent graffiti artist of his time, paving the way for the raw energy and graphic impulse of Basquiat. As Lawrence Rinder has written, ‘both Dubuffet and Basquiat were engaged in a methodical exploration of states of perception, knowing, and being. They used the means that best suited their purpose, arriving at remarkably similar artistic forms’ (L. Rinder, quoted in Dubuffet and Basquiat: Personal Histories, exh. cat., Pace Wildenstein, New York, 2006, http://www.pacegallery.com/newyork/exhibitions/11804/dubuffet-and-basquiat-personal-histories [accessed 3 June 2014]). Like a contemporary scribe, Dubuffet captures the city in its prime, daubing his impressions upon the canvas with an immediacy that radiates from every brushstroke. Like the street wall or pavement – the traditional locus of street art – the canvas becomes a mood-board – a sound-board, a blackboard – for his own lived experience. The work quivers as if newly created, haunted by its own zeitgeist.
During the 1960s a profound post-war energy swept the globe, in which everyday phenomena were seen through tinted lenses of celebration and desire. In America, Pop Art was born, unearthing the unique auras surrounding quotidian objects and confronting thorny questions of representation with fearless appropriation. An ocean apart in France, amid the throes of New Wave cinema and sexual revolution, Dubuffet created a new liberated language that sought to convey the unbounded joy of daily living – of walking in the city, of riding a bicycle through the countryside, of driving, of dancing and, ultimately, of simply being. In Le gai savoir, Dubuffet cultivates his own definite brand of European Pop Art. His stylistic fusion weaves a new reality – a parallel universe. Lifting elements both from his own practice and the physical world, Dubuffet transforms them into a vision that is disarmingly new, yet somehow more emotively real than any traditional representation. Like a piece of theatre, the scene becomes animated before our very eyes: the contagious energy of the city, the enchanting couple caught up in dance and the strains of music pulsing through the streets.