Jean Dubuffet was a French artist who railed against the traditions and assumptions of the Western canon. His paintings, drawings, collages and sculptures asked the world to strip away learnt convention, and to find wonder in everyday reality. Restlessly innovative, he redefined the concept of beauty for future generations, inspiring artists including David Hockney, Georg Baselitz, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
As World War II drew to a close, Dubuffet burst onto the international art scene with the proposition that academic teaching had suppressed our deepest visual instincts. Art created outside its confines, he believed, was better equipped to reveal the true nature of the human spirit.
Dubuffet travelled widely in pursuit of what he termed ‘art brut’ (‘raw art’), looking at images created by children, patients in mental health institutions and nomadic tribes in the Sahara. Early works such as Childbirth (1944) and Apartment Houses, Paris (1946), as well as his seminal desert paintings, Paysages grotesques (1949) and Corps de dames (1950–51), captured the liberated, intuitive style that would define his practice.
During the 1950s, Dubuffet began to explore the natural world. His portraits and landscapes of this period channelled the textures of the earth, deploying a variety of techniques and materials including butterfly wings.
In 1961, struck by the transformation of Paris after his return to the city, he began his career-defining series Paris Circus. These dazzling responses to the 1960s urban zeitgeist represent his most expensive paintings at auction, with Paris Polka (1961) and Les Grandes Artères (1961) achieving record prices in excess of $20 million at Christie’s.
In 1962, Dubuffet began his next definitive series: Hourloupe. Inspired by subconscious doodles he made while talking on the telephone, these cellular jigsaws of crosshatched lines formed a strange, parallel universe. The series consumed him for the next decade, culminating in the surreal 1971 performance Coucou Bazar.
From this point onwards, Dubuffet’s practice became increasingly psychological. His later works mapped out mental rather than physical spaces: from the Théâtres de mémoire of the 1970s, to the Partitions, Psychosites, Mires and Non-lieux of his final years. It was a fitting conclusion to a practice that implored us to open our minds, and to look with fresh eyes beyond the world we know.