Ben Luke profiles an artist who fell in and out of love with painting, coined the term Art Brut, and is today hailed as a giant of Modernism
Jean Dubuffet was born into a bourgeois family of wine merchants in the port of Le Havre in 1901. He studied painting in Paris in 1918 and met key figures in the Parisian art scene of the 1920s, such as Juan Gris and Fernand Léger. Yet by 1924 Dubuffet had become disillusioned with painting, and he gave it up for eight years. After running the family business, he took up painting again in the mid-1930s, only to quickly abandon it once more. Only in 1942 did he finally settle into the life of a painter.
With his return to painting, Dubuffet adopted an energetic new language to approach everyday subject matter. His work hugely impressed his new acquaintances in the Parisian avant-garde to whom he was introduced to by his childhood friend, Georges Limbour — figures including the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, and the expressionist painter Jean Fautrier. Dubuffet’s first solo show, at the René Drouin gallery in Paris in 1944, shocked the critics and enhanced his avant-garde credentials.
‘The more banal a thing may be, the better it suits me,’ said Dubuffet in 1945. ‘Luckily I do not consider myself exceptional in any way. In my paintings, I wish to recover the vision of an average and ordinary man.’ His Metro series from 1943 exemplifies his commitment to quotidian life and the primal energy he brought to depicting it, capturing people on the Paris underground in bright colours, with crude brushwork and in a deliberately naive drawing style. This was influenced in part by prehistoric art and children’s drawings, as well as graffiti he saw in the Parisian streets. But his attention was particularly focused on a uniquely raw type of art: the work of so-called outsiders.
Dubuffet described his rejection of academic art as ‘anti-cultural’, and his pursuit of an alternative creativity led him to artists far from the mainstream. Following research in France and Switzerland, he discovered the work of unintentional, untrained artists who were often mentally ill or had disabilities. He gave this art a name — Art Brut — which he defined in the essay for an exhibition of 200 works by 60 outsider artists in Paris. ‘By [Art Brut] we mean pieces of work executed by people untouched by artistic culture,’ he wrote, ‘in which therefore mimicry, contrary to what happens in intellectuals, plays little or no part, so that their authors draw everything (subjects, choice of materials employed, means of transposition, rhythms, ways of writing, etc.) from their own depths and not from clichés of classical art or art that is fashionable.’
His own work was driven into dramatic new territories. In February 1947 Dubuffet and his wife Lili made their first trip to the small oasis of El Goléa in Algeria, driven to its warmer climes by coal restrictions during a freezing Parisian winter. During this and subsequent visits, the artist spent much time in the company of the Bedouin people, whose ancient tribal rituals spoke directly to his fascination with unprocessed visual languages that lay at the heart of his Art Brut-inspired practice. Deux Arabes Gesticulant, which sold for £1,109,000 at Christie’s in March 2017, was created during one of Dubuffet’s trips to the Sahara.
Dubuffet assembled an extraordinary collection of Art Brut and by the time he donated it to the city of Lausanne in 1971, it included 5,000 works by 133 artists. The collection would form the basis for Lausanne’s Art Brut museum, which opened in 1976.
For Dubuffet, there was no point in capturing the conventional likenesses found in academic portraiture. Yet few artists evoked his epoch as powerfully as he did. In a series of portraits made in 1946 and 1947, he turned literary and artistic figures such as Henri Michaux and Fautrier into caricatures. The portraits were ‘anti-psychological, anti-individualistic’, Dubuffet wrote. ‘It seemed to me that by depersonalising my models, and approaching them from the very general perspective of the human figure, I helped to release, for the user of my painting, different mechanisms of imagination or interest which would greatly increase the power of the likeness.’
Dubuffet frequently developed new techniques. In the 1940s, he created what he called the hautes pâtes (high pastes), using a ground of tar, asphalt and everything from coal dust to pebbles and glass. He would scratch his urgent, simple forms into this sticky surface. He moved on to what he called pâtes battues (beaten pastes). Again, he would paint dark colours as a ground, over which he would spread a thick layer of white paste with a plasterer’s knife. He wrote that he would ‘wander over the smooth paste, tracing with such perfect ease graffiti of sonorous colours’. Dubuffet embraced chance and enjoyed the ‘enveloping indefiniteness’ of his compositions.
He later invented his Texturologies — abstract paintings which adapted the traditional Tyrolean technique used by plasterers: Dubuffet covered his canvas in layers of tiny droplets of paint, and combined it with materials including collaged elements and sand. He intended to evoke heaven and Earth: the ‘teeming matter’ of soil and celestial constellations.
If Paris had been the inspiration for Dubuffet’s artistic breakthrough in the early 1940s, the city liberated him again in the early 1960s. Between 1954 and 1961 Dubuffet had abandoned the French capital for the countryside, first at Durtol in the Auvergne, and then Vence on the Côte d’Azur. By the end of this period he longed to return to Paris, and when he did, it prompted arguably his richest flurry of artistic activity.
In the Paris Circus series he sought to capture the life of the city with which he was enchanted once more. Two paintings from this series have been sold by Christie’s in recent years, reaching the two highest prices ever paid for a Dubuffet at auction: Paris Polka and Les Grandes Artères (both 1961) hum with colour and an almost violent exuberance. Dubuffet wanted the elements of the city to be joined in a ‘crazy dance’.
Thanks to his dealer, Pierre Matisse (the artist’s son), and to the critic Clement Greenberg, Dubuffet quickly developed a reputation in America, despite the fact that New York was usurping Paris as the centre of the art world. Matisse gave him his first New York solo show in 1947; Greenberg had written about him as ‘the brightest new hope of the School of Paris since Miró’ the previous year. Dubuffet would regularly exhibit in New York for the rest of his career, and many of his greatest works are in US museum collections. Americans including the Chicago industrialist Maurice Culberg were among his most ardent collectors.
One day in July 1962, while he was on the telephone, Dubuffet made some doodles with a ballpoint pen. It was a eureka moment: these interlocking forms with linear shading grew to be a vast body of work known as the Hourloupes, which would occupy Dubuffet for most of the rest of his life. The colour scheme was stripped back to the biro colours of red, black and blue, before being translated into multicoloured paintings such as Etre et Paraitre — sold at Christie’s in March 2017 for £10,021,000 — while the forms could appear completely abstract or adopt human and animal shapes. ‘This cycle of work was characterised by a much more seriously arbitrary and irrational mood than anything I had done before,’ Dubuffet said.
The Hourloupes soon developed beyond the rectangular format of paintings. By the early 1970s, Dubuffet was creating Practicables: irregularly-shaped moveable paintings on wheels; today, many of his large sculptures can be found in public spaces in Paris, New York and elsewhere. But his most ambitious late works were architectural schemes. The largest was the 1600-square-metre Closerie Falbala, south of Paris, a kind of walled landscape created to house his Cabinet logologique, which he described as ‘a sanctum for philosophical exercise’ — an Hourloupe painting that you can inhabit. He also designed the Tour aux Figures, a vast tower which stands on the Île Saint-Germain on the Seine outside the French capital. It was completed after his death in May 1985.