10 things to know about Jean Dubuffet
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. By 1924, however, Dubuffet had become disillusioned with painting, and he gave it up for eight years. After running his own wine 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 an artist.
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.’
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. 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.
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.
Alentour la maison is a composition from the ‘Lieux cursifs’ series that occupied his output between April and September 1957, a period when long sojourns in the countryside were interspersed with regular trips back home to Paris.
In the ‘Paris Circus’ series he sought to capture the life of the city 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 said he wanted the elements of the city to be joined in a ‘crazy dance’.
La robe à boutons (above), painted on 4 September 1961, is the first and largest in a sequence of five distinct character portraits that punctuate Dubuffet’s Paris Circus series. Abandoning the dark subject matter that had occupied him in Vence, he revelled in metropolitan life, absorbing the characters, conversations and bright lights that surrounded him. Daubing his impressions on canvas, board and paper, he forged what would ultimately come to be recognised as a new form of contemporary urban art, heralding the work of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
La robe à boutons can be understood as a piece of this puzzle: a celebration of the new fashions and flaneurs who made their mark on the city during this period.
Panorama (1978), which was offered in London on 12 February 2020, is a striking example of Dubuffet’s ‘Théatres de mémoire’ (‘Theatres of memory’) series, created in the final decade of his life. Over two metres high, and almost three metres wide, the work recalls the teeming urban environments of his early-1960s ‘Paris Circus’ works.
Each constituent part of the Théatres de mémoire was made specifically for this series. Using a ladder, magnets and a large sheet of metal, Dubuffet would arrange them into monumental compositions — a great physical effort for a man in his late seventies — before having them carefully transferred to canvas.
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 Hourloupe cycle, which would occupy Dubuffet for 12 years.
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 Hourloupe cycle soon developed beyond the rectangular format of paintings. By the early 1970s, Dubuffet was creating Practicables: irregularly-shaped moveable paintings on wheels for his spectacle Coucou Bazar; 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.