Painted in 1951, Table aux pièces d’histoire naturelle is a masterpiece of textural composition by Jean Dubuffet. The work looms almost five feet in height, making it the very largest of the series of tables the artist made between 1951 and 1952, and not only the largest of any of his works of this period but also the most celebrated of them. It is the only example from the series, illustrated in color, in the artist’s fascicule or catalogue raisonné. At its debut in the exhibition “Landscaped Tables, Landscapes of the Mind, Stones of Philosophy” at New York’s Pierre Matisse Gallery in February-March 1952, it was acquired by the prominent collector Ralph Colin, an active trustee of MoMA and founder of the Art Dealers Association of America. During his life, Colin built an enviable collection of 20th century art, including works by Edouard Vuillard, Chaim Soutine, Juan Gris and Jean Dubuffet. His collection was world famous and secured his reputation as one of the most significant collectors in his day. Table aux pieces d’histoire naturelle remained in Colin’s collection for over four decades, during which time it was exhibited in Dubuffet’s major retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art in 1962, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1973, and the Academie der Kunst, Berlin, in 1980-81.
The legendary William Rubin, former Director of Painting and Sculpture of the Museum of Modern Art, during his days as a professor, collector, art critic, noted in his review of the 1962 retrospective at MoMA, “Though the shift into landscape betokened a relaxation of certain feelings connected with the human figure, it in no way signaled a loss of quality, for among the paintings of 1951-52 are some of the best of Dubuffet’s career. In this period color tends to be eliminated (except as subtle surface tinting, as in the exquisite Natural History [referring to Table aux pièces d’histoire naturelle]) in favor of chiaroscuro created largely by the actual surface variation of the exceedingly high reliefs. Much thicker even than the hautes pâtes, these predominantly earth-colored pictures are built up with mixtures of zinc white, lime, and polymerized oil, to which sand is added to make a mortar. This, writes Dubuffet, ‘applied with large, dull putty knives, enabled me to provoke systems of reliefs in objects where reliefs are least expected, and at the same time, lent itself to the very realistic effects of roughed and stony terrains. I enjoyed the idea that a single medium should have this double power: to accentuate the actual and familiar character of certain elements (notably in figurations of ground and soils), and yet to precipitate other elements into a world of phantasmagoric unreality’” (W. Rubin, “Jean Dubuffet”, Art International, Vol. IV, No. 4, May 1962, p. 52).
Indeed, Table aux pièces d’histoire naturelle stands out amid Dubuffet’s largely earth-toned works of the time with its spectacular array of marbled color, which ranges from rich brown to inky blue, terracotta, Tyrian purple and blushes of mauve. These blooming, translucent hues are glazed over a scape of tessellated stone-like shapes – the title’s ‘pieces of natural history’ – that make up the form of a table. Emerging from four legs at the foot of the canvas, the table faces us with distinctly anthropomorphic impact, echoing the artist’s famed Corps de dames which immediately preceded this work. Dubuffet, who conceived of his materials as having behaviors and dispositions like living things, transforms his inanimate subject into a powerful physical and metaphysical presence.
In 1952, a year after completing Table…, Dubuffet wrote: “The pictures done in 1950 and 1951 are closely linked, like all of my works of these last years, to the specific behavior of the material used, and, if you will, to its disposition. I say its disposition in the sense that one speaks of the disposition of an animal, for I should say right off that I see no great difference (metaphysically, that is) between the paste I spread and a cat, a trout or a bull… Those who imagine that these kinds of pastes are something inert make a grave mistake. Formless does not mean inert, far from it! My connection with the material I use is like the bond of the dancer with his partner, the rider with his horse, the fortune teller with her cards. One can now understand how I feel coming upon a new kind of coating, and what eagerness I try it out” (J. Dubuffet, “Landscaped Tables, Landscapes of the Mind, Stones of Philosophy,” in P. Selz (ed.), The Work of Jean Dubuffet, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1962, p. 63).
The Tables were a radical revision of a well-worn art-historical theme and for Max Loreau their startling life-force transcended and demolished the conventions of the still life: “if some of these tables have the appearance of still lifes, it scarcely needs saying that this is then still life which singularly denies the name: full of a wild agitation, a savage liveliness which is, so to speak, the death of the still life” (M. Loreau, “Présentation”, Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet – Tables Paysagées, paysages du mental, pierres philosphiques, fascicule VII, Paris 1979, pp. 10-11).
Peter Selz, curator of the 1962 MoMA retrospective, saw them as drawing power from the very familiarity of the table motif, which could act as a metaphysical blank slate for thought, an unfixed place of inscription for the fugitive movements of the mind. “These tables are asymmetrical, vague in form, in a state of becoming – or perhaps they are so ancient and worn that all definite outlines have disappeared. As man works his land, so he is always accompanied by some sort of surface, a bench or table used for eating and working. There are tables on which the whole history of nature is recapitulated, tables with faces, ‘quiet tables’, ‘wild tables’, or, later, ‘venerable tables’, ‘bare tables’, ‘bestial tables’ and ‘tables of offering’. The landscapes and the tables may also become philosopher’s stones, devices for contemplation and echoes of silence, whose encrusted surfaces lead the mind in any direction without stamping upon it certain predetermined shapes” (P. Selz, op. cit., pp. 55-57).
It is ultimately in this lack of “predetermined shapes” that Table aux pièces d’histoire naturelle finds its meaning. In the true spirit of Art Brut, Dubuffet’s freewheeling invention – so contrary to everything expected of a painter in the French tradition – finds poetry in the everyday and transmutes a piece of furniture into a living, receptive philosophical surface, endowing it with an unknown life, borrowed from other worlds than ours. “These are landscapes of the brain,” the artist said. “They aim to show the immaterial world which dwells in the mind of man: disorder of images, of beginnings of images, of fading images, where they cross and mingle, in a turmoil, tatters borrowed from memories of the outside world, and facts purely cerebral and internal—visceral perhaps…” (J. Dubuffet, “Landscaped Tables, Landscapes of the Mind, Stones of Philosophy”, 1952, quoted in P. Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York 1962, p.71).