An iconic chef-d’oeuvre of Jean Dubuffet’s most celebrated series, the Paris Circus, Paris Polka radiates with the artist’s unfettered application of vibrant hues and boisterous brushwork resulting in a dynamic interpretation, raw vitality, and joie de vivre that pulsated through the French capital in the 1960s. One of only four large-scaled canvases, Paris Polka is perhaps the most definitive masterpiece of the artist’s most influential series left in private hands. While many canvases belonging to the Paris Circus are housed in such reputable collections as the Tate, London; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, it is only Le Commerce Prospère (1961) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York that Paris Polka meets its match. Teeming with life and movement, Paris Polka offers a dynamic composition, executed in a particularly vibrant palette, that is filled with people, cars, storefronts and architecture. Each storefront and car appears to be a little world unto itself, and yet almost all of the characters face the viewer creating a strange and striking interaction. While loosely drawing from the aesthetic styles and subjects that launched his career, Paris Polka—through the boldly scrawled l’entourloupe—simultaneously announces Dubuffet’s departure into the Hourloupe style, which would occupy the artist from the summer of 1962 through the autumn of 1974.
Returning to Paris after a six year self-imposed hiatus in the Vence countryside, Dubuffet’s Paris Circus signals the artist’s vivacious rediscovery of city life. Seeking to escape the war scarred melancholy and disquieting sobriety of postwar Paris, the 1950s marked a humbling immersion into the dark, rural aesthetic of earthbound materiality. Studying the textures of the soil and ground in geologically minute detail, the artist’s fascination with organic matter in his Texturologies, Topographies and Matérologies of the late 1950s introduced a new element of design that sought to celebrate the physical existence of basic matter through densely constructed, homogenous surfaces. It was, however, in this absence from city life that Paris was born anew, transformed from a war-torn capital into a thriving social and cultural epicenter.
Averting his attention from the nuanced physicalities of the earth, Dubuffet was struck with the reawakened splendor of his new surroundings. “Over and done with the mystical jubilations of the physical world: I have become nauseated by it and no longer wish toward except against it,” Dubuffet declared. “It is the unreal now that enchants me; I have an appetite for nontruth, the false life, the anti-world; my efforts are launched on the path of irrealism. …I continue moreover to think, as I always have, that truly violent and highly efficacious effects are arrived at by skillfully dosing marriages of irrealism with realism, the presence of one seeming to me necessary in order to manifest the other. In the paintings I now plan to do there will only be aggressively unreasonable forms, colors gaudy without reason, a theater of irrealaties, an outrageous attempt against everything existing, the way wide open for the most outlandish inventions” (J. Dubuffet, quoted in A. Frankze, Dubuffet, New York, 1981, p. 147).
With the inception of one of the first truly urban aesthetics, Dubuffet’s breakthrough came in February 1961 when the force of this powerful revelation gave birth to the artists most illustrious and sought-after series, Paris Circus. Captivated by the energy coursing through the Parisian streets, Dubuffet was swept up in the whirl of the city bustling with cars and people. “Jean Dubuffet has shed his ground-worshipper tunic,” Max Loreau, leading Dubuffet scholar, exclaimed of this restored joie de vivre. “The period of austerity is over. His ‘matériologue’ side sleeps; make way for the playful and theatrical Janus, the dancer and shouter” (M. Loreau, in Catalogue des travaux, Fascicule XIX, Paris-Circus, Paris, 1965, p. 7). While the somber tones of his previous output were replaced by a radiating palette of reds, yellows, purples and blues, and the primitivistic energy of art brut was freshly channeled into rich and tactile surfaces of childlike representations laden with wonder and immediacy, Dubuffet’s picture-city was not the real Paris, but rather a bizarre and sometimes ludicrously imagined city. Infused with a high degree of shrewdness and a remarkable sense of wit, the shop lined street in Paris Polka is flanked by shops and storefronts of the artist’s own creation. Here, banque la paumée (bank of the clueless) is situated next to la maffia (the mafia) and commerce honnêt (honest trade) is squeezed tightly between l’déluré (cheeky) and l’entourloupe (the dirty trick). Rough-hewn gestural markings, reminiscent of chalk pavement drawings, here, give birth to surging visceral terrains and irresistibly appealing settings abundant with Dubuffet’s personage actors striking well-rehearsed, theatrical poses. Quivering with sensory traces and radiating a palpable life-force, Paris is transformed into a circus viewed through a kaleidoscope, where the imagination triumphs over reality, and a painterly phantasmagoria rules. In Paris Polka, Dubuffet invites us to join the fervent dance of his newly-discovered playground.
While Dubuffet was overwhelmingly inspired by this vast sea of change, the Paris Circus cycle is, indeed, more of a reconnection and rediscovery of the dynamic metropolis than a new encounter. Having disposed of his wine company—which had not only sustained the artist, but sometimes also distracted him—in 1943, Dubuffet began to use the capital city as both his studio and model. Forging a new path on the streets of Paris, the artist abandoned the perceptions of his previous mentors and teachers—not to mention the entire artistic canon. Undeniably, from the moment he decided to devote himself entirely to painting, Dubuffet’s work revealed a distinct distrust for cultural values and aesthetic conventions. Constructing often crude images that were seemingly unworthy of a mature artist, from the start Dubuffet’s figurative paintings pointed to sources in the unschooled art of children, drawings of schizophrenics, eccentrics and outsiders who were wholly indifferent to both cultural expectations and aesthetic norms. Painting in a new, idiosyncratic way that would become so iconic and influential, Dubuffet’s pictorial investigations of what he later termed L’Art brut, discarded the demands of imitation in favor of giving creative impulse full reign. While nearly two decades earlier, Paris was the backdrop for his first true steps into the realm of art, as art critic Peter Selz has commented, “These recent brightly painted city scenes resemble the view of Paris and subway pictures of the early forties although texture, space and deployment of figures have become more complex” (P. Selz, quoted in ibid., p. 147).
Keeping with Dubuffet’s combative position against the criterion for pictorial construction, the composition of Paris Polka reveals no single organizing principle in the traditional sense. Seemingly composed of a vast network of cellular forms of brushwork and color, each articulation exists as a unique entity spontaneously proliferating into those around it. In Dubuffet’s kaleidoscopic world, color changes are abrupt and vitally direct creating a deluge of optical exuberance. “The eye itself is in constant drift: shifted, swept toward a neighboring form which tends to agglutinate itself into the one before it; weaving an invisible fabric over the alveolus dispersed in the picture,” Max Loreau has described of the Paris Circus cycle. “In the canvases articulated on the basis of shop windows, the cells that fit one into the other are completed, but each line serving to delimit one of them is prolonged into another, depends on a neighboring cell, engaging the viewer in a moment of continuous side-slipping” (M. Loreau, quoted in, ibid., p. 151). It is by these means that Dubuffet has guaranteed an energetic and dynamic world that is entirely unconcerned and disinterested with how the viewer is commonly used to seeing and observing the world around them. Placing before us a fictional world of hallucinogenic optical experiences, Paris Circus remains an artificial city that never was nor could ever be.
As such, Dubuffet’s most celebrated cycle exists above all as an homage to its medium. German art historian and former Director of the National Gallery of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe explains, “With such ideas as a basis, the principle of formlessness and a free and highly varied use of color proved to be preconditions for arriving at a dynamic pictorial allegory. In the Texturologies and, in a concrete tactile dimension, the Matériologies, the picture consisted of an active visual continuum of optical phenomena; in a painting like Paris Polka, the subject of the painting becomes a kind of self-portrait of the medium. To offer the viewer a spectacle such as no one had ever seen before, Dubuffet balances the vehement urgency of tortuously meandering lines against turbulent colors, and always in the most unacademic fashion” (ibid., p. 152).
Throughout the 1960s, an intoxicating postwar energy swept the globe, in which every day phenomena were seen through fresh, excited eyes. In America, Pop Art was born, investigating the unique auras surrounding quotidian objects and fearlessly appropriating the daily images that flooded our consciousness. In France, amidst 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 simply being. Reminiscent of the nineteenth century Parisian flâneur centered at the heart of such paintings by Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte, Dubuffet explained, “My art does not seek to include festivities as a distraction from everyday life, but to reveal that everyday life is a much more interesting celebration than the pseudo-celebrations created to distract from it” (J. Dubuffet, quoted in Jean Dubuffet, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, 2001). And still, his stylistic fusion weaves a parallel universe in which the day-to-day is transformed into a bright, kaleidoscopic hyper-reality not dissimilar from the pre-war Dresden street seen of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner with their heightened uses of color and almost fauve-like pigments used to depict jarring city life. With his unique collage of disparate painterly effects and twisted physical forms, Dubuffet constructs a unique visual script. His gestural vocabulary disables our spatial awareness to the point of psychedelic rapture: figures advance and recede within our vision, creating a richly kinetic optical effect. Paris Polka conjures a new artistic handwriting, equipped to translate sensory experience and, in doing so, to suggest new ways of comprehending our daily existence.
The immediacy of everyday experience was something that lay at the heart of Dubuffet’s fascination with L’Art brut—the intuitive, unfettered and instinctive visual languages that Dubuffet has previously sought out in tribal cultures, mental institutions and children’s art. Indeed, the Paris Circus series imports a great deal of this vernacular into its grainy surfaces and purposefully fat application of paint. Dubuffet’s quixotic figures are indicative of this tendency: executed with childlike naivety, Paris Polka confronts the viewer with a strange familiarity, curiously alien yet evocative of an age of unpolluted innocence. Dubuffet’s Paris is populated with such beings, and their fluid, cellular forms would go on to inform the automatism and free spontaneity of the artist’s celebrated l’Hourloupe style, initiated two years later. “My desire is to make the site evoked by the picture something phantasmagoric, and that can be achieved only by jumbling together more or less veristic elements with interventions of arbitrary character aiming at unreality,” Dubuffet explained. “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 colors, though always running up against the difficulty that if all the elements one after the other were too outrageously deformed and denatured, if in the end nothing remained with at least something of its true look, I would have made the site disappear that I was trying to suggest, that I wished to transform” (J. Dubuffet, quoted in ibid, p. 148).