‘What to me seems interesting is to recover in the representation of an object the whole complex set of impressions we receive as we see it in everyday life, the manner in which it has touched our sensibility, and the forms it assumes in our memory’ (J. Dubuffet, ‘Vaches, Herbe, Frondaisons’, in P. Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, New York 1962, p. 97).
With its raw, tactile painterly surface, Jean Dubuffet’s Chien presents a coarse, abstract terrain that coalesces into the shape of a dog. Rendered with impulsive painterly gesture and thick, textural swathes of pigment, the animal’s body sprawls across the breadth of the canvas, pulsating with visceral, primal energy. Daubs of impasto accumulate upon the surface like cracked earth, incised with wild, primitive markings redolent of ancient graffiti. Painted between September and December 1954, the work follows on from the paintings of cows and other rural subject matter inspired by Dubuffet’s sojourn in the French countryside, where his wife Lili was recuperating from tuberculosis. ‘From the beginning of July 1954, as my wife, for reasons of health, was living on the outskirts of Clermont-Ferrand’, he recalled, ‘I often had occasion to drive along the road between Paris and Auvergne, and to take long solitary walks in the countryside around the village where she was being cared for. In this village I had at my disposal a little place which I fitted up as a studio. Once more I became preoccupied with country subjects - fields, grassy pastures, cattle, carts and the work of the fields - all things I had treated with enthusiasm in 1943 and 1944’ (J. Dubuffet, ‘Vaches, Herbe, Frondaisons’, in P. Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, New York 1962, pp. 96-103). Inspired by his bucolic surroundings, Dubuffet’s depictions of flora and fauna became new vehicles for the development of what he termed art brut: a career-long quest for primitive, unschooled visual languages, free from the trappings of Western cultural tradition. In his pastoral, countryside setting, far from the clamour of the city, works such as Chien allowed him to further his exploration of this radical new way of seeing.
During the previous decade, Dubuffet’s engagement with art brut had led him to examine a multitude of unconventional visual languages, including the art of children and the insane. Following the destruction and despair brought about by the Second World War, Dubuffet sought to erase all standard aesthetic codes, embracing the primordial vitality found in alternative pictorial traditions. His fascination with animals was rooted in the same desire to access innate existential truths. As the artist explained, ‘It is a very curious fact that people who are passionately attached to something, say for example to an animal, would not be able to give you any of the animal’s exact measurements or else would give incredibly wrong ones, the way children draw from memory objects that are very familiar to them or that have made a deep impression on them. So, it seems to me, that to set oneself to inventory the true measurements of things is a practice without the slightest value. What to me seems interesting is to recover in the representation of an object the whole complex set of impressions we receive as we see it in everyday life, the manner in which it has touched our sensibility, and the forms it assumes in our memory’ (J. Dubuffet, ‘Vaches, Herbe, Frondaisons’, in P. Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, New York 1962, p. 97).