'The Hourloupe should really be seen as a climatic complex (where from one day to the next blow different winds, even contradictory ones), rather than as a good, constant wind. I am the captain hesitating between two sides: that of the boat or that of the sea, that of safe conduct or that of going adrift or else of shipwreck. The language of the Hourloupe, as it is based on a writing style of very arbitrary and very allusive transcription, lends itself to objects which are of increasingly uncertain form' (Dubuffet, quoted in D. Abadie (ed.), Dubuffet, exh.cat., Paris, 2001, p. 401).
Dating from May 1971, La nef is one of the first of the paintings that Jean Dubuffet created relating to the crazed and colossal tableau vivant that he dubbed Coucou Bazar. Monumental in scale and shaped to match the outline of the sketch from which it originated, this jumble of zany forms appears to veer between the recognisable and the abstract, perfectly capturing the frenetic energy that underlies his Hourloupe. This was the name for an aesthetic that the artist would explore for just under a dozen years from 1962 to 1973 and which is embodied in many of his best-known monumental works throughout the world. Its name was created as a typically Dubuffetian play on words combining references to mockery, cartoon characters and bodily features: Dubuffet himself touched upon these by listing hurler, hululer, Riquet à la houpe and Maupassant's Le Horla as just some of these influences. The Hourloupe reached its true culmination in Coucou Bazar, the play-like visual extravaganza that he organised over the two years from the point that La nef was created and which was finally shown at his retrospectives at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and the Grand Palais, Paris.
The Hourloupe is a scribble-like way of presenting the world that was based initially on doodles that Dubuffet had inadvertently made while on the telephone in July 1962, as Max Loreau explained:
'Dubuffet let his red ball-point pen wander aimlessly over some small pieces of paper, and out of these doodles emerged a number of semi-automatic drawings, which he struck through with red and blue lines. The painter cut out these as yet undetermined compositions and quickly observed that they changed aspect as soon as they were placed against a black background' (M. Loreau, Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, Fascicule XX, Paris, 1966, p. 15).
La nef was based directly on a collaged drawing that Dubuffet had created, using the Hourloupe style, in March 1971 and entitled Danse tricote I. Looking at La nef, one can see these origins in a collaged combination of shapes filled with hatching in the limited, and therefore all the more visually intense, colours that still paid their tribute to the ball-point origins of the Hourloupe style. Combining chance forms and spontaneous, unconscious movements with the pen to create some of the shapes that were then cut and rearranged, Dubuffet arranged the elements in such a way that they evoke the figurative world, yet remain a deliberate, jangling chaos, filled with his customary sense of fun and play.
It was later on in the year, in May, that Dubuffet turned to Danse tricote I again, creating what was only his third work in the Coucou Bazar series. Now, the shapes and forms driven as much by chance and by the artist's own movements and collage arrangement have been magnified and immortalised in acrylic on canvas. The two shaped Praticables from this series which were created before La nef were intended from their inception to hang as pictures, albeit shaped, on the wall; however, from that point onwards, Dubuffet became increasingly driven by the idea of creating a colossal spectacle with moving parts which would eventually come to comprise a range of human-based figures and background objects.
Looking at the jumpy visual energy that fills La nef, with its striating lines in bold colours contrasting so boldly with the white ground, one can see that it was probably no coincidence that the genesis of the Hourloupe came just after Dubuffet's celebrated Paris Circus series, in which the chaotic jumble of life in the French capital was captured in all its variety. To some degree, Coucou Bazar and all the works associated with it should be seen as an extension or reincarnation of that series. And yet Dubuffet has very deliberately conjured this world into existence in a way that precludes any real differentiation on the viewer's part between the world of the stage and the human figures. These boundaries have been deliberately blurred by the
'uninterrupted and resolutely uniform meandering script, (unifying all planes to the frontal plane, paying no heed to the particular space of the object described, neither its dimensions, nor its distance nor closeness) thereby abolishing all particularities, all categories... so that this consistently uniform script indifferently applied to all things (and it should be emphasised, not only visible objects but also invisible inventions of our thoughts, imagination or fantasy; mixed together without discrimination) will reduce them all to the lowest common denominator and restitute a continuous undifferentiated universe; it will thereby dissolve the categories which our mind habitually employs to decipher (better to say cipher) the facts and spectacles of the world. Herewith the circulation of the mind from one object to another, from one category to another will be liberated and its mobility greatly increased' (Dubuffet, quoted in Margit Rowell, 'Jean Dubuffet: An Art on the Margins of Culture', pp.15-34 in Jean Dubuffet: A Retrospective, New York, 1973, p. 26).