‘In this series of paintings the theme of the house constantly recurs. It often has the appearance of a ship, or a wagon tightly closed and impermeable, sometimes with a face at the window. The entrance door is treated with special emphasis and the inhabitant of the house is shown putting his key in the lock’ (J. Dubuffet, ‘Memoir on the Development of My Work from 1952’, reproduced in The Work of Jean Dubuffet, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1962, p. 128).
With its schismatic linear forms brutally incised into richly marbled layers of paint, Jean Dubuffet’s Rentrer chez soi is an exquisite narrative tableau from the Lieux cursifs series that occupied his output between April and September 1957. Upon a coarse painterly terrain flecked with ochre, umber and grey, Dubuffet carves an intricate diorama, executed with the vivid immediacy and raw intuition that characterise his practice. Painted on 13 June, the work stems from an important period in the artist’s career, during which long sojourns in the countryside at Vence were interspersed with regular trips back home to Paris. Though the rural corners of Southern France had been Dubuffet’s preferred location since 1955, and had imbued his artistic language with a newly visceral, tactile materiality, he missed the busier pace of the city, and sought to capture something of its ebb and flow in the Lieux cursifs. Turning his key in the lock, the central protagonist in Rentrer chez soi has something of an autobiographical quality, perhaps referencing Dubuffet’s own frequent homecomings during this period. Part self-portrait, part cityscape, the work may be seen to prefigure the major cycle of paintings Paris Circus, which Dubuffet would initiate four years later when he returned to Paris on a more permanent basis. Already preying on his mind in the Lieux cursifs, the allure of the crowded city streets would ultimately transform Dubuffet’s practice into one of the very first truly urban aesthetics, heralding the dawn of contemporary street art. Though redolent of some ancient parable hewn into a rock-face, comparable with Cy Twombly’s works of the same period, Rentrer chez soi is at the same time eminently prophetic of an entirely new approach to painting – a cosmopolitan furor that would later manifest itself in the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Contemporaneous with Dubuffet’s first solo museum exhibition, held that year at the Schlo Morsbroich in Leverkusen, West Germany, Rentrer chez soi bears witness to an artist poised on the brink of his most important breakthrough period.
Dubuffet’s time in Vence had reignited his passion for collecting art brut – his term for art created by those outside the traditional parameters of society, including mental health patients, children and psychics. In the linear freedom and uninhibited naivety of Dubuffet’s figures, as well as the raw energy of his brushstrokes, we can see the influence of this body of work, which by this stage had become established as one of the most deeply ingrained forces within his oeuvre. In Dubuffet’s rich textures and almost geological strata of paint, reminiscent of the early 1949 series Paysages grotesques, we can equally see the impact of the Topographies and Texturologies that occupied the artist during the long periods spent in the rustic, earthy landscapes of Vence. At the same time, a caustic, graphic impulse comes to the fore, channeling the piercing energy of the artist’s vision into a graffiti-like scrawl. As Dubuffet explains, ‘The personnages and other elements suggested in [the Lieux cursifs] are drawn with very hasty strokes, even precipitate and uncontrolled strokes, corresponding to the vague idea which has haunted me for a great many years that such an excessively rapid way of drawing, brutal even and without the least of care, eliminating as it does all affectations and all mannerisms, might bring into being a sort of innocent and primordial figuration’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in The Common Man: Works by Jean Dubuffet, exh. cat., Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, 1970, p. 40).
In a rare description of his working method, relating directly to the Lieux cursifs and assigned to the present work by Max Loreau in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, Dubuffet outlines his carefully-honed technique:
‘From a canvas that has previously been painted with black lacquer:
Paint over the black lacquer base with black paint and let it dry for twenty-four hours.
Apply (with a large putty knife), by scraping smoothly and thinly over the surface, several different dark and strong brown tones, a range of reds (obtained by mixing cadmium red with black) and yellows (yellow-orange with black). (These darker tones can only be achieved by using pure cadmium pigments). Scrape thoroughly to have very little thickness.
Apply (with a large putty knife), in a perfunctory and quick manner, layers of light ochre paint in some places, layers of very light and vivid paint in other places, going over the latter with the former; after which smooth the surface over – always quickly and roughly – with the large putty knife.
With the tip on a rounded knife, trace the graffiti. Finally, scrape the area of the sky’
(J. Dubuffet, extract from sketchbook, reproduced in M. Loreau, Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, Vol. XIII, Lausanne 1969, p. 44).