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The manic energy of the character and the painting of Ancien combattant fills the viewer with Dubuffet's own enthusiasm. The distinct rawness that marks this work shows the increasing confidence and assurance with which Dubuffet was painting, one of the most crucial periods of his artistic development. This character, with his grin and his pride, is a perfect addition to Dubuffet's portrait pantheon, and more so to the series of works he created under the banner of Mirabolus, Macadam et Cie. Most of these pictures, which showed everyday people and everyday life, were exhibited at the Galerie René Drouin in 1946. It was in this group of works that Dubuffet began truly exploring a darker and more earthy palette while focusing on a more domestic level of subject matter, finally consolidating the style and idiom that would mark his most influential and successful paintings. Instead of outdoor scenes from the countryside, he now painted people close up, filling the canvas with life. This was in part a legacy of Dubuffet's return to Paris, to the energetic world that was celebrating and reconstructing itself in the wake of the Second World War. In Ancien combattant, the immediacy of Dubuffet's portrayal is wholly aimed at pleasing the viewer. There is no sense of cosmetic gloss, no sense of any academic training impeding on our vision of the veteran, but instead an exhuberant face painted in an eager manner, bursting from a frame that does not even contain his whole head.
Dubuffet sought to tap into the vitality of life, to create something that was not only a picture, but that somehow translated more about its subject matter. A painting was meant to exist as an object in its own right, hence the similarity in texture between the subject and his background. The style is intended to shock the viewer into a more pure, immediate, emotional and sensual appreciation of the image. "I would rather that my pictures amused and interested the man in the street when he leaves his own work, not the art-struck, the in-people, but those who have no particular instruction or propensity. It's the man in the street that I'm after, personally, he's the one I feel akin to, he's the one I want to be friends with and confide in and collude with, and he's the one I'd like to delight and enchant with my works" (J. Dubuffet, quoted in Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality, ed. M. Glimcher, New York, 1987, p. 46).
During the mid-1940s, Dubuffet found intensity he sought in the painting of portraits, where one truly confronts and tackles one's subject on a personal level. These portraits especially featured the various intellectuals who attended, along with the artist, the weekly salons of a refined American Francophile, Florence Gould. However, while these portraits of people's "true faces" were absorbing and innovative, it was in the everyday people and scenes that Dubuffet revelled. He wanted to capture, and to speak to, the characters of modern life, hence his paintings of presidents, coquettes, women with umbrellas and indeed veterans.
The texture of Ancien combattant--the texture of the work, the impasto and the earthen colors, all give a sense of this work almost as a figurative cuneiform, the scrawls of the artists etched into the surface and then preserved for eternity. Looking at Dubuffet's painting is an almost archeological experience in which his movements articulate and scar the surface of the painting. The viewer cannot help but see the explosive energy with which Dubuffet has created this work. Each paint drip, each scraping of a line, each moment is recorded in the colours but also in the shape of the paint, like some geographical evolution whose violent energy can be tracked and through which we gain a palpable sense of this painting's life, of its organic quality: "An artwork is all the more enthralling the more of an adventure it has been, particularly if it bears the mark of this adventure, and if one can discern all the struggles that occurred between the artist and the intractabilities of the materials. And if he himself did not know where it would all lead" (Dubuffet, 'Notes for the Well-Read', pp. 67-86, ed., M. Glimcher, op.cit., 1987, p. 69).
In France, which in 30 years had been witness to but more significantly victim of two World Wars, the presence of emotion was huge. Executed in August 1945, Ancien combattant was painted just after the Second World War had ended. There is triumph and pride in this old soldier parading his medals. The veteran is filled with the spirit of the new France. Dubuffet is capturing the essence and spirit of that moment in time as well as the character of the veteran himself, making him an epic character from Dubuffet's everyday world.
Jean Dubuffet in his studio, Paris 1954.