Jean Dubuffet's Barbe series was executed between his Texturologies and Phnomnes series. The artist produced this body of work in Vence, from May to December of 1959 (fig. 1). The initial inspiration for the series came from his friend Georges Limbour, who, in a catalogue of an exhibition of Topographies and Texturologies, compared the artist to the ancient Stoics. Dubuffet responded by sending Limbour a pen drawing of a bearded head bearing the inscription "Marcus Aurelius." This drawing delighted his friend, who encouraged Dubuffet to draw and paint further bearded images. He first made them as India ink imprints and then in oil paint, creating beard-monuments and beard-landscapes. As Andreas Franzke has commented, "[The] grotesque effect rests primarily on the subtle textures of the mass of hair dominating each of the pictures. In the first oil paintings on the theme characteristic surface textures of the imprints were simulated by painterly means" (A. Franzke, op. cit., p. 123).
Le vase de barbe is a superb example from this series, where the beard is juxtaposed with a vase. In this fantasy image Dubuffet brilliantly succeeds in creating an improbable fusion between two disparate elements. Franzke has mentioned this painting in his analysis of the Barbe series:
Interesting fantasy-images result too from the frequent formulations in which the beard so fills the surface of the paper or canvas that no room is left for a face or limbs, as in the paintings Barbe des retours incertains (Beard of uncertain returns) and Le vase de barbe (The vase of beard) of respectively November and October 1959. As the beard expands, it pushes everything else to the margins, making it all--literal-- marginal. The mysterious individuals who sport such colossal masculine hirsute adornments are themselves entirely unimportant. Only their beards are a monument for awed veneration and rapturous enthusiasm, inspiring the painter to an infinity of startling associations that Dubuffet himself described in a poem titled "As-tu cueilli la fleur de barbe," whence the name of this entire group of pictures. (Ibid., pp. 123-124)
Dubuffet continued his exploration of paint texture in the beard pictures; properties of paint were constantly reconfigured through his experimentation. The beard-vase has a brown stuccoed texture set against a violet background that seems to have been scraped and smudged. Sue Taylor describes these paintings as portraits--or rather anti-portraits, because they disregard the sitter and instead focus attention on an isolated physical attribute such as the beard. She observes, "In these portraits, facial features are merely incidental to the masses of hair that spread out over the canvas like great alluvial fans. While some of these beards of stippled oil paint suggest geological sediment, others resemble luxuriant grasses or dense foliage" (S. Taylor, Jean Dubuffet: Forty Years of His Art, Chicago, 1984, p. 67). Dubuffet was interested not in copying nature but in replicating the forces of creation with which nature shapes the world. Dubuffet once stated:
The homogenous, endless worlds such as the ocean, the deserts and the steppes: for these I seek an equivalent in my paintings. Whether the view of these landscapes recalls a towel or a bed is of no concern to me in this regard. Or rather: it increases my sense of amazement through the dizziness resulting from the multiple significance of the dimensions -- the identical sense of infinite space called forth by such a fragment of landscape, which expands into the vastness of a summer night's sky. The concept of dimensions itself collapses and disappears. (J. Dubuffet, quoted in J. Claus, Theorien zeitgenssischer Malerei, Hamburg, 1963, p. 133)
In Le vase de barbe, Dubuffet eliminates any traditional notion of pictorial space. The composition suggests a vast, seemingly endless space while the form of the beard-vase spreads out to the edges of the picture. Furthermore, the lack of a clear relationship between the figure and ground relationship flattens the picture, which enhances this effect.
Le vase de barbe represents the transitional moment between the Texturologies series of 1957-1958 (fig. 2) and the 1961 series of Phnomnes (fig. 3). Works in the Texturologies series are characterized by the thick layer of paint applied over the entire surface of the canvas; both in texture and color, the paint resembles earth or soil. The Phnomnes series, on the other hand, are people with crudely drawn heads and figures. Works in the Barbes series, like the Texturologies, have complex, dynamic surfaces; and like the Phnomnes, they feature figures emerging from the "primordial" mass of paint. As Peter Schjeldahl has observed:
His thick paint gives painting a literal body vibrant with associations to earth and flesh. His scored line discovers figures that evoke the absolute spontaneity of what he called Art Brut: mark-making by children, graffiti vandals, and psychotics (but not, incidentally, artists termed tribal, folk, or nave, all of whom relate to some manner of tradition). Each canvas is to be experienced as an independent and complete natural world, with human and inhuman nature meshed inextricably. (P. Schjeldahl, Jean Dubuffet 1943-1963, Washington D.C., 1993, p. 17)
Le vase de barbe contains a number of similarities with another work from the series executed one month later, Barbe des retours incertains (fig. 4). That picture too depicts a monumentally sized beard assuming the shape and length of the figure's body. However, Le vase de barbe is perhaps the more evocative painting because the transformation of the bearded-image is all the more fantastic. In the present work, Dubuffet created new pictorial allusions and connections between flesh and clay, object and subject, and art and nature.
(fig. 1) Jean Dubuffet at work on a picture of the Barbes series, Vence, June 1959
(fig. 2) Jean Dubuffet, Texturologie VII (ombreuse et rousse), 1957
Muse des Arts Dcoratifs, Paris
(fig. 3) Jean Dubuffet, Personnage au costume rouge, 1961
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
(fig. 4) Jean Dubuffet, Barbe des retours incertains, 1959
The Museum of Modern Art, New York