"I, personally, have a very high regard for the values of primitive peoples: instinct, passion, caprice, violence, madness... Nor do I feel that these values are in any way lacking in our Western world. On the contrary! But the values celebrated by our culture do not strike me as corresponding to the true dynamics of our minds... I aim at an art that is directly plugged into our current life, that immediately emanates from our real life and our real moods" (J. Dubuffet, Anticultural Positions, Chicago Arts Club, December 1951).
Painted in 1948, Mademoiselle Néon is a vibrant and intoxicating example of Dubuffet's Grandes têtes, a series of portraits executed shortly after his return from his second trip to the Algerian Sahara. The artist had returned with his bags brimming with drawings and his mind full of ideas. Initially, many of the paintings he executed after his return to Paris were reprisals of Arabic themes and scenes, whereas the Grandes têtes were a return, in a sense, to his own Western roots. Mademoiselle Néon appears to be Dubuffet's answer to the portrait, with the classical profile view of a woman, a very rare feature in this series, filling most of the canvas. However, there is no sense of modeling in this image but instead, the raw Art Brut vitality so reminiscent of the children's drawings Dubuffet so admired.
Child's art was of interest to Dubuffet in his development of Art Brut because he saw it as an unfettered record of life. The child, before being taught how to draw, records his or her world not merely by recording scenes but also by recording emotion, while the raw draughtsmanship adds an expressionistic flair. There is no restraint or indoctrination. Likewise, psychotic art appealed to Dubuffet because, as a result of mania, it had a vivid immediacy while disregarding the traditional notions of beauty. It also had a delusional quality that appealed to Dubuffet: 'madness lightens man and gives him wings and helps him to attain visions,' he once said (Quoted in L'art brut préferé aux arts culturels, Paris, 1949 (n. p.). This was art that was not filtered through reason or training, but was instead 'plugged into' these artists' lives. The staid, classicized notions of beauty held no interest for Dubuffet. Instead, he sought an art similar to that of the children or the insane in which real life was properly conjured up, with a sense of emotion, not merely an unmoving image. In Mademoiselle Néon, the flattened head above its tiny torso, and its dominance of most of the canvas, remind the viewer of children's visions of the world, while the use of strange, glowing colors is not remotely rational or realistic. This is Art Brut in the extreme, with even the 'pretty' colors present appearing as strange parodies of themselves.
This chaotic portrait was particularly apt to the Post War climate in which Dubuffet was painting. Through the scattered facial features, Dubuffet recalls the debris of the aftermath of war. Indeed, the artist was tapping into the strong, existential current then so prevalent in France. In the brutish, clumsy image of Mademoiselle Néon, in the strange conglomeration of colors that the artist has used, there is a sense of raw life, a celebration of existence itself. This image was not, however, part of an arcane, elitist philosophy, but was intended to be an image recognizable to all, filled with an enthusiasm to which anyone could relate. Dubuffet's vivacious painting is intended to jar every viewer into a new appreciation of life, of existence:
"The secret is to do things badly. If you serve someone spinach that is cooked the way it should be, no one notices or remembers that they have eaten spinach. Whereas if you burn it, it shocks their taste-buds and they become immediately aware that it is burned spinach and they gain new insights into the characteristics of spinach, cooking, etc.' (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.23).
In Mademoiselle Néon, Dubuffet's heavy brushstrokes are clearly and deliberately visible appearing to have been done "badly", evoking a vivid sense of the artist's actions in the painting of this picture. Through the density of the scarred impastos, the canvas is redolent with Dubuffet's presence, adding a dimension of life central to the work. Indeed, Dubuffet said of flaws in his work that he was,
'inclined to leave [them] in my paintings, for example, the accidental blotches, clumsy blunders, forms that are frankly wrong, anti-real, colors that are unwelcome, inappropriate, all things that would probably seem insufferable to certain people... for it keeps the painter's hand ever present in the painting and prevents the object from dominating and from things taking shape too clearly' (Quoted in 'Corps de Dames,' in Georges Limbour, Table bon levain à vous de cuire la pâte, Paris, 1953, pp.94-95, quoted in Peter Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, New York, 1962, p.48).
Dubuffet's main aim in traveling deep into the Sahara was to find cultures entirely removed from Western civilization, that had adapted and evolved according to their own needs, thereby creating their own civilization. Unlike the children and the insane who so influenced him, the attraction of these isolated cultures was that they had developed, but along their own lines. Hence, Dubuffet was exploring a culture that was outside the box, allowing him to view Western civilization objectively and, in his art, to reject it wholeheartedly. Mademoiselle Néon shows Dubuffet putting this to work not in the context of Sahara-inspired paintings, but in a genre associated with Western art. He was beginning to put his lessons to use in France. This portrait, in all but theme, is completely and shockingly detached from Western Art, from the art of the sane. Instead, it has "instinct, passion, caprice, violence, madness", everything that Dubuffet wanted.
Fig. 1 Pisanello, Portrait de Ginevra d'Este, Louvre
Fig. 2 Dubuffet at El Goléa, Sahara, 1947-1948