Between 1947 and 1949, Jean Dubuffet and his wife made three trips to North Africa, staying in the oases of El Golia, Beni-Abbhs, and Timimoun in the heart of the Sahara Desert. The first visit, from February to April of 1947, was driven by necessity. The Dubuffets had to leave Paris, which was experiencing a severe coal shortage, in search of a warmer climate. The artist was deeply affected by the change of scenery and immersed himself in observing the ways of the oases' inhabitants and even tried to learn Arabic. Two subsequent visits, from November 1947 to April 1948 and from March to May of 1949, provided further submersion in Arabic culture.
Sahara was executed in May and June of 1948, immediately upon Dubuffets return from the second North African trip and reflects his experiences in the Sahara. He was greatly influenced by the desert culture and wanted to execute works reflecting his experience of the Sahara. As Andreas Franzke has explained:
Dubuffet's observation of life in the remoteness of the desert, a life that follows its own rhythm of everyday activities and routines, was given expression in pictures of mostly small to modest dimensions. Dubuffet, observing the real-life situations, entered into their spirit with sympathetic appreciation and the transposed them into his own personal idiom. The Arabs' Eastern art of fables found its counterpart in Dubuffet's freely conceived scenes, which take at least part of their expressive fascination with their bright and motley colors. The grandiose feeling of the desert dwellers for ceremonial poses and gestures particularly impressed him, and in his paintings the Arabs appear as actors in a theater of buffoonery that has the endless sands of the Sahara as its stage. (A. Franzke, Dubuffet, New York, 1981, p. 49)
Sahara suggests the intensity of Dubuffet's impressions of the desert. It represents a man, two children, and a large camel are shown in a landscape of sunshine and palm trees. The figures are scratched-out in white against the background of rubbed-in colors such as brown, violet, and black and the scene has the spontaneity of a quick sketch made on site. Notably, Dubuffet has flattened the sphere of the picture and the horizon line of the landscape is at the very top. The people and camel seem to float on the picture surface rather than marking their presence on the ground. The flatness of the picture contributes to the abstract quality of the painting and resembles the pictographic style of children's art.
Peter Schjeldahl has observed, "A phase in the late 1940s took him repeatedly to the Sahara where the vision of enrobed figures in the desert had to strike him as an apparition of his own art sprung to life. Among the sights that riveted him were patterns of footprints in the dust, an instance of fortuitous picture-making pungent with lived life and brut beyond compare His North Africa is anything but the traditional site of a jaded European's indulgence Rather, Dubuffet wrecks the conventions of exoticism by subjecting them to eruptions of the primal, leveling energy that informs all his art (P. Schjeldahl, exh. cat., Jean Dubuffet 1943-1963, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1993, p. 17).
Two significant factors characterize Dubuffet's desert paintings, and Sahara in particular. One is the artist's delight in experimenting with oil paint, achieving marvelous effects with texture and color, and the other is the way in which Dubuffet effortlessly combines reality and fantasy. As Franzke has observed, "Dubuffet's characteristic insistence in this period on making us see the process of conception and execution as the prime factor in the final picture had no less impact on purely linear impulses in perfect unity. As throughout the cycle, here reality and unreality interpenetrate to create an exciting richness of tensions and a refreshing theater in which these simple but exotic scenes are acted out (A. Franzke, op. cit., p. 51).