An electrifying masterpiece from the pinnacle of Jean Dubuffet’s career, Cérémonie (Ceremony) stands among the largest works in his celebrated Paris Circus series. Alive with kaleidoscopic texture and colour, it offers a visceral portrait of cosmopolitan life, capturing the newfound joie de vivre that swept the French capital during the early 1960s. Upon a black ground, lit with streaks of red and blue impasto, eight characters spring to life, wrapped in wild linear scrawl. Eyes, noses, mouths and limbs emerge from a maelstrom of brightly-coloured segments, rendered in raw, chalky layers of pigment. Dubuffet’s Paris Circus was one of the most important artistic achievements of the post-war period, channelling the currents of Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism and Tachisme into one of the world’s first truly urban painterly languages. Painted between 7 and 9 November 1961, just weeks after the iconic canvases Le plomb dans l'aile (Detroit Institute of Arts) and Paris Polka, Cérémonie belongs to a distinctive subgroup of works entitled Légendes (Legends). With examples held in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, this extraordinary cycle of paintings marked a new phase in the evolution of Paris Circus. The colourful rhythms of the streets were condensed to form large abstract figures that quivered like graffiti against dark backdrops. Their cellular structures, crucially, were prophetic of the visionary l'Hourloupe series that Dubuffet commenced the following year. With its carnivalesque furore, Cérémonie captures the alchemical magic of the artist’s greatest period: a desire to transform daily existence into exotic hyperreal fantasy.
In February 1961, Dubuffet returned to Paris after six years in the countryside at Vence, and was struck by its rebirth. He had first depicted the city during the 1940s, and by the time he left in 1955 it still bore the scars of war. As the 1960s dawned, however, a powerful, joyful energy began to course through its streets, mirroring the spirit of London’s ‘swinging sixties’ and America’s commercial boom. France, like much of the Western world, entered an era of social and cultural change, marked by the rise of New Wave cinema, sexual revolution and the fashion and advertising industries. For Dubuffet, however, it was the subtle thrills of everyday life that ignited his imagination: the hustle and bustle of the streets, the parade of shop signs, the rivers of traffic and the thrum of conversation. During his early days as an artist, following the trauma of the Second World War, he had immersed himself in the mysteries of so-called art brut, studying the paintings of children, psychiatric patients and ancient tribal cultures. Later, in Vence, he had painted the textures of nature, zooming in upon the grain of the earth. Now, as he lifted his eyes from the ground, quotidian urban culture seemed vibrant, intoxicating and full of wonder. Conceptually, it was a stance that spoke to American Pop; visually, it heralded the birth of contemporary street art. The hand of Jean-Michel Basquiat, most notably, is forecast in the graphic virtuosity of Cérémonie.
Dubuffet remained in Paris until May. Whilst his time in the capital was undoubtedly productive, some of the best works in the Paris Circus series were created back in Vence, where he remained – by and large – until the end of November 1961. There, it seemed, the vitality of the city had time to settle in his mind’s eye, becoming brighter, busier and more fantastical by the day. As well as the Légendes, the works produced during this period stand among Dubuffet’s finest: Vire-volte (Tate), Le commerce prospe're (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Rue passage're (Centre Georges Pompidou), La main dans le sac (Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven) and Les Grandes Arte'res. As the series progressed, Dubuffet’s palettes became increasingly vivid. While the early Paris Circus works were still saturated with the murky hues of his 1950s Texturologies, the later canvases glow with electric, almost neon luminosity. Their surfaces, too, became ever-more frenzied, gradually eroding the relationship between figure and ground. Optical illusions abound in the progressive unravelling of line and form; the spirit of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly is palpable in the collapse of visual hierarchy. ‘My desire is to make the site evoked by the picture something phantasmagoric’, explained Dubuffet, ‘and that can be achieved only by jumbling together more or less veristic elements with interventions of arbitrary character aiming at unreality’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in A. Franzke, Dubuffet, New York 1981, p. 148).
In the Légendes, this trajectory reaches its climax. Shop signs, cars and streets begin to fade into obscurity, leaving behind the painterly language of Paris Circus in its most abstract form. Subtitled ‘les héros primordiaux’ (‘primordial heroes’) in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, the Légendes assume the form of surreal figures, arranged like scenes from a pageant or chapters in a story. They resemble, in some regards, the romantic, pseudo-mythological characters who populated Dubuffet’s early oeuvre – the nomads, the magicians and the imaginary beings. Crucially, however, they are no longer immersed within the landscape; rather, the landscape is immersed within them. Much like the Corps de dames of the 1950s, the figures in Cérémonie have become extensions of the world around them, infused with its rhythms and forms. They are not flâneurs or townspeople, but microcosms of the city itself. The spirit of Paris Circus seems to be contained within their billowing forms: the metropolis has become their flesh and blood, mapping out their anatomies. With layers of colour scrubbed away in places, these creatures take on the appearance of archaeological remains: a nod, perhaps, to their ‘primordial’ nature. Cellular infrastructures had been endemic to Paris Circus from the beginning, taking the form of buildings, houses and roads. Here, however, Dubuffet’s jigsaw puzzle takes on a life of its own, liberated from the burden of representation. Situated towards the end of the Légendes, Cérémonie might be seen to signify a closing celebration: the graduation of Paris Circus from something overtly illustrative to something abstract, sensory and internal.
The character of the Légendes would persist well into 1962. The immediate legacy of Cérémonie can be seen in canvases such as L’instant propice (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), whose writhing, dancing figures appear to pick up where the narrative left off. Later that year, however, its lessons would give birth to a new series: an all-consuming universe known as l'Hourloupe. Defined by its red, white and blue cross-hatched segments, this cycle would occupy the artist for the next twelve years. Several of its key features are latent in Cérémonie: most notably the use of individual cells to demarcate larger forms, as well as the method of isolating these conglomerates against dark backgrounds. L'Hourloupe would gradually migrate away from painting into sculpture and performance art: the 1973 spectacle Coucou Bazar saw Dubuffet’s otherworldly figures come to life in real time, animated by actors wearing costumes. It was, in many ways, the ultimate extrapolation of Paris Circus: a parallel world, where mercurial delight reigns supreme. ‘When the gala day arrives’, Dubuffet wrote in 1964, ‘can’t we emulate those Chinese conjurers by reaching into our heads, pulling out the iridescent scarves of incongruities, and decorating our homes with them, in the tintinnabulation of the merry bells at the Carnival of Equivalences and Inconsistencies?’ (J. Dubuffet, ‘Carnival of Mirages’, in L’hourloupe, exh. cat., Galerie Jeanne Bucher, Paris, 1964, p. 1). Perhaps this, in so many words, is the ‘ceremony’ anticipated in the present work.