‘We came back from [the Sahara] absolutely cleansed of all the intoxications, really refreshed and renewed, as well as enriched in the ways of savoir-vivre’ —J. DUBUFFET
‘Painting is a more immediate and direct vehicle than verbal language, much closer to the cry; or to the dance; that is why painting is a vehicle for expressing our inner voices which is more highly effective than that of words…’ —J. DUBUFFET
A hallucinogenic explosion of raw painterly sensation, Jean Dubuffet’s Deux Arabes Gesticulant surges forth from the picture plane in psychedelic splendour. An intoxicating spectrum of electric, deeply saturated hues unfolds across the surface of the work, coalescing in thick layers of pure pigment. Like neon light refracted through a prism, the collision of red, orange, yellow, green, cerulean blue, indigo and violet produces a pulsating mirage, hypnotic in its physical immediacy. Like fragments of ancient graffiti carved into a rock face, or ephemeral traces in the sand, two figures emerge from Dubuffet’s caustic terrain, baked into the ground as if by the heat of the sun. Deep incisions and schismatic lacerations scar the fossilised plateau, scoring the encrusted surface of the work to reveal geological strata of rich impasto and vibrant painterly scrawl. A primal, visceral rhythm courses through the work, throwing the figures into wild oscillating motion. Gracing the cover of volume IV of Dubuffet’s catalogue raisonné, and granted a full-page colour illustration inside, Deux Arabes Gesticulant was painted between January and April 1948, during the second of the artist’s three seminal journeys to the Algerian Sahara. Coinciding with his debut American solo exhibition at Pierre Matisse Gallery that year, it was a time of great professional triumph for the artist. The present work marks the dawn of Dubuffet’s fascination with so-called art brut: raw, unschooled visual languages independent of teaching and tradition. Held in the same private collection since the 1970s, the work was acquired by the present owner from Charles Ratton, a pioneering collector of tribal art who – along with Dubuffet himself – was one of the founding members of La Compagnie de l’Art Brut, established during this period. Paving the way for his landmark series of Paris Circus paintings, created during the early 1960s, Dubuffet’s gesticulating figures embody the primal joie de vivre that would characterise his life’s work, infused with the freedom, mystery and magic of the desert.
Dubuffet and his wife Lili made their first trip to the small oasis of El Goléa in February 1947. Driven to its warmer climes by coal restrictions during a freezing Parisian winter, they returned periodically over the next two years. In the dreary aftermath of the Second World War, the Sahara offered Dubuffet ‘a bath of simplicity’ – an opportunity to escape the confines of historical tradition and strip back his art to its most embryonic form. Writing to Jacques Berne after his first excursion, he described how ‘we came back from there absolutely cleansed of all the intoxications, really refreshed and renewed, as well as enriched in the ways of savoir-vivre’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, vol. 2, Paris 1995, pp. 247-248). During these visits, Dubuffet spent much time in the company of the Bedouin people, whose influence was particularly prominent in this southern region of Algeria. He had purposefully studied the Arabic language in order ‘to be able to communicate, not with the officials … but with the ordinary local people over there’ (J. Dubuffet, quoted in G. Limbour, Tableau bon levain à vous de cuire la pate: L’art brut de Jean Dubuffet, Paris 1953, p. 51). The ancient tribal rituals of these desert-dwelling people spoke directly to Dubuffet’s fascination with unprocessed visual languages: the instinctive, the ungoverned and the raw that lay at the heart of his art brut-inspired practice. Rendered with the child-like naivety that would come to define his work, Dubuffet casts his gesticulating figures as powerful symbols of unknown elemental wisdom. Embedded in the painting’s surface like prehistoric remains, they are harbingers of the ingrained, tactile knowledge he sought in the deserts of Africa. In a world that bore the recent, all-too-painful scars of war, the work represents a joyful eulogy to the rudimentary endurance of the human spirit.
Fascinated by the primitive potency of his raw materials, Dubuffet experimented with numerous artistic techniques during the 1940s, including engraving and lithography. The lessons learnt from this close engagement with physical substance are palpable in Deux Arabes Gesticulant. Using the back of a paintbrush, Dubuffet physically carves his subjects into layers of coloured pigment, embellishing the palm trees with streaks of coarse, bark-like texture. Writing of Dubuffet’s stylistic vocabulary in the 1940s, Peter Schjeldahl explains how ‘Material and line collide – the paint pushing outward, the line digging inward – to create a surface not so much laid on fat as dynamically fattened: smashed and impacted between opposing forces. The lacerated paint leaks colour, the exact like of which had not been seen before in painting … The effect recalls an old, ethereal aesthetic ideal of Symbolism, synaesthesia, realized this time with earthy directness. The effect requires prolonged looking, rewarding a patient viewer with wave upon wave of virtually timed-release pleasure’ (P. Schjeldahl, ‘1942 and After: Jean Dubuffet and His Century’, Jean Dubuffet 1943-1963: Paintings, Sculptures, Assemblages, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 1993, p. 16). Thus, Dubuffet’s figures are ultimately by-products of positive and negative space, taking shape through a hypnotic conglomeration of reliefs and incisions, scrapes, smears and subtractions. In this way, they are not formal constructs but rather nomadic traces: the transient result of Dubuffet’s corrosive painterly technique.
The tangible, grainy build-up of pigment on the surface of the present work evokes the vast, uncharted expanses of sand that etched themselves into Dubuffet’s imagination. As Valérie da Costa and Fabrice Hergott note, ‘Undoubtedly here he had found material without form, but above all a complete modification of the relationship between the individual and the space that surrounds him: drunk with immensity in this world dominated by vertigo where the threat always exists of blacking out or losing consciousness… Sand is the only material on which the memory of time is not imprinted. These prints are ephemeral, gradually erased and soon forgotten. We are far from the spaces of memory which characterise Western civilization and which retain the impact of time’ (V. da Costa and F. Hergott, Jean Dubuffet: Works, Writings and Interviews, Barcelona 2006, pp. 41-44). Sand allowed fresh beginnings and new representations; it did not harbour its own history nor dictate its future formations. In the infinite, ever-changing spaces of the deserted Saharan landscape, the mind was free to roam: to expand, to digress and to reinvent itself. In Deux Arabes Gesticulant, the conversation is unheard; yet it seems to prophecise a kind of spiritual rebirth. Hovering before the viewer as if excavated from billowing sand dunes, the two figures represent Dubuffet’s search for a deeply concealed, long-silent existential truth.