"Art must make you laugh a little and make you a little afraid. Anything as long as it doesn't bore" - Jean Dubuffet.
This striking portrait of a man was painted in the early 1950s during a period when Dubuffet executed a number of seminal works in which he examined western notions of beauty in a new and radical way. The elementary outline of a man, standing with his hand raised to show an agate stone, is painted in the artist's characteristic way, where the surface is constructed out of a rich variety of textures that delights and challenges the senses. This uniquely "Dubuffet" way of painting was his direct response to the modern obsession with beauty and his assertion that beauty can be found in every human being, regardless of their level of aesthetic refinement. In this sense, Le Montreur d'agate becomes a central part of Dubuffet's project to create a painting that "can illumine the world with magnificent discoveries. It can imbue man with new myths and new mystiques, to reveal the infinitely numerous undivided aspects of things and values of which we were formerly unaware. This, I think, is a much more engrossing task for artists than assemblages of shapes and colors to please the eyes" (J. Dubuffet, "Anticultural Positions", 1951, quoted in M. Glimcher (ed.), Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality, New York, 1987, pp. 127-32).
With this work the artist presents us with something raw and immediate, rather than the formal, classical beauty that fits conservative, "received" ideas of aesthetics. Le Montreur d'Agate does not appear to be a traditional subject of male portraiture. The manner in which Dubuffet has presented his subject, flattened and covered in painterly marks that attest to the manner the work's execution, adds to the feeling that Dubuffet has physically stripped away Western notions of painting. But the infectious grin on the subject's face makes it clear that the violence of the painting's creation is aimed only at the medium, not the subject, for this is an unmistakably gleeful and irreverent depiction.
The marks on the painterly surface of this work demand that the viewer look almost archeologically at the work, excavating the cryptic interventions of the artist, as if carved in stone millenia past. While this figure is in many ways a universal figure, the variety of textures that comprise Le Montreur d'agate its surface insures that we acknowledge this as Dubuffet's singular reaction to his motif. He often collaborated with chance and hazard in his paintings, deliberately leaving blotches, drips, and blemishes, adding an organic feel and ensuring that the forces of the world itself had joined in the creation of the work. However, these same elements make the presence and the actions of the painter all the more powerful. Both in the manner of execution and the manner of presentation of this work, Dubuffet has actively and overtly spurned traditional notions of aesthetics, finding them staid and unrelated to the real world: "For most western people, there are objects that are beautiful and others that are ugly; there are beautiful people and ugly people, beautiful places and ugly ones. But not for me. Beauty does not enter into the picture for me. I consider the western notion of beauty completely erroneous. I absolutely refuse to accept the idea that there are ugly people and ugly objects. Such an idea strikes me as stifling and revolting" (Ibid., p. 129).
Dubuffet's paintings contain some of the most remarkable renditions of the human body ever undertaken in modern art. By ridding his creations of any notion of classical aesthetic beauty he forces a reinterpretation of what constitutes beauty in a modern society. His heavily worked, almost sculptural surfaces invoke a sense of the archaic, while inviting the viewer to explore its textural vagaries in order to appreciate diverse approaches to shaping the human form. Dubuffet's works are about celebrating humanity in myriad aspects, and as such remains as relevant today as it was when this work was created over half a century ago.