The largest of Jean Dubuffet’s early sponge sculptures, Tétonette demonstrates the artist’s preference for unusual and frequently natural materials. Although the medium is uncommon, the sponge’s uniquely variegated texture and natural lightness transposes a dynamic weightlessness to the sculptural form, creating an animated and lively interpretation of the human figure, and, for the artist, a pertinent way of conveying the precariousness of human existence.
Perched atop a mound of clinker, the curvaceous figure in Tétonette stands aloft, with her arms outstretched in a warm greeting. Her large head is distinguished by its exaggerated features; large, sunken eyes are set into her expansive forehead, which is framed by high cheekbones. A petite button nose sits squarely in the center of her face, complemented by a pair of pursed lips. In contrast to classical sculpture, her short yet ample figure displays a more naturalistic depiction of the female form, evoking in many ways the voluptuous curves of the Venus of Willendorf, the famous prehistoric limestone figurine estimated to have been made between 28,000 and 25,000 B.C.
This simple rendering of the female form, along with the artist’s adoption of natural, nontraditional materials is demonstrative of Dubuffet’s championing of Art Brut, the movement he established to celebrate the creative act in its most untainted form. For him, Art Brut—which would include graffiti, and the work of nontraditional artists such as children, and primitive artists— was the raw expression of a vision or emotions, untamed by convention or academic training. This unique aesthetic was the result of his dismay at the state of humanity and the seemingly endless brutalities of the Second World War and he looked to sources outside of the accepted canon of Western civilization for inspiration. He had been fascinated by outsider art since 1923, when, on a visit to Switzerland, he received copy of Artistry of the Mentally Ill by Hanz Prinzhorn. Dubuffet introduced elements of such unconventional aesthetic sensibilities into his own work, such as a rejection of traditional composition, perspective, scale and naturalistic use of color—traits which are all apparent in the present work.
Thus, his ideas of beauty were in stark contrast to conventional notions of attractiveness. “For most western people,” he said, “there are objects that are beautiful and others that are ugly; there are beautiful people and ugly people, beautiful places and ugly ones. Bu 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... The so-called savages do not believe in this at all. They do not comprehend what you mean by beauty. This is precisely the reason why we call them savages. A name reserved for anyone who fails to understand that there are beautiful things and ugly things and doesn’t really worry about it either” (J. Dubuffet, Anticultural Positions, 1951, quoted in M. Glimcher (ed.), Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality, New York, 1987, p. 129). Prior to executing Tétonette, Dubuffet had been working on a series of paintings executed in crude earthen colors that reminded him of the natural hues of the French countryside. In March 1954, he shifted his focus to working in three dimensions, beginning with a figurative sculpture constructed out of pieces of newspaper smeared with glue and bunched around a skeletal armature. After looking around him for new materials, he turned to the rough clinker that he found in the railroad yards of Montrouge, in the suburbs south of Paris, and then, after discovering the contents of a sponge storeroom, this discrete body of sculpture came into existence. “After using clinkers for two months, I went on to sponges. A wholesale dealer on rue Monge let me take my pick from a huge pile, all of them grotesque and unsaleable. But what were defects for the trade, were added virtues for me” (J. Dubuffet, quoted in “Memoir on the Development of My Work from 1952,” in P. Selz (ed.), The Work of Jean Dubuffet, New York, 1962, pp. 89-90).
The year that the present work was made, Dubuffet was the subject of a retrospective at the Cercle Volney, and his first museum retrospective at Morsbroich Museum near Cologne followed just a few years later. Major retrospectives of Dubuffet’s work have been held at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Kunsthaus in Zurich, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Centre Georges Pompidou, to name but a few examples. With his unique style, Dubuffet deliberately strips away the gloss of traditional aesthetics to make work that is direct, energetic, and reminiscent of some of the abstractions preferred by so many of his contemporaries. Yet at the same time, his incredibly rich and complex work retains a visual charm that reflects the generosity of spirit that fills Dubuffet’s paintings and sculptures and makes them so consistently engaging. Enigmatic sculptures such as Tétonette are among the most notable renditions of the human figure in the 20th century artistic canon and using his unique and naïve style, the artist builds on the noble artistic tradition of re-inventing the conventions of human portraiture begun by Picasso and Braque to produce works that are unlike any of his contemporaries.