Jean Dubuffet’s Baigneuses is a large-scale painting from a group of ten canvases described in the artist’s catalogue raisonné as “mind-blowing and visionary” (M. Loreau, Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet: Corps de dames, Fascicule VI, Paris, 1965). Painted in 1950, the same period during which he developed his now iconic Corps de Dames series, they are celebrated for their revolutionary approach to the female form. Executed just a few short years after the end of World War II, the artist’s extraordinary figures were not only prompted by the brutality of conflict, but also by a consideration of what constitutes beauty in a modern society. Building on the legacy of artists like Pablo Picasso, Dubuffet's works celebrate humanity in all its myriad of aspects, and as such remain as relevant today as it was when this work was created over half a century ago.
The present work is the second largest painting that Dubuffet created that year, and the figures that make up Dubuffet’s trio of female bathers are set against an earthy, heavily textured landscape. With its high horizon line, the figures are almost subsumed by their undulating ground. Filling the entire picture plane, their contorted forms command, stretch and expand to fill the space they occupy. Square shoulders, tapered bodies, long limbs culminating in spindly fingers and toes, the figures are a far cry from the elegant classicism of ancient Greece. Generous layers of paint are applied as thick impasto, smeared and troweled onto the surface before rudimentary facial—and other anatomical features—are scored into the surface with a sharp implement.
Dubuffet vehemently believed that the importance of art lay in its ability to express humankind’s natural state, and the 1950s saw his interest in Art Brut develop into ever more exuberant and innovative manifestations. He pursued the idea that art should be a direct reflection of emotion and instincts, without being sullied by the distorting effects of what he called art culturel—academic training and historical conventions. For inspiration, he turned away from the traditions of the past, and looked to the raw, unprompted creative expressions of the unaffected, such as graffiti, work by prisoners, children, of the mentally ill, and so-called primitive art. In 1948, he had such a substantial personal collection of this type of art that he helped found the Compagnie de l’Art Brut to promote its study.
Dubuffet’s female figures sit alongside Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Willem de Kooning’sWoman paintings as some of the most important renditions of the female figure in the twentieth century. Along with his forebears, these radically different interpretations were Dubuffet’s response to the classical tradition which had dominated art for centuries, but his paintings went much further. As Peter Selz wrote in 1962 of works produced during this period, “These pictures…are surely among the most aggressively shocking works known to the history of painting. By their brutal attack on “Woman” they violate our sacred and dearly held concepts of mother, wife, mistress, beloved, daughter, and sister, as well as the very principles of beauty derived from erotic desires in most cultures . . . . these women with their minute and flattened heads explode laterally to fill the canvas. Some of the bodies are like geographic maps in which schematic signs for arms, breasts, buttocks, thighs, appear as though they were conventional symbols… They are primordial women, who in all their repulsive brutality speak most revealingly about the human animal, at times satisfied, at times alarming, but always grotesque” (P. Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, exh. cat, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1962, p. 48).
Art must make you laugh a little and make you a little afraid. Anything as long as it doesn’t bore.”
Baigneuses was formally in the collection of the pioneering television producer Mark Goodson. Goodson devised and produced many of the most famous TV game shows in the world, including The Price is Right, Family Feud, and Match Game among dozens of others. This success enabled him to indulge a passion for art that resulted in an enviable collection of twentieth century masterpieces which he displayed in his New York apartment. Along with the Dubuffet (which he hung in his opulent red dining room), Goodson’s collection included a major 1937 Picasso still life, Francis Bacon’s 1964 Study for Self-Portrait, and Wassily Kandinsky’s Violet Dominant No. 603. Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace Gallery and a friend and confident of Goodman’s, said of his friend’s collecting “He… acts on a very sophisticated visual response… He has one of the most natural eyes of any client that we have” (A. Glimcher, quoted by M. Amaya, “The Collectors: A New Enlightenment. Mark Goodson in New York,” Architectural Digest, June 1979, p. 83).
Dubuffet's paintings contain some of the most remarkable renditions of the human body ever undertaken in modern art. 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,” the artist maintained, “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" (J. Dubuffet, op. cit. , p. 129).
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).