Jean Dubuffet, a Complex Man, an Artist Who Took a Daring Course.
By Aline Dallier-Popper
For one decade, Dubuffet exercised his artistic activity in the evening or during his holidays, which gave him certain advantages : he could earn his living while, as an amateur, he could also flout the judgements of art specialists and the public. It was, of course, humiliation and the great vexation of being a self-taught artist that led Dubuffet to adopt, after having completely rejected art, a path of self-reconstruction, supported by what would have been his weakness. He was thus cleared of his shameful amateurism by claiming that this was a simple pastime. From then on, Dubuffet felt free to paint as he pleased, with neither the obligation to show nor to sell his works.
Still the 1930s : The Beginnings of Art Brut
Despite his renunciations and doubts, Dubuffet was preparing himself to the discovery of art brut since the very beginning. Since his departure from Académie Julian, whose academic teaching he found appalling, Dubuffet turned to folk art, caricature and naïve art. In 1918, he painted a fresco featuring naïve figures of fresh colours on the walls of a dance hall in Chaville. When he attempted a more “serious” painting a few years later, inspired especially by Derain, he created grotesque characters, treated in a half-realistic, half-naïve style, dream-like and already mediumistic. There are several examples, f.g. Trois personnages dans un paysage de montagne (Three Figures in a Mountainous Landscape) from 1924 (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris) or Frayeur (Fright) from 1924 (coll. Fondation Dubuffet, Paris). Soon, Dubuffet would abandon the idea of inspiration from whomever else and would not hesitate to move closer to art deco and craft industry. He would paint, among others, the signs of fairground stalls. In the end of the 30s, Dubuffet, who still found himself between two opposed if not antagonistic situations, his office and his studio, was lucky enough to meet his second companion, Emilie Carlu called Lili, who would stay with him for the rest of his life and who probably helped him in gaining confidence which he lacked as an artist. She became his main model ; there are her countless day-to-day portraits of naïve appearance and extremely moving : Lili in Front of a Window from 1935 (coll. Fondation Dubuffet, Paris), Lili with a Scarf, 1935 (idem), etc. During this period, Dubuffet also created portraits of Lili and his close friends as masks from cardboard mesh or modelling clay, touched up with paint in lively, glossy colours. At that time, Dubuffet was also sculpting puppets from lime wood, which were later dressed by Lili in recycled rags.
1939 - 1944 : The Aesthetic Position of the Artist Grows More Precise. Art Brut Moves Closer
In 1939, Dubuffet was mobilized and began his service with a stay in prison because of his disrespect of the French flag. The German invasion did not move him ; he was a convinced anti-militarist and anti-patriot. There is no doubt that his anti-patriotism conceals his hate of the father. At the same time, his contempt for France, or more precisely for French bourgeois society, merges with a revolt against his whole family, including that of his mother, and for a good reason. I believe it is against the background of the family revolt that we have to consider Dubuffet’s friendship with Céline. Dubuffet found in the author of the Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) his own refusal of the bourgeois society as well as of the heritage of academic language. Even if the friendship with Céline spoiled Dubuffet’s reputation, we have to take into account the psychological problems of the artist, which caused his confused revolt against unclear adversaries, merging with self-hate. Put in the administrative service of the army, Dubuffet abandoned himself to writing and the translation of Latin verses into modern French and slang ! With regard to what I have mentioned previously, I hesitate to view this activity as paradoxical and even more, as a contradiction between his literary culture and his liking of deconstruction of the bourgeois culture and the “belle langue française.” I tend to see in these exercises of transcription from Latin into slang a rebellious feature of his character, a greatly dynamic disposition to cultural renewal. From his mobilization in 1940, Dubuffet desperately attempted to save their family business. He worked hard and for little award as - contrary to what has been often said - Dubuffet was never really interested in business. What he was interested in was work which always filled in gaps. After two years of great effort, Dubuffet finally decided to put the business in the hands of an authorized representative and handed over a great part of his shares to his collaborators in order to transform it into limited company of which he did not take care anymore.
1942 : Full-Time Artistic Activity
From now on, Dubuffet considers his full-time artistic activity from a new psychological and aesthetic point of view. In 1942, after the turning point of the war, which accentuated his rebellious and anti-academic spirit, Dubuffet freed himself from all shame and restraint in respect to his artistic activity. Now, however, we are not dealing anymore with an attitude destined to dissimulate his awkwardness. He would abandon the pictorial know-how which he had tried so hard to acquire and in contrast to that, he would insists on his clumsiness, which he found interesting because of its spontaneity and casualness. He allowed himself free experiments in all possible directions and even, as he said, “preferably doing something any old how.” At this stage, we can clearly see the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis, which Dubuffet and his Surrealist friends knew, especially its accent on free association, contradictions, etc. Dubuffet would also discover children’s drawings, which nourish some of his paintings, in particular those showing scenes from everyday life (Metro, 1943, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris), urban landscapes (The Street, 1943, private collection), and unusual agricultural landscapes (Ménage de cyclistes aux vaches, The Cyclists Together with Cows, 1943, private collection). At that time, Dubuffet would have already seen mural graffiti showing rapidly sketched and simplified silhouettes, which directly inspired some of the afore mentioned works. He did not fear to use this technique despised by all “educated” people, with the exception of the photographer Gyula Brassaï, close to the Surrealists. From graffiti Dubuffet moved to the study and the representation of walls, covered or not by graffiti (Mur aux inscriptions, Wall with Inscriptions, 1944, Museum of Modern Art, New York). In the beginning of the 1940s, the artist made some new friends from literary and poetic circles, f.g. Pierre Seghers, Paul Eluard, Francis Ponge and Henri Michaux. Dubuffet considered poetry as a subversive form of art par excellence because to him it was a pure product of the unconscious, obtained without any external knowledge. He also had some friends painters, especially Jean Fautrier whose work was close to his own. Both artists show similarities in their manner of outlining figures and their heads, more allusive than figurative, as well as the material backgrounds in earthly tones (cf. Jean Fautrier, Otages, Hostages, 1943). In this period we cannot speak about success, yet Dubuffet had already acquired his public of conoisseurs. In 1944, he showed a set of Walls for the first time in the gallery of René Drouin in Paris. There was a number of admirers as well as angry defamations. Dubuffet did not take seriously one or the other. He satisfied his need of solitude and furious work, by isolating himself in his studio where he accepted visitors as a group only once a week !
1944 - 45 : The Question of Art Brut
There is a major contradiction in the union of these two terms. Can art, which is essentially of cultural order, be “brut,” that is made from drives, supposedly free of all culture ? However that may be, we have to know that Dubuffet and his friends deliberately maintained the ambiguity of the concept in order to introduce a trouble generating thought and new creation. After having explored children’s drawings, in about 1944, Dubuffet became interested in what was called “art of the insane,” thanks to several personalities, such as Jean Paulhan, André Breton and Raymond Queneau who had been already immersed in the poetry of mentally ill patients before. First of all, let us remember that Dubuffet’s artistic activity, from its very beginning in 1944, focused on folk art as well as the amateurism of the self-taught, could be considered - to some extent - as an introduction to art brut. Nevertheless, Dubuffet did not discover “art of the insane,” not more than Queneau, Breton or Jean Paulhan. All of them knew about Hans Prinzhorn, a German psychiatrist, and his book published in 1922, entitled Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill), dealing with drawings, paintings and sculptures from mental hospitals. The Surrealists certainly also knew this work, especially André Breton, who was impressed by strange drawings created in “automatic” way. It was from then on that Breton recommended to his Surrealist companions to attempt “automatic writing” in order to free their “unconscious creativity,” evoked in the psychoanalytic principle of free association. It was André Breton who made Dubuffet discover the existence of works by “delirious psychotic” patients and moreover, their creative power originating from the opened up unconscious. The fact the Dubuffet does not mention Breton’s name in his autobiography proves that the artists fell out later on. On his side, Jean Paulhan, who also knew about Prinzhorn’s work and other specialists, encouraged Dubuffet to a trip to Switzerland in order to visit mental hospitals and collect works by the mentally ill. It was doubtlessly also Jean Paulhan who invented the concept of art brut, around 1944-45, which has since then led to a confusion between the production of all kinds of mentally ill artists and Dubuffet’s own work. It is true that the artist himself enjoyed drawing a red herring across the trail. In contrast to André Breton, who kept a clear distinction between the creation of the mentally ill and artists who practised automatism, Dubuffet declared that the distinction between madness and health lacked solid basis. He did not make any difference between a “mad” artist and a “normal one,” hence his choice of the term art brut, less depreciatory, to designate “the productions of all kinds - drawings, paintings, embroideries, modelled figures or sculptures, etc. - of spontaneous character and strongly inventive, owning as little as possible to habitual art and whose authors are obscure people, unscathed by the official artistic culture.” We cannot decide whether Dubuffet was right in not considering the possibly pathological character of a work, all the more so since, as to himself, he was probably an artist in “good health,” even if quite tormented. Nonetheless, I would like to add that in my opinion, deciding whether there is a difference is less the matter of health rather than the matter of place. It would be advisable, I believe, to distinguish between the different places of production of a work because I do not think that an artist integrated in the artistic field - as was the case of Dubuffet - behaves, from the aesthetic point of view, in exactly the same way as a spare-time painter, isolated in his private sphere or, even more so, as a psychotic confined to a mental hospital.
1945 - 1957 : the Series of Portraits, Walls, Beards, Mental Landscapes
Dubuffet’s artistic production during this period is significant. Directly inspired by children’s drawings is f.g. Touring club (1946, private collection), a small Simca car of the 50s with four figures inside leaving for a trip. Apart from great paths of expression such as art brut, of which we have spoken, we can also distinguish more or less precise sources for other works. For example, the portrait of D’hôtel nuancé d’abricot (1947, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris) and the whole series of portraits from the same period, can be situated between the Scream by Edward Munch (1893, Oslo Munch Museum, Oslo) and the anonymous works of the so-called “Prisonnier de Bâle” (Prisoner from Basel), f.g. his Tête coupée à la barbiche (1928-1934, Collection of Art Brut, Lausanne). I would also like to mention Vache la belle muflée (Cow a Great Muffle, 1954, collection J.L. Stern) which seems to have been inspired by Jules Doudin’s drawing entitled Vache (Cow, without date, Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne) - more forward and more humorous, however. In the series of Portraits d’amis (Portraits of Friends), or Corps de dames (Bodies of Ladies), which are very close in their style to Willem de Kooning’s women, we can observe the superposition of inspirational sources with Dubuffet’s own way of doing things : the use of different materials and sources, as well as a number of variations on the same theme, which we could see in the series of Lili’s portraits from a different period. In this continuous creative process, permanently modified, besides the models taken in art brut, we can already make out Jean Dubuffet the artist who belongs well and truly to the history of art of his time. On the other side, Dubuffet returns to his theme of the wall, which is, of course, not neutral. We should recall that the young artist often stayed within the confines of his room and that is how he probably developed his neurosis. Having said that, a number of painters from the l’Ecole de Paris in the 50s (Anya Staristky, Stacha Halpern and especially Nicolas de Staël) used the same theme at the same time for different reasons (although they were always psychological-aesthetic reasons). Dubuffet was thus brought to create what he called the strange Paysages du mental (Mental Landscapes), which were completely abstract, f.g. Ermitage en pays gluant (Retreat in a Slimy Country, 1952, collection Janklow, New York). It is also necessary to mention the series of Barbes (Beards), the composition of which was based on the heads of men with beards. Then, a huge beard of a figure, made of intertwined signs wrapped into each other, became the subject of a painting inspired by the so-called Gustav (Dessin et inscriptions, Drawing and Inscriptions, 1942, Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne) and also by the American Mark Tobey, whose works Dubuffet certainly saw in France or in New York. These headless beards, whose form resembles a page of illegible writing, would become Mental Landscapes from thick substance choking with sand, in the style of André Masson, f.g. La Butte aux visions (Visionary Mound, 1952, Guggenheim Museum, New York) or still another work, the relief of which is much flatter, entitled Table de sérénité (Table of Serenity, 1957, private collection, Brussels).
1957 - 1962 : Texturologies and Small Sculpted Figures
From 1957-58, with the series of Texturologies, Dubuffet moved to a sort of post-pointillist painting, inspired less and less by his collection of art brut. On the other hand, his work is more clearly related to the European and American artistic context of the period. I would like to mention Vie exemplaire du sol - Texturologie LXIII (The Exemplary Life of Earth - Texturology LXIII, 1958, Tate Gallery, London), close to to the afore mentioned Tobey’s work. From 1960, Dubuffet would concentrate on paintings-substances which aim even more at being a presentation rather than representation of reality. In this context, we should speak about Or (Gold, 1959-62, collection Janklow, New York), made out of layers of gilded paper that recalls the monochromes from gold leaves created by Yves Klein, one of the New Realists, in the same period. If we think about Dubuffet’s approach, apart from the path of art brut (children’s drawings, works by mentally ill patients and all kinds of self-taught), we realize that he was more integrated in the recent history of art, especially that of the 1950s - 60s, in Europe and the US, than we would have imagined, both from the formal point of view as well as in a certain search for truth. But also here Dubuffet refuses to admit this, similarly to a number of artists who strive for freedom and independence. In any case, Dubuffet does not always consider himself as a professional artist. The self-taught quality seems not to have been forgotten. Moreover, it appears that the spontaneous and strongly expressive character of the “brut” part of his work served him, during all those years, as as kind of efficient auto-therapy, if not art therapy, which would explain why he attached so much importance to it and referred to it constantly. For about twenty years now, Dubuffet appears, indeed, less tormented. He writes and paints without interruption. He has inaugurated a series of small modelled or sculpted figures, related to some extent to Giacometti - even if much more substantial and stocky (Petites statues de la vie précaire, Small Sculptures of Precarious Life, between 1954 and 1959).
1962 - 1974 : L’Hourloupe and Coucou Bazar : Another Aesthetic Direction
Even if he did not say anything about it, from 1962-63 Dubuffet gave the impression to free himself more and more from art brut. This date corresponds to the construction of his cycle called l’Hourloupe, both in painting and sculpture. The word created by Dubuffet has originated in his painting entitled Rue de l’Entourloupe (1963, collection Minskoff), but it recalls also the verb “hurler” (to scream) as well as Maupassant’s novel Horla, which indicates, despite appearances, that Dubuffet continues to be attracted to everything that has to do with creative folly. However that may be, Dubuffet has adopted a new aesthetic position which privileges image rather than expression. L’Hourloupe is indeed imagery in progress, a sort of gigantic puzzle composed from everyday objects : bicycle, coffee-maker, glass, scissors, etc., presented on their own or united in one big sculpture from expanded polyester (Bidon l’Esbroufe, l967, Guggenheim Museum, New York) or from a metal sheet painted in white, the outlines of which are accentuated in black and streaked with red and blue. We find here simple forms and primary colours in the style of Fernand Léger, a friend from Dubuffet’s youth. Another example for this series : Jardin d’hiver (Winter Garden, 1973, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris) is an environment in which the visitor can penetrate physically. We know that in that period Dubuffet is not the only artist who created penetrable environments (cf. J-R. Soto, Niki de Saint-Phalle, etc.). In Dubuffet’s case, it is clear that he had abandoned more or less the “savage state of his gaze” in favour of a vision that is more plastic and contemporary. In our opinion, he entered into what we call Contemporary Art and began focusing on total art, in the form of environments and installations, in which drawing is mixed with painting, sculpture, architectural projects, light, music and performance. It is Coucou Bazar which is representative of this tendency, presented during the Festival d’automne in 1973, in a theatre constructed for this purpose in the nave of the Parisian Grand-Palais. A group of actors in costumes designed by the artist, following the l’Hourloupe figures, moved to the rhythm of electroacoustic music. Coucou Bazar was not, however, well received by the public, which was a hard blow for the artist. On the other hand, the Hourloupe series, which he would pursue for a while, became problematic for Dubuffet. The positive outcome was that he received many orders, travelled around the world and was shown in the greatest museums ; his life was completely filled with work and success. In contrast, the avant-garde critics judged his work too decorative and without content. Finally, Dubuffet realized that “l’homme du commun” (ordinary man), whom he found so important, did not understand his new works which were completely different from the generally accepted idea of sculpture. Unfavourable public opinion would lead Régie Renault to cancel his order of a monumental work entitled Salon d’été (1974), which was supposed to be permanently installed in front of the headquarters in Boulogne-Billancourt. Dubuffet was deeply disappointed and again questioned his work, which led to a progressively aggravated depression.
1974 - 1982 : the Series of Sites : Another Bold Gesture
This artistic period echoes the beginning of his career in the 1930s. A period about which he said that he was more tormented than satisfied in his artistic activity. He begins to suffer again, however not for the same reason and not with the same consequences. He seems to be more affected psychologically and his artistic reaction is therefore all the more courageous. After the failure of l’Hourloupe and Coucou Bazar, Dubuffet armed himself with incredible fervour which, in our opinion, would lead to the creation of the most striking and the most unsettling productions of the last ten years of his creation. First of all, he took up again colored pencils but did not attempt anymore the imitation of children’s drawings. Maturity, a vision of his end or the desire for new beginning ? Dubuffet is himself in the position of a young child drawing. There is, among others, Paysage cursif avec un personnage ( Cursory Landscape with a Figure, l974, private collection, Germany), in which we can recognize a head, partly human partly catlike, with pricked up ears, emerging from energetic and turbulent traces, in pencil and felt-tip pen. The series continues with one or more figures to end up in Paysages crayonnés en tous sens, sans aucune figure (Landscapes Sketched All Over the Place, with no Figures, Site boisé sauvage, 1974, Fondation Dubuffet). At the same time as the Sites, Dubuffet returns briefly to human figures interwoven with cells from l’Hourloupe and other signs already used in his work (Mémoration XXII, l979, collection Fondation Dubuffet, Paris). This episode would serve as a starting point for the new and last artistic current of the 20th century, the Figuration libre (Free Figuration), developed by Robert Combas who even now claims to be inspired by comic strips and art brut (Le Monde, June 13th, 2002). We have already noted that Figuration libre was for Dubuffet a short attempt at synthetizing his previous vocabulary. He appears to prefer recharging his energy by going back to his colored pencil drawings and begins another series of Sites in acrylic on mounted paper. He proceeds in the same way as for the sketches, that is by including figures, ranging from seven to one - which can be distinguished either under or over polychromatic graphics. Later on, the artist empties his paintings of all figures, which will lead, as for one of the afore mentioned drawings (cf. Site boisé), to a graphical abstract painting, with the exception of a few red shadowy forms on a yellow background (Site sans personnage, Site without figure, l98l, collection Fondation Dubuffet).
1982 - 1984 : the Last Two Series : the Mires and the Non-lieux
For several years now, Dubuffet has been suffering from strong lumbar pain aggravated by permanent breathlessness. He cannot and does not want to leave his appartment anymore. The need to work furiously is as strong as ever. He paints all day seated at his desk on sheets of paper not bigger than 100 cm, which are afterwards juxtaposed, similarly to his greatest paintings, cf. Le Cours des choses, ( The Course of Things, l983, 268 x 800 cm, acrylic s/canvas, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris). This work belongs to the series of Mires, with strong graphics, red, black, or blue on a shiny yellow or white background, devoid of all figures, be they only allusive. In connection with the Mires, the artist writes in his autobiography that there is nothing to be seen anymore that could be named. “It is governed by the idea that the way man interprets his world and which shapes his thinking, is entirely errroneous. I have substituted it with another, totally different view.” This new view the artist mentions is indeed not the “savage gaze” anymore, which he claimed in his beginnings of art brut. I would see it more as an “absolute view,” similar as to when we say about a musician that he has an “absolute ear.” From now on, Dubuffet knows the exact value of yellow or red colour, of a diagonal or horizontal line, etc. Mire G l07 (l983, Rogath collection) is a painting which to me recalls the Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello and its interweaving swords above the heads of the warriors. It emanates the feeling of the absolute, another way of fighting with angels. Dubuffet’s Mires can be seen as the continuation of the calligraphic lyricism of the 50s - 60s, aside from the fact that as all other great artists who do not care about artistic fashion, he has now become or become again an artist a bit separated from the others, or in any case out of touch with art operating in the 1980s, focused on the return of the figurative whereas Dubuffet had parted with it. At the same time, he feels very much alone, all the more because he had already lost his substitutive family, which he found in art brut and that helped him to live. His solitude and depression grow even bigger as his companion Lili suffers from health problems which lead to her long stays outside of Paris. His melancholy often turns, according to Dubuffet himself, to aggression which grieves him and distresses him.” He is more than ever on his own, even more so because he does not have a good relationship with his daughter Mina from his first marriage. The artist’s only link to the exterior is his correpospondence with a few friends from the art world. Still in 1984, despite his growing depression, he publishes his last work entitled Oriflammes (1984), illustrated by fifteen drawings in three flamboyant colours of the Mires, yellow, red and blue, an additional proof of his endless combat. The ultimate series of the Non-lieux pushes the theme of Mires until their extreme limit. The yellow or white background is replaced by black whereas the red or blue graphics is abandoned in favour of white, more or less punctuated by colour, to end up as white on a black background. Also here it has to be noted that the Mires are not only the result of the artist’s spontaneous expression. They should be put in perspective with the popular graffiti on one side and the history of painting in the 1950s - 1960s on the other. It indeed recalls Michaux’ automatic writing, the gestual lyricism of a Mathieu until Pollock’s random dripping. Nevertheless, Dubuffet the artist has his own style. His writing in the Mires and even more in the Non-lieux is not automatic, gestual or random. In the case of Dubuffet, it is on the contrary well controlled graphics, which tends to bend in loops in order to form a zero, the symbol of nothingness. This is the case of f.g. Frémissement (Trembling, l984, collection Fondation Dubuffet, Paris) or Idéoplasme XI (l984, collection Fondation Dubuffet, Paris). For the artist, his Non-lieux are more philosophical and nihilistic than his Mires because they are not “governed anymore by the wish to evoke a very generalized and conceptualized form of “being” but by the idea that the notion of “being” is itself without any foundation, a pointless projection of our imagination.” After the Non-lieux, Dubuffet considers his work finished and says good-bye to painting. He would die a year after, in 1985, after having written his Biography.
The End of Career. What Remains to Be Said about the Artist, His Work and the Spectator ?
Dubuffet’s artistic career is firmly anchored, inspite of his affirmations, in the history of art of the 20th century. As during his first exhibition at Drouin gallery in Paris in 1944, his final works, especially the Sites, Mires and Non-lieux, which we were able to see during the beautiful hundred-year exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 2001, have been either rejected and misunderstood by the spectators or deeeply admired. His admirers have not been lured and do not consider as the artist’s ultimate contradiction the fact that while his discourse was nihilistic, he produced dazzling works, all shadow and light, characterized by energetic gesture which gives them true life. Dubuffet’s nihilism testistifies to his depression, in which the artist, a complex man, took some pleasure. Nevertheless, the aesthetic triangle Artist/Work/Spectator tells us that work is an autonomous subject, a living creature which possesses its own destiny. In his last paintings, Dubuffet finally revealed himself as a full-fledged artist, returning to the childhood of art - the last daring gesture.
Aline Dallier-Popper is a historian of contemporary art and a member of l’Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art
(this article has appeared in Recherches en Esthétique no. 8, october 2002, Fort de France, p.73-83)
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