The raw art of Jean Dubuffet
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
“Without bread, we die of hunger, but without art we die of boredom.” So wrote the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-85). But maybe boredom isn’t such a bad thing. Elsewhere he says, “I think it is very healthy for an artist to be bored. Boredom is the rich compost that fertilises the creation of art”.
Dubuffet invented the concept of Art Brut, or raw art: “A work of art is only of interest . . . when it is an immediate and direct projection of what is happening in the depths of a person’s being . . . only in this Art Brut can we find the natural and normal processes of artistic creation in their pure and elementary state”.
Taking care of the family wine business, Dubuffet didn’t begin his career as an artist until he was 41, although he had enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Le Havre when he was 17. He claimed to take “hardly any interest in the work of other painters . . . . I don’t like culture; I don’t like the memory of the past . . . . I believe in the great value of forgetting”.
A recent exhibition, “Transitions”, of a dozen or so of Dubuffet’s works at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester was a reminder of his enduring originality. It was the “first major review of Dubuffet’s work in a public museum in the UK for nearly 50 years”. The first, in 1955, was curated by Roland Penrose (husband of Lee Miller and friend of Picasso). This was followed by retrospectives at the ICA and Tate in 1966.
The Pallant House exhibition focused mainly on his “L’Hourloupe” series, made up of white, red and blue shapes with thick black borders, which he composed between 1962 and 1974. The word, coined by Dubuffet, derives from “hurler” to shout, “hululer” to howl and “loup” wolf. He applied the concept to objects, such as “Teacup VII” (below) or figures, like the extraordinary polyurethane and latex sculpture of a gendarme. In a felicitous phrase Dubuffet likened the works to a “festival of the mind”.
Dubuffet was something of a writer’s artist (and was a prolific writer himself: there are four volumes of Écrits). Raymond Queneau, Francis Ponge and Claude Simon all wrote enthusiastically about him; he visited poor mad Antonin Artaud in his asylum in Rodez, and arranged for his discharge in 1946. Meanwhile he found it hard to forgive his friend Jean Paulhan for joining the establishment by becoming a member of the Académie française. Championed by the American art critic Clement Greenberg, Dubuffet had, for a while a bigger reputation in the US than in France. Now there is a Fondation Dubuffet in Paris, and a collection of Art Brut in Lausanne.
In their Jean Dubuffet: Works, writings and interviews, Valérie da Costa and Fabrice Hergott called him “one of the most surprising artists of the twentieth century”. They describe him as an “anarchist, atheist, anti-militarist, anti-patriotic”. (The text has been quirkily translated: “a reasoned catalogue” is presumably a catalogue raisonné.) Dubuffet himself liked to call his portraits “anti-psychological”; maybe da Costa and Hergott are stretching it a bit when they see in the portrait of the austere Ponge (1947, below) an “exceptionally good likeness”. And there was nothing anti-patriotic in the blaze of red white and blue that greeted the visitor to the main room of the Pallant display, with the Hourloupe in all its playful glory.