Freed at last from the Covid lockdown vault, this quirky show may be just the ticket if you’re looking to re-engage with actual, red-in-tooth-and-claw art. He may not be for all tastes, but there’s no denying that the work of Jean Dubuffet (1901-85) still packs quite a punch.
Dubuffet it was who famously championed, and collected – examples abound here – what he called Art Brut (‘raw art’), nowadays more generally known as Outsider Art. This is work by unschooled artists: children, graffitists, asylum inmates, and those who, if not clinically insane, were in various ways ‘out there’. Artists like Madge Gill, for example, who worked under the direction of Myrninerest, her spirit guide, or the Swiss painter Adolf Wölfli, he of the evocatively-titled ‘The Insurgency Plans of St. Adolf Castle in Breslau’ (who definitely was mad). Classically-trained himself, Dubuffet saw such amateur work as an antidote to the banality of much contemporary art, and used it as a take-off point for a series of calculated assaults on the canonical Western tradition.
Consider the series ‘Corps des dames’/’Ladies’ bodies’, 1950, Dubuffet’s answer to classical notions of feminine beauty. ‘It pleases me to protest against this aesthetic, which I find miserable and most depressing’, he declared; ‘Yes, I aim for beauty, but not that sort.’ Vast landscape-like forms with tiny heads and cartoonish appendages – strongly reminiscent of prehistoric Venus figurines – seem barely contained within the canvas. Willem de Kooning painted a superficially similar cycle at around the same time but Dubuffet’s figures, to my eyes at least, are without the apparent misogyny of de Kooning’s ‘Women’; his target was convention, not womanhood.
Dubuffet was also notorious for his use of unusual materials and techniques. Literally scraping the dustbin, he would cheerfully trowel sand, ash, glass, straw and gravel into his paints to create a (highly unstable) haute pâte effect, adding exotic touches like butterfly wings – long before Damien Hirst came up with the idea. He also made ‘assemblages’ and small sculptures out of tin foil, lava and found objects like used car parts. Standard artistic fare these days, of course, but heady stuff back in the nineteen forties and ‘fifties.
Dubuffet’s work from the ‘sixties onwards is arguably more commercial and accessible. ‘Dubuffet has shed his ground-worshipper tunic; make way for the playful and theatrical Janus’, wrote the critic Max Loreau. Bursting with energy and colour, the series ‘Paris Circus’ is a celebration of the renewed vitality of the French capital after years of post-war austerity. So too the enormous abstract cycle known as ‘Lhourloupe’, said to have been inspired by a doodle Dubuffet created while talking on the telephone. ‘Coucou Bazar’ translates the jigsaw-like interlocking forms of ‘Lhourloupe’ into live performance, which won him further international attention when it premiered at the Guggenheim in New York in 1973. His influence on emerging artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat is obvious enough.
Dubuffet continued to produce art to his dying day (literally, he died at his desk), signing off with a glorious late surge of swirling, loopy abstracts. Most of these are painted on a simple black or white ground, using just two or three colours. ‘Mire G177 (Bolero)’, 1983, for example, rightly described as ‘epic’ on the wall caption, consists of cadmium red blobs and broader strokes, with cobalt blue and some black for the squigglier lines. All four paintings in this final room are wonderful; I covet them and wish there had been more of them.
It’s been over half a century since the last Dubuffet retrospective in London, so you might say that this show was long overdue even in 2020. Yes, Tate might have staged it with rather more razzmatazz, but credit to Barbican for actually doing it.
Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty Mon 17 May—Sun 22 Aug 2021, Barbican Art Gallery