Jean Dubuffet and Art Brut

Jean Dubuffet, View of Paris with Furtive Pedestrians, 1944
Metropolitan Museum

Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)
Born in Le Havre and trained as an artist, Jean Dubuffet abandoned art in 1924 to take over his father’s wine business.  He returned to painting in 1942 during the grimmest days of the Nazi occupation and began to pursue a raw expressive style that was shocking to contemporary audiences. His goal was to cultivate a naïve approach to art that was untainted by academic rules or accepted conventions of “good taste.”  His 1946 exhibition at the Galerie Drouin, provocatively titled Mirobolus, Macadam & Cie, Hautes Pâtes, elicited widespread condemnation.  Critics disparaged his “filthy” “monochromatic mud,” likening it to excrement.

artbrut_artcultArt Brut
Dubuffet was a founding member of the Compagnie de l”Art Brut which held its first exhibition at the Galerie Drouin in 1948.   In his catalog preface titled L’Art Brut préfére aux arts culturele (“Crude Art Preferred to Cultural Art”) Dubuffet made a case for what he called L’Art Brut, or “crude art.”  Dismissing intellectuals and professional artists as “monkeys” and “crooks” lacking vision and sincerity, Dubuffet championed art that was “raw” and “uncultured,” claiming that only untrained artists – children, so-called “primitive” artists, and the insane — were capable of truly authentic expression:

“We understand by [these] works created by those untouched by artistic culture; in which copying has little part, unlike the art of intellectuals.  Similarly, the artists take everything (subjects, choice of materials, modes of transposition, rhythms, writing styles) from their own inner being, not from the canons of classical or fashionable art.  We engage in an artistic enterprise that is completely pure, basic; totally guided in all its phases solely by the creator’s own impulses.  It is therefore, an art which only manifests invention, not the characteristics of cultural art which are those of the chameleon and the monkey.”
Jean Dubuffet, “Crude Art Preferred to Cultural Art,” cited in Harrison & Wood, Art in Theory, p. 607

Dubuffet’s interest in the art of the insane began in 1923 when he read Dr. Hans Prinzhorn’s Bildnerie der Geisteskraken (Art of the Mentally Ill), which was the first serious study of art produced by psychiatric patients.  Works from the Heidelberg Hospital collection that Prinzhorn based his study on were included in Hitler’s infamous Degenerate Art Show, indicating that Dubuffet’s interest was more than just a playful provocation – there were serious political consequences for this challenge to accepted cultural values.

In his “Anticultural Positions” presented at the Arts Club in Chicago, 1951, Dubuffet called for the “complete liquidation” of the humanist values that had been inherited from the Renaissance, professing:  “Personally, I believe very much in the values of savagery:  I mean:  instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness.”  Rejecting western concepts of “beauty” embodied in Greek sculpture, as well as the visually appealing shapes and colors of modern abstraction, Dubuffet claimed to be returning art to the common man by adopting the ordinary language of the streets:

“I think this culture is very much like a dead language, without anything in common with the language spoken in the street . . . . For myself, I aim for an art which would be in immediate connection with daily life, an art which would start from this daily life, and which would be a very direct and very real expression of our real life and our real moods.”
Jean Dubuffet, “Anticultural Positions,” cited in Stiles & Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, p. 192

Bill Brandt, Jean Dubuffet working with his haute pâte
Minneapolis Institute of Art

Dubuffet painted with a thick mortar-like substance that he called haute pâte (high paste).  A composite of paint, sand, tar or other such lowly substances, the result was a roughly textured surface rich in expressive power:

“He favoured difficult, intractable materials because they heighten the adventure for the artist . . . . he felt that the artist should tackle his medium directly and boldly, learning how to smear paint in an expressive way.  Dubuffet contrasts an image of a tentative aesthete struggling to recreate the patina of an apple using dabs of paint squeezed from tiny tubes with one of the heroic artist locked in a Dionysiac struggle with brute matter, a struggle that is somehow authentic and primordial.”
Frances Morris, Paris Post War:  Art and Existentialism, Tate Gallery, 1993, p. 79.

Dubuffet’s intent was to subvert good taste (critics saw in his material surfaces suggestions of “excrement” and “filth.”), while foregrounding the physical process of creation as a desperate, yet heroic, Existential act.

Jean Dubuffet, Triumph and Glory (Corps de dame series) 1950 Guggenheim Museum
Jean Dubuffet, Triumph and Glory (Corps de dame series) 1950 Guggenheim Museum

Corps du Dame
Dubuffet’s Corps du Dame series explored the most abiding icon of the western European tradition:  the female nude.  Other artists had challenged this tradition before:  Courbet’s Bathers, Manet’s Olympia, Gauguin’s dark skinned Tahitian goddesses, and PicassosDemoiselles d’Avignon, were each, in their own way, a shocking assault on western canons of beauty.  Yet Dubuffet went even further than his predecessors in his challenge to accepted cultural values.  Unlike the idealized figures of the classical tradition, Dubuffet’s women are grotesquely distorted, splayed out on the canvas like an eviscerated corpse.  More like carcasses of flesh than human beings, these bestial bodies seem undifferentiated from the primal slime from which they emerge.  As Peter Selz writes:

“These pictures ironically called Corps de Dames, 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 . . . . Cut off at the legs below the crotch, 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.  The arms are sometimes raised to expose a bloated body in which the vulva has become an almost independent object within the carefully charted territory.  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.”
Peter Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, 1962, p. 48

Jean Dubuffet Online (Artcyclopedia)
Art Brut:  Tate Gallery
Peter Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, Museum of Modern Art, 1962

TateShots: Mark Haddon on Jean Dubuffet