Crude, obscene & extraordinary: Dubuffet’s war against good taste
The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones on the inventor of ‘art brut’ who rebelled against his parents, his teachers and then art itself. Yet the impact of his wild provocative paintings, can still be seen today. –
Image: Dubuffet’s ‘Vicissitudes’ (1977)
Which great artist of the 20th century has been most influential on the 21st? Neither Picasso nor Matisse, as they have no heirs. And not Marcel Duchamp, however much we genuflect before his urinal. No, the artist of the last century whose ideas are everywhere today was a wine merchant who took street art and fashioned it into something extraordinary more than 75 years ago.
After four years of Nazi occupation, you’d think Parisians would have been unshockable. But in 1944, the newly liberated city was sorely provoked by the antics of Jean Dubuffet. Even as the last shots were fired, he was creating newspaper collages bearing the fragmentary graffiti messages he saw in the streets: “Emile is gone again”, “Always devoted to your orders”, “URGENT”. In the next couple of years, he unveiled shapeless, childlike paintings that abandoned all pretence at skill.
His 1946 portrait of his friend, the darkly introspective poet Henri Michaux, is called Monsieur Plume, or Mr Pen. It reduces this powerful writer to a rapidly drawn caricature of a giant angry head on a little comic strip body, all set against a faecal brown background. It is a great portrait, full of force and life, a savage expression of being and nothingness. This didn’t stop one unimpressed critic complaining that dada was one thing, but Dubuffet’s work was just “caca”.Yet the artist unleashed something strikingly new – and it still feels new today. Dadaism, as that grumpy critic knew, was the “anti-art” movement that rejected civilised values in the wake of the carnage of the first world war. But it never really threatened high art. It was only seen by a tiny number of people and, in this rarefied circle, soon gave way to surrealism. Dubuffet, on the other hand, waged a much more serious war on official culture. He set out to destroy the idea that trained artists are better than untrained ones, that art is some special attainment that belongs to academies, museums and elites.
Every street mural or spontaneous memorial that has appeared in the pandemic, or in response to George Floyd’s murder, owes something to Dubuffet, as do artists from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Keith Haring and Banksy. He is, quite simply, one of modern art’s greatest liberators.
An exhibition opening at the Barbican in London offers a chance to re-examine Dubuffet, who died in 1985, and his legacy. It captures the thrill of his early work before he became too manically productive. Dubuffet brilliantly defied good taste in the late 1940s and 50s. Decades before Damien Hirst, he made a series of paintings using dead butterflies, including 1955’s Garden with Melitaea. From afar, this chunky nature scene looks like a mosaic. But up close, you see the petals are dried butterfly wings – the illusion of life constructed from organic remains. However, after that, he gradually became part of the official cultural machine he despised. When the Pompidou Centre in Paris opened in 1977, it was full of his later works, including an installation that resembled a cave of polystyrene. By this time, he was the French establishment’s official rebel.This was a cruel domestication. Dubuffet really was an extreme sceptic about the very nature and purpose of art. To properly understand this, it helps to know his unusual story. The artist who leapt to notoriety in postwar France was not young: Dubuffet was 44 in 1945. He’d had an archetypal French modern artist’s start. He was born in 1901 in Le Havre, the city where Monet grew up – and, like the great impressionist, was a businessman’s son. His family were wine merchants. Dubuffet, again stereotypically, rebelled, escaping to Paris to study art against his father’s wishes. Just like the best Parisian artists since the 1850s, he got sick of his conventional training and starting hanging out in Montmartre. His friends included the sweet cityscape painter Maurice Utrillo and the surrealist Andre Masson. Then Dubuffet quit. From 1925 to 1944, he worked as a wine merchant, first in the family business then with his own company.
Perhaps working so closely with wine helped him rethink art. For it is both intoxicating and – in France anyway – quotidian. Maybe he reasoned that art can just be part of the real world, a joy and a solace, like a glass of rouge at the local bar. For Dubuffet doubted the notion that art was special, that it belonged in galleries and museums. He was thunderstruck when he came across a 1922 book called The Artistry of the Mentally Ill, by German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn. It raised the possibility that the true artists of this world were not noisily debating in Latin Quarter cafes, but drawing their fantastic visions in closed wards.
It took him 20 years to assimilate this into his own concept, something broader and more transferable: art brut, or raw art. Dubuffet’s wild images embody this new direction. In his 1954 painting The Extravagant One, he turns stains and blotches into a melange of snot greens, piss yellows and shit browns – to create a paranoid hallucination of a human figure. Dubuffet didn’t stop at patients in asylums, though. Art brut embraced graffiti, work by children, the newly discovered cave paintings of Lascaux, and the output of society’s outsiders. In other words, it could be any kind of visual creativity that had energy and life but was traditionally looked down on as worthless rubbish – the labourings of the untutored, and below the noble sphere of “culture”.
Dubuffet puts his ideas into practice, adopting the standpoint of an outsider artist, in such paintings as Paris-Montparnasse, a 1961 panorama of city life in which the doodled characters are all the same size and swarm every corner: the manic essence of a modern crowd. It is a work of genuine innocence, rather than faux naïf.
Dubuffet’s attack on culture was arguably a very French perspective. No other European nation has quite the same belief that culture and civilisation are its defining values, preserved by the state. For Dubuffet, giving a lecture called Anti-Cultural Positions in 1951, this idealisation of high art was lethal to real creation: “Our culture is an ill-fitting coat, or at least one that no longer fits us,” he said. “It’s like a dead tongue that has nothing in common with the language now spoken in the street. It drifts further and further away from our daily life. It is confined to lifeless coteries, like a mandarin culture. It has no more living roots.”
Yet Dubuffet’s resistance to elite culture is just as French as the academic establishment he loathed. His ideas evolved in avant-garde Paris in the 20s and 30s: although he quit being an artist for the wine trade, he couldn’t resist bohemian life. There’s a fantastic picture by the great surrealist photographer Brassaï of Kiki of Montparnasse, the renowned artist’s model, having a lie down with two friends. Kiki has her arm around Emili Carlu, known as Lili, with whom Dubuffet fell in love. So he was no staid businessman. Dubuffet was already using his wine profits to fund a studio and was so immersed in avant-garde culture that his wife left him, partly because she suspected him of having an affair with the poet Max Jacob.Brassaï’s photograph is a surrealist masterpiece, drawing you in with its sense of three women being both observed yet sharing a private moment we can only guess at. We seem to be spying on their dreams. It is also a clue to the origins of art brut: here and elsewhere, Brassaï captures a side of Paris life that is both beautiful – and brut. He also photographed graffiti. First published in the surrealist magazine Minotaure, Brassaï’s shots of street markings use contrasts of deep shadow and glaring light to reveal the mystery and menace of graffiti cut and engraved into plaster walls: a devil here, a hanged man there.
Brassaï helped Dubuffet see the power of graffiti. The surrealist movement also paved the way for other aspects of art brut. Andre Breton, the movement’s leader, said Columbus should have set out on his voyage of discovery in “a boatload of madmen”. They championed outsider art, too, revering Le Facteur Cheval, a French postman who spent 30 years building a fantastical, dreamlike building called the Palais Idéal in Hauterives.
By 1944, when Dubuffet emerged from his chrysalis to pour out graffiti pictures and grotesque “mad” portraits, the surrealist movement seemed old. It didn’t help that so many of its leading figures had fled to New York in the war. Postwar Europe needed something harder and tougher. Art brut offered a pared down, disillusioned vision for a less dreamy age. His 1950s nudes – such as The Tree of Fluids, inspired by paleolithic fertility figures – dig back way beyond surrealism to a primal passion for existence. He said he sought “instinct, passion, caprice, violence, madness”. His nudes have those qualities in fleshy abundance.
Dubuffet’s radical way of seeing is preserved in his own collection of art brut. He used his success to find, buy and preserve work by the likes of Madge Gill, who drew intense overlapping images of people repeating in unreal unfoldings of space, and Augustin Lesage, who designed impossible cities that ramify endlessly.
By the end of the 20th century, with Dubuffet gone and his works a lot less treasured, even in France, art brut seemed very marginal again. Now all that has changed. Street artists are stars and insiders aspire to be outsiders. Raw passion has returned. There could be no better moment to reconsider Dubuffet, although I am not sure he cared about being seen as a “modern master”. He seems to have had a very good life with Lili. He died at his drawing table. He would probably have found it very funny that his anti-art cartoons are now priced in the millions.
Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty opens at the Barbican, London, on 17 May. An accompanying book, by Eleanor Nairne is published by Prestel, £39.99.