French Painter, Printmaker, and Sculptor
Le Havre, France
Summary of Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet disliked authority from a very early age. He left home at 17, failed to complete his art education, and wavered for many years between painting and working in his father's wine business. He would later be a successful propagandist, gaining notoriety for his attacks on conformism and mainstream culture, which he described as "asphyxiating." He was attracted to the art of children and the mentally ill, and did much to promote their work, collecting it and promulgating the notion of Art Brut. His early work was influenced by that of outsiders, but it was also shaped by the interests in materiality that preoccupied many post-war French artists associated with the Art Informel movement. In the early 1960s, he developed a radically new, graphic style, which he called "Hourloupe," and would deploy it on many important public commissions, but he remains best known for the thick textured and gritty surfaces of his pictures from the 1940s and '50s.
- Dubuffet was launched to success with a series of exhibitions that opposed the prevailing mood of post-war Paris and consequently sparked enormous scandal. While the public looked for a redemptive art and a restoration of old values, Dubuffet confronted them with childlike images that satirized the conventional genres of high art. And while the public looked for beauty, he gave them pictures with coarse textures and drab colors, which critics likened to dirt and excrement.
- The emphasis on texture and materiality in Dubuffet's paintings might be read as an insistence on the real. In the aftermath of the war, it represented an appeal to acknowledge humanity's failings and begin again from the ground - literally the soil - up.
- Dubuffet's Hourloupe style developed from a chance doodle while he was on the telephone. The basis of it was a tangle of clean black lines that forms cells, which are sometimes filled with unmixed color. He believed the style evoked the manner in which objects appear in the mind. This contrast between physical and mental representation later encouraged him to use the approach to create sculpture.
Biography of Jean Dubuffet
Jean Dubuffet was born on July 31, 1901, in Le Havre, France, into a middle-class family that distributed wine. Although he was well-educated, he came to reject his studies, preferring to educate himself by reading the work of Dr. Hans Prinzhorn, who drew comparisons between the art of asylum inmates and the artwork of children. Based on these observations, Prinzhorn stated that it was savagery, or base animal instinct, that lead to universal harmony, arguing that it was the primal instinct, not intellectual theory or analysis, that connected all living things. This concept had a strong influence on Dubuffet's later career.
Important Art by Jean Dubuffet
The painting Apartment Houses, Paris focuses on urban life. The buildings are tilted, playfully defying architectural integrity. The flattening of the space between the sky, buildings, and civilians seems spontaneous and unprocessed - childlike. Here Dubuffet satirizes conventional, sentimental images of Paris, suggesting instead that the jollity of the city's inhabitants is forced and false.
This picture is typical of the Hautes Pates series that Dubuffet exhibited to huge controversy in 1946. A thick, monochromatic surface serves as the ground for the crudely depicted figure, which is a parody of portraiture. Although Dubuffet undoubtedly intended the series to offend and his graphic style and thick, coarse impasto certainly did offend conventional tastes, it is worth noting that the color palette is not as jarring as it might be. Dubuffet was at least cautiously mindful of the need for success.
Dubuffet's heady experience in the country and rejection of art education is evident in this painting. The heavily textured surface depicts a cow, rendered in the childlike innocence of patients held in psychological facilities. The uninhibited, savage approach to the canvas exemplifies the concepts of what Dubuffet termed Art Brut - the image seems entirely unschooled in the traditions of landscape. The image is thus at odds with the notions of "high art," and approaches art making from the direction of artistic purity uninfluenced by cultural advancement. Going a step further, Dubuffet suggests how "cultural" and "savage" approaches to art together work to reaffirm civilization as a whole.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jean Dubuffet
- Jean Dubuffet: Works, Writings, InterviewsBy Valerie Da Costa, Fabrice Hergott, Jean Dubuffet
- The Work of Jean Dubuffet, with texts by the artistOur PickBy Peter Selz, Jean Dubuffet
- Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative RealityBy Jean Dubuffet, Mildred Glimcher
- Dubuffet Prints from the Museum of Modern ArtBy the Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Asphyxiating Culture and Other WritingsOur PickBy Jean Dubuffet, Carol Volk
- Jean Dubuffet: Writings on SculptureBy Jean Dubuffet
- Jean Dubuffet: A RetrospectiveBy Jean Dubuffet, Margit Rowell, Thomas M. Messer