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Jean Dubuffet in the rough

Jean Dubuffet in the rough

A new exhibition of his drawings in Los Angeles shows how he developed the crude, vulgar style for which he is known – and celebrated

A new exhibition of his drawings in Los Angeles shows how he developed the crude, vulgar style for which he is known – and celebrated

Jonathan Griffin | February 10th 2017

Drawings are always better than paintings, Jean Dubuffet once wrote, because in order to arrive at a good one, you make 50 that you discard. To do that with paintings would take weeks or months. It is this speed and immediacy that makes drawing superior.

The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles has just opened an exhibition of approximately 100 drawings by the French artist. These works were made between 1935 and 1962, the formative period of his career which culminated in a triumphant retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Drawing” is understood here in its broadest sense, and is informally defined as a preparatory study – usually done on paper, in wet or dry media – for the larger paintings and sculptures for which Dubuffet is best known. In Dubuffet’s case, however, the term stretches to include the cut-up ink-drawing technique that the artist developed in the 1950s, which was akin to collage and which influenced many later paintings.

In his choice of subject matter, Dubuffet was, by and large, traditional: he depicted figures and landscapes, portraits of friends and patrons, street scenes and places he visited on his travels. In his technique and aesthetic, however, he was radical. His pictures are deliberately crude, vulgar and debased. It was primarily in his drawings that he experimented with new ways of applying paint and ink, and where he developed the style that, by the 1960s, was instantly recognisable. 

Today, that style is often described as “deskilling”. Though Dubuffet was a technically gifted draughtsman, in the 1940s he began searching for ways to make marks that were as fresh and unaffected as traces made “with a knife on a lump of butter or in the dust with the heel of a shoe.” He was influenced first by folk art and children’s drawings, by graffiti and, later, by the art of the mentally ill, which he collected and promoted as art brut, a term he coined meaning “art in the raw”. 

He aspired to the authenticity (a quality he prized above all others) of those artists who were working outside of the modernist avant-garde, who perhaps never considered themselves artists at all. Even at his rawest, Dubuffet is subtle and exacting, possessing an unvarnished virtuosity that is never more apparent than in his works on paper.

 

“Lili devant la fenêtre” (Lili by the Window) (1935)

Dubuffet’s career as an artist started late. After training at the école des Beaux Arts in Le Havre, Normandy, he fell into the family wine business. He continued to dabble in art, however. In the mid-1930s he hit upon the improbable scheme of making a living by producing papier-mâché dolls and masks. This gouache portrait of his future wife, Lili, was based on one such doll. Though its style is more realist than almost anything that followed, the figure’s peculiar frontal pose, with arms held out as if falling backwards, is recognisable in many of Dubuffet’s later portraits. However when he assembled his catalogue raisonné, the earliest works he included were from 1942. Most earlier pieces he destroyed. Perhaps because of its sentimental importance, “Lili devant la fenêtre” is one of the few that survives. 

 

“Jazz” (1943)

At the age of 40, Dubuffet decided to quit the wine business and devote himself entirely to art. The first body of drawings and paintings that he made in this period were influenced not by folk art, which he found “too indebted to the art of the museums”, but by the art of children. “Jazz” was painted on April 12th 1943 from sketches Dubuffet had made the previous night at the Hot Club de France in Paris. Though the picture is observational, he has stylised the musicians’ faces and painted their bodies and instruments in rudimentary, black-outlined shapes. The exhibition’s curators have been able to track down the listing for the concert, which was billed as “Eclats de Cuivre” – “bursts of brass”.

 

“Mouches au visage” (Flies On the Face) (1948)

Between 1947 and 1949 Dubuffet escaped the cold winters of post-war Paris in north Africa. From Algeria he travelled into the Sahara desert, where he made studies on paper of Bedouins, palm trees and camels, intending to work them up into paintings on his return to Paris. In this sketch on paper done in cheap children’s paints, we see around the figure’s eyes and mouth the ever-present flies that, Dubuffet complained in a letter, “make it difficult to do anything that requires both hands at the same time.”

 

“Liaisons et raisons (paysage avec personnages)” (Ties and Whys – Landscape with Figures) (1952)

After Dubuffet travelled to Switzerland in 1945 with his friend, the writer Jean Paulhan, to view art made by those in mental institutions, he became increasingly preoccupied with their work, which he called art brut. Modern European artists had been drawn to such work since 1922, when Hans Prinzhorn, a German psychiatrist, published “Artistry of the Mentally Ill”. The first attempt to evaluate art by schizophrenics for its aesthetic qualities, it stirred interest in so-called “primitive” forms, including children’s art and tribal art. The field was particularly appealing to Surrealists such as André Breton who were interested in the free play of the subconscious. This pen drawing – clearly influenced by art brut – is part of a series from 1952 titled “Radiant Lands”, in which Dubuffet let himself fall into a kind of trance while working, accessing what he called “the landscape of the mind.”

 

“Portrait de Jean Paulhan” (1955) 

Dubuffet was an obsessive collector, demonstrated not only by his extensive trove of folk art and art brut, but also by works like this, which use masses of butterfly wings. The story goes that while he was sketching in the Alps, he became frustrated while trying to capture the effect of running water on rocks. His friend, Pierre Bettencourt, was passing the time by catching butterflies, and Dubuffet used the poor creatures’ wings to make a collage. He felt they evoked rippling water better than he could manage with his brush or pen. He often insisted that an artist could make art anywhere, with anything.

 

“Porteur de pain” (Bread Carrier) (1955) 

In winter, when butterfly wings were unavailable, Dubuffet developed what became for him an important technique: making collages from pieces of paper on which he had made various impressions and textures. (Dubuffet always used the term “assemblage” rather than collage, because, he reasoned, the pieces of paper were not found material, as in conventional collage, but made by his own hand.) These effects would range from ink spatters and drips to inked-up objects such as leaves and bits of thread onto which he would press fresh sheets of paper. In “Porteur de Pain” we see small clusters of clover leaves; Dubuffet would cut around areas he liked and arrange the pieces into an image. The resulting impression of chaos, and the control that underpins it, is characteristic of all Dubuffet’s work.

Dubuffet Drawings, 1935-1962 Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, until April 30th

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