Discovering Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty at The Barbican 2021

True art is never where it is expected to be”

When I was at art college- a long time ago admittedly- a friend of mine coined a phrase which still sticks in my mind: ‘That’s the best piece of art I’ve seen all day’. Which he used to describe anything in the world, discovered thanks to a chance encounter, that possessed visual quality. You know the sort of thing. Clashes of pattern and colour that randomly emerge from billboards and walls- made by years of tearing down old posters. Or the contrast of surface textures, such as when a road needs fixing and weathering has created something extraordinary out of it’s fabric. Graffiti too. Either the product of someone’s primordial need to leave a trace or even just the random kind, which seems to appear out of nowhere for some hidden reason. Distinct from any language or received style.

“The things we truly love, which form the basis of our being, we generally never look at”.

Jean Dubuffet looked far and wide for creative inspiration, seeking a way back to the root of what makes art so powerful and emotive- it’s essential, vital characteristics. He wanted to capture the poetry of everyday life, using the materials of everyday life. In fact, few if any artists used such a variety of materials, in so many combinations before. These materials included everything from coal to butterflies’ wings.

Although Dubuffet was a prolific artist, who’s primary forms of expression were in two dimensions, he also created sculpture and even collaborated in making music. In addition, he was an active polemicist and collector of art.

Exhibition l & ‘Art Brut’:

Evidence of all this activity is on show at the current exhibition ‘Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty’, running until the end of August 2021 at The Barbican.

Here we get to see Dubuffet’s art practice in conjunction with examples taken from The Collection l’Art Brut. This is work by artists not usually recognised as such, that Dubuffet collected and championed as examples of his key idea: ‘Art Brut’. A term he coined in 1945 to describe work that possessed a “special quality for personal creation, spontaneity and liberty”.

‘Brut’ in French means ‘raw’, ‘rough’ or ‘uncooked’. Something in its pure form, not reduced or tamed. Some have even suggested ‘dry’, as in Champagne. One quality of ‘Art Brut’ was that it was produced outside of the traditional fine art hierarchies that Dubuffet was so suspicious and critical of throughout his life.

The Barbican has put together an informative an well designed exhibition. The size and scope of which is huge. In addition to presenting a broad selection of Dubuffet’s considerably large body of work, they have contextualised it through a coherent chronological narrative. You’ll need to spend time digesting all the relevant details, but it’s well worth the investment. Because Dubuffet’s story was a fascinating one and his complex character not without flaws.

I have decided not to document everything on show. Firstly, because during their visit, each person will be drawn to certain aspects of the artist’s output, as I was. So this essay can be said on one hand to be a reflection of the work I found most engaging. But in reality, it would have ended up even longer than it already is, if I’d chosen not to be selective. As you will see when you view the exhibition, there’s a lot more to consider about the life and work of Dubuffet. A subject well worth further investigation.

Dubuffet & His Ideas:

Dubuffet was a deep thinker, who hated what he saw as the intellectual appropriation of art. Seeing it instead as a distinct language, functioning on it’s own terms. He also hated tendencies towards Aestheticism:

“Art addresses the mind and not the eyes. That is how it has always been regarded by primitive societies and they are correct. Art is a language of cognition and communication.”

He believed that one day “Art will revert to it’s true function. A far more effective one than arranging shapes and colours for supposed delight for the eyes”.

Even as an established artist, Dubuffet always claimed to be an ‘amateur’ (amateur in the sense of acting out of love or vocation, rather than simply to make a living, as in the term ‘professional’). Yet its worth remembering that although Dubuffet sought for an art beyond the traditions of his own time, beyond the intellect- he didn’t reject the course of modern art entirely. As will hopefully become apparent.

“Painting, a medium more concrete than the written word, is a far richer instrument for communicating and elaborating thought”.

Drawing on Proposition 7 by Wittgenstein, in a talk at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1951, the logical consequences of Dubuffet’s thinking are revealed. Because we use language to name things and ultimately to know things. He posits the idea that, if we get rid of such language, what then are we left with to make sense of the world? The answer of course must be art. Art unencumbered by anything else, as it’s own language. A means of direct expression.

The truly revolutionary implications of such a concept ask us to consider what ‘art in it’s purest form’ could actually be like (if indeed a ‘pure’ form of art is possible). Might it be like the Surrealist definition of ‘The Unconscious’- a wellspring of all creativity? Or perhaps the purest experiences of art approach something like a religious inner transformation? Or even to see the world as children see it, before acquiring the perception of adults.

My feeling is, always has been… that the world must be ruled by strange systems of which we have not the slightest inkling.”

The Exhibition ll:

“I’ve said and I repeat that in my opinion, painting is a far richer language than the language of words.”

‘Brutal Beauty’ demonstrates the extent of Dubuffet’s openness to new thinking and approaches to making art. Incorporating many different kinds of material into his practice, together with his ability to develop and refine new techniques. As critic Michel Tapié eloquently put it, he turned painting “a sort of living matter working it’s perpetual magic”.

The artist’s portraits for example. Exactly what kind of portraits are they? Dubuffet chose to realise his figures in ways that distort their subjects, recalling similar freedoms evident in art outside western traditions- minus the context. Some figures retain the vestiges of human form, with their distended body parts and tiny arms. Robert Hughes’ description of these figures as having “sticks for limbs and blobs for heads’ being pretty close. Whilst others appear to be the by-products of chance accidents that happened during the process of painting.

The gallery ‘Ladies Bodies’ shows paintings and drawings (in ink) created at the turn of the 50s. According to Dubuffet, he wanted to protest at the “specious notion of beauty” which he felt was “Inherited from the Greeks and cultivated by the magazine covers”. These female figures have become fleshy amorphous forms that in certain cases, look like they are deflated or flattened on the picture surface. The paintings were created using a technique mixing zinc oxide and varnish into a paste, which was then applied to the canvas with a putty knife. This created unexpected effects; such as marbling and according to the artist, suggested the “invisible world of fluid circulating in bodies”. The details of the figures- eyes, arms, mouth, hands etc- are penciled in, as if they were graffiti. Creating a graphic clash between the pencil marks and paint. A shorthand reminiscent of graffiti. Derived from the Italian graffio or ‘to scratch’, the term seems very appropriate for an artist like Dubuffet. Who did just that- scratching, even clawing into many of his works.

Although I can see why they remain controversial to some people, to me they speak of the fragility of the human mother. Hence a title like ‘The Tree of Fluids’: the source of all life. Indeed, they were likened to ancient symbols of fertility.

Consider the work being created at around this time by Willem De Kooning on the other side of the Atlantic. His ‘Women’ series in particular. Similarly controversial, they also exhibit a freedom to distort the female form.

Dubuffet had encountered Abstract Expressionism in New York and upon his return, was experimenting with quick drying enamel, as well as industrial paint. He saw a ‘”lively compatibility'” when mixing the two: allowing these paints to run, bleed and congeal. Through a sequence of careful layering, Dubuffet worked into each thin layer (before the previous one had completely dried) and having spotted something tangible emerging, encouraged this as part of the process, to dictate the outcome of the painting. Finally he would enhance the image further by varnishing out the background.

Pictures like ‘The Extravagant One’ demonstrate just how adept the artist had become by the mid fifties at manipulating his materials. Fine tuning, working their substance into ever more abstract forms, that in this case- allow me a little subjectivity here- resemble the bust of a figure melting or going through some kind of transformation or torment. Or if you like, eroded away, as if by time and decay. You might even see something that hints cartoon.

In ‘Knight of the Night’, where the artist takes this way of working further towards the abstract, we see something that suggests a silhouette. An absence, where paint has become bruised or rasped flesh- the real focus of this image. One drawn in hand on the hip and a pair of tiny eyes only, to hint that this is a figure at all.

To these eyes at least, in addition to being visually rich and mysterious, these images and their subjects are powerful and present- but not in an obvious way. Dubuffet was somehow able to articulate something deeper, using minimal means and educed out of chance. ‘Blueing Head’ for example, really does evoke, using the most basic elements, something about the nature of human frailty.

Given the time these paintings were made, ‘Precarious Life’ is a pretty apt name for the gallery in which these works are shown. All were created during 1954. In the wake of the Hydrogen Bomb.

If we now consider Dubuffet’s Urban scenes, the faces are painted- drawn or gouged in many cases- with a directness like that of the art of children. That directness was an attempt to express something primal. Pure expression that was seen to be a feature of art by so-called Primitive cultures. In a similar way, the artist has reduced the components of the picture- buses, buidings whatever- down to a simple line or mark, flattened and barely distinct from the background. In a way that made me think of an artist like Alfred Wallace.

I’m not sure how much knowing about Expressionism or certain types of Surrealism effects how you see these startling paintings, but for me, the portraits were the most engaging works of the exhibition.

“Teeming matter, alive and sparkling, could represent a piece of ground….. but also evoke all kinds of indeterminate texture, and even galaxies and Nebulae.”

It’s worth considering that element of chance, together with certain aspects of Romanticism, when looking at Dubuffet’s ‘Texturologies’. Talking to the exhibition guide, I got the sense that this body of work had been the least popular and most baffling to the viewing public.

Stripping every visual element right down-  with a nod to the Abstract Expressionists again- Dubuffet’s configurations of dots on a flat uniform surface are like nothing else in the exhibition. ‘Texturology XXXVII’ from May 1958 has the subtitle ‘(Grave)’ and indeed does resemble the surface of a tombstone.

As with the drawn landscapes in the nearby gallery, both are composed of orderly arrangements of motifs on flat surfaces. But in the Texturologies, they were an exploration of a technique the artist discovered that was used by Tyrolean stonemasons, who would take a branch and load it with paint, which would then be shaken over fresh plaster, which would be allowed to dry. Could this process perhaps be a derivation of ‘Action’ painting on a small scale? If so, the results are more even, yet less visually interesting. But as vehicles for contemplation, they are successful.

Dubuffet’s landscapes of this period include intricately drawn examples like ‘Crystallisation of the Dream’ from 1952. This image, as suggested by the title, might well refer to a microscopic view of the internal structure of a crystal. One could also read it topographically or even as an appropriation of Aboriginal ways of seeing and recording a landscape- especially when considering the ‘Dream’ aspect of the picture’s title. Like other work from this period, the image looks to have been the end result of a process. Other landscapes, such as those he created after experiencing the Sahara, are derived not from a specific subject or location. Instead Dubuffet used his recollections as the basis of works, such as ‘Sun Without Virtue’ from 1952. The artist thought of the mind’s interior as a kind of landscape; again echoing Aboriginal conceptions. Or even Proust’s idea of ‘Involuntary Memory’.

Collage & Graffiti:

All of us were interested in collage…  where we could crash different cultural forms with all their emotional baggage and see what came out of the collisions, what new worlds they suggested.”

Brian Eno on Jon Hassell (2007)

Dubuffet was most versatile and imaginative in his use of collage. Two particular approaches stood out for me on show in ‘Brutal Beauty’. Thinking of the material differences between what is living and dead, he incorporated the wings of butterflies into his collages. Like those displayed in cases, they keep their iridescence. Some have become the building blocks for intimate, colourful landscapes that evoke flowers of a meadow. Others as the source material for strange, menacing portraits.

Aside from the questionable nature of their acquisition, that which had died is resurrected as art. Art depicting something living, that had never lived.

Their abstract qualities look like precursors to the Polaroid work that would be made 30 years later by the artist David Hockney (himself influenced by Dubuffet in his early Pop work). In particular, the flattening of photographic space against the picture plane. As can be seen in the former’s large ‘Pearlblossom Highway 86’.

Later on, Dubuffet would cut up older works and collage them into new ones- a logical development. Matisse had previously achieved great art with his ‘Cut Outs’ and despite being infirm, he was able to compose pictures on a large scale with great precision. Dubuffet’s composite collages resemble symbols or graffiti. I found certain black and white ‘assemblages’- Dubuffet preferred this term apparently- particularly striking graphically. They seem to evoke some unknowable pictographic language.

We see many examples of the artist’s ‘Vicissitudes’. These semi abstract works were derived from collage and have the qualities of graffiti. Although Dubuffet has more evenly distributed the visual information- motifs etc- across the canvas than is often the case with graffiti art, they share a spontaneity and visually dynamic energy.

The influence of graffiti on Dubuffet cannot be overestimated. And neither can Dubuffet’s influence on the subsequent development of graffiti art. I can’t help thinking how important his later work was to the emerging street art and Hip Hop scenes (and continues to be).

The mind recapitulates all fields, it makes them dance together”

Dubuffet began creating his ‘L’Hourloupe images (“a word who’s invention was based on sound”) in about 1962 and he would continue with variations on this series pretty much from then on.

The artist would start with doodles, using a thick black marker pen to produce a number of components. He said that he was prompted to doodle whilst on the phone- as good a place as any I suppose. The doodles collected and arranged, would then be used to construct the basics of an overall composition using collage (there’s film on show at ‘Brutal Beauty’ showing him at work). The artist’s use of marker pen and his distinct, vivid forms and patterns, give these works an almost graphical Cubist quality. All of the pictorial elements are distorted and ambiguous.

These works were hugely important to emerging artists like Basquiat, which is made very clear in this exhibition. And their figurative theatrical offspring, Dubuffet’s sensational 1973 performance ‘Coucou Bazar’ is realised on a grand scale and one of the highlights of the show. The figures, with their Leger like fusion of shapes, patterns and negative spaces are dramtically brought to life. We might not see the actual performance (too fragile to stage now), but we do have the costumes.

Dubuffet called Coucou Bazar a“Living Painting” and it certainly is spectacular to see. The original 175 figures- or ‘theatrical props’- were static, electronically actuated or in some cases, performed by dancers. Grouped together, sometimes they seemed to merge into one tableaux like frieze, set on a stage. But look again and characters emerge, poised like carnival figures. Strangely and deliberately flat, with an intense exaggerated presence. Somewhere between Commedia dell arte and the Threepenny Opera.

‘Coucou Bazar’ contained electronic music by Turkish composer İlhan Mimaroğlu, which Dubuffet had requested be “brutally loud”. I listened to ‘Fragmentation’ the other day and found it an intense and angular piece, which must have added an ominous, serious presence to the performance. Had a Stockhousen element to it I thought. But I’m no expert. A significant aside: both artists were interested in graffiti. The abstract sounds analogous to those of birds, also suggested a sonic equivalence for the gestural creation of graffiti. If you follow me.

Shared Tendencies:

As with any artist, in order to get a clearer picture, we should consider how certain ideas and tendencies shaped Dubuffet’s creative development. As before, I’ve had to be selective in focusing on those that struck me personally, for reasons of space.

In 2011, the Karsten Greve Gallery showed Dubuffet’s work together with that of the Hungarian born photographer Brassaï, observing that they both ‘approach the city as though it were a large prehistoric cave, as spectators of a wild and anarchic society stripped of any kind of aestheticism.’

Sometime between the mid thirties and fifties, Brassaï photographed a series of powerful and enigmatic faces; carved, scraped or hacked into concrete or stone walls as graffiti.

I won’t elaborate on the visual similarities between the two artists on graffiti, as I feel these pretty much established- go take a look yourself. But the Karsten Greve Gallery makes the point, explored early on in ‘Brutal Beauty’, about the significance to both artists of walls. How in both cases, human subjects seem to be depicted in front of walls “like posters, neither more nor less alive than the graffiti they resemble so much, they could be mistaken for it” (Noël Arnaud, 1961).

Dubuffet had encountered Andre Masson when he was a young man and the latter’s influence on his art is unmistakable. Masson’s early ‘Automatic’ drawing and painting would incorporate incongruous and difficult materials from outside the traditional artist’s pallette. He would allow glue to follow it’s own path on the canvas- with only minimal intervention by the artist- until it had laid down the basic structure of an image. To which he then applied sand to give it texture and finished using line and colour. This process, guided by chance and probably under the influence of hallucinogens, made for some startling, metamorphic compositions.

The Collection l’Art Brut:

As his career progressed, Dubuffet started collecting art that he saw manifested tenancies of ‘Art Brut’. Today this work forms the basis for ‘The Collection l’Art Brut’ in Switzerland.

We see a selection of these works, presented as part of ‘Brutal Beauty’ in their own gallery spaces. These are both large and wel lit. Enough to accommodate and adequately showcase all of the art.

Dubuffet gathered together the art practice of many people. We see examples of work by those afflicted with mental illness (early on, he discovered Hans Prinzhorn’s 1922 study ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill’), children, Spiritualists and seekers on the margins of society.

The first thing I noticed was how different the work of each of the artists was. The degree to which they all stood out from one another, and how powerful and accomplished they were.

Although it would be good to discuss each un turn, I will for the sake of space talk briefly about those that stood out for me personally.

Aloïse Corbaz’s vivid drawings are executed in colourful pencil. They depict strange and opulantly dressed female figures, often in erotically charged situations; voluptuous and sometimes attended by military figures. One particularly unusual characteristic is the way each figure is depicted with strange blue voids for eyes. The scenarios she presents are suggestive of the meetings of illicit lovers and one cannot help but spectaulate as to their origins. Perhaps they are based upon Corbaz’s memories of Wilhelmine Germany; where before developing Schizophrenia, she had been a governess.

Corbaz’s preference for bright colours like yellows, oranges and pinks on white paper makes her work highly distinctive. In a style evocative of ancient Indian or Buddhist art. To my eyes, Corbaz’s drawings also had the quality of stained glass.

Although there obviously could have been no direct connection, Corbaz’s imagery has an almost 60s ‘psychedelic’ look. Some of the figures like those by Peter Blake.

Another interesting artist was Gaston Duf. His colourful, flowing and lyrical drawings possess a graphic quality. At times they recall the work of Arshile Gorky or even perhaps Miro. Duf’s art is figurative, but the monster figures he depicted are often distorted to the point of merging into their fluid landscapes. At the time he was being treated for alcoholism and a patient at the Saint-Jean-de-Dieu Psychiatric hospital, Duf had hidden his precious drawings on his psrson. The doctor who discovered them, subsequently provided Duf with drawing materials.

Laurie Pigeon’s striking drawings were the product of her deep Spiritualist faith. Executed in dark blue or black, at first glance they reminded me of Matisse’s nudes. But on closer examination, their undulating and sharply defined linear forms represent ‘abstract figures and messages’. One curious feature about Pigeon’s creative practice was that once she had completed a drawing, it was dated and hidden away from view. Pigeon’s drawings exhibited here I thought were particularly beautiful.

Although artists had for a long time been looking beyond the context of Western ‘high’ art for inspiration, any implication that these artists somehow worked outside of cultural influences, is problematic. After all, nobody works in isolation: we are all products of the societies in which we find ourselves.

The way Dubuffet promoted these people’s work is open to question: was this an act of curation or cultural appropriation? Obviously, something like this wouldn’t happen in the same way today. However, in defence of Dubuffet (and of course The Barbican), all the works we see in ‘Brutal Beauty’ are attributed to the artists who created them and the gallery visitor is provided with ample information about each one (there’s even a leaflet). Also, each work on show is given enough room to be considered on its own terms. Dubuffet’s practice may well have been informed by the art in his collection. But in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with that. Anyway, how many of these artists would have remained in obscurity or their work been lost to history without Dubuffet’s efforts?

In Conclusion:

I’d like to end by returning to the beginning of this essay. To those driven and expansive art school days. Recalling my own first steps towards trying to understand art through practice and just how much I took from the ideas of Jean Dubuffet, without even knowing. Approaches to Collage, Mark making and certainly the mixing of media.

In one critique I remember asking for it, but still insisted on standing my ground. In opposition to most of the class and a lecturer I came to like and respect for his directness and the soundness of his thinking. Grilling me as to why it was necessary to use potash in a picture, I couldn’t really give an answer or attempt to explain. It just seemed the right course to take in the making of this particular work. That I was interested in the results out of sheer curiosity as much as for any aesthetic reasoning. Although according to Lindsay Anderson, one should ‘Never Apologise’, I suspect the lecturer was probably right. It taught me a lesson- artistically speaking- about the delicate balance to be had between the confidence of going with your instincts and how to cultivate one’s critical faculties- without becoming overwhelmed by them.

Dubuffet is an artist whom I found engaging on so many levels; who’s ideas about art are as relevant as ever, thirty five years after his death. On one hand, he shed light on that fundamental contradiction: how can something as enigmatic and intuitive as art flourish in relation to the formal structures of interpretation and power that seek to quantify, define and ultimately exploit it? As Damien Hirst once quippedThere’s art and there’s the Art Market”.

On the other, Dubuffet had the courage to reinvent his practice in ever more fascinating ways. Like all the best artists, he expanded the definition of what can constitute art- in his case, conceptually, contextually and materially. As ‘Brutal Beauty’ makes very clear, Dubuffet was an artist who still manages to surprise and delight us. Making it an exhibition well worthy of viewing.

(c) Gideon Hall 2021

(Please note, all quotations are by Jean Dubuffet, unless otherwise stated).