A Deeper Look at Dubuffet
An intro to modern-art maverick, Jean Dubuffet, and one of his most influential early paintings.
Rodia, Basquiat and, of course, Roger Ballen: All iconic contemporary artists inspired by Jean Dubuffet.
Dubuffet was an artist who hated the art world. The father of Art Brut, also known as "raw," or "outsider art," Dubuffet claimed that mainstream culture robbed the pieces on gallery walls of true self-expression. Only when artists consciously eschewed the milieu could they produce real art.
“I want to replace Western art with that of the jungle, the lavatory, the mental institution,” wrote the dissenter.
That he did – abandoning oil paint for dirt, cement and smears similar to fecal matter, Dubuffet’s canvases shocked and incensed.
Born in 1901 in Normandy, the French painter and sculptor didn’t become a successful artist until age 41. As a young man, he studied painting at a private Parisian art school, but rolled his eyes at academia and eventually dropped out.
“He was really into the idea of being an artist and living bohemian,” said Sophie Berrebi, an art historian at the University of Amsterdam, who specializes in Dubuffet’s work. “But he didn’t at all like the teaching. He wanted to be in touch with the working classes and much more lowbrow everyday culture.”
Over the years, Dubuffet traveled to Italy, Argentina and Brazil, cultivating other passions such as the study of music (the bagpipes, accordion and piano, to be exact) and ancient languages. He became a wine trader, following in his bourgeois family’s footsteps.
But in 1942, post-divorce and in the throes of an apparent midlife crisis, Dubuffet got a studio in Paris. A literary editor stopped by one day and, intoxicated with his work, praised Dubuffet’s talent to all he met, precipitating the artist's first solo show in October 1944.
The war was over, but several years of Nazi occupation had taken its toll on Paris, and also on Dubuffet.
“He struggled with the question, ‘What is a human being?’ What is humanity? There was a sense of going back to zero after the destruction of everything,” Berrebi explained.
Dubuffet started exploring the depths of everyday life, both in dreary post-war Paris and the French countryside. In June 1945, he painted the influential Desnudus, an eerie anatomical painting that's both landscape and portrait simultaneously.
The subject, a naked man, lies flat against pitch black, like an alien on a coroner's table. Black eyes bulge, the tiny phallus doesn’t. On another canvas is his cohort, Desnuda, a naked woman with round breasts and curtain-shaped blonde hair.
Long-ranging lines across both bodies suggest veins, but up close they could be building façades, or even a map. “I do not see in what way the face of a man should be a less interesting landscape than any other,” the artist once wrote. “A man, the physical person of a man, is a little world, like any other a country, with its towns and suburbs.”
According to Berrebi, Dubuffet was inspired by the anatomy drawings in old medical atlases. Desnudus and Desnuda provide contrast to classical depictions of Adam and Eve, renouncing “the highbrow tradition of painting the origins of the world, which for him are also the origins of painting," said Berrebi.
"The human body is the highest category of study in art school, so Dubuffet reinvents this in a very provocative way,” said Berrebi, who authored the book Dubuffet and the city: People, Place, and Urban Space. “The work shows man like an onion. You can just peel back layers and reveal the organs, the flesh, the blood.”
Desnudus was criticized as disrespecting mankind: Why couldn’t he do graceful distortions like Picasso?
Many years later, however, Desnudus is hailed as foreshadowing some of Dubuffet’s most renowned works, such as further female “body landscapes” in Corps de Dame, and the doodled l'Hourloupe, the artist’s “longest cycle and most original work,” according to the Dubuffet Foundation.
As a founder of the Art Brut movement, Dubuffet’s “low art” challenged traditional beauty and abstract art. Although his work was dark and abrasive, it cast benevolent notions: Art really does not belong to the elite, and quotidian existence can be filled with more artistic beauty than any exhibition floor. Psychiatric patients, prisoners and children can be just as inspirational. “(Art’s) best moments are when it forgets what its own name is,” he once wrote.
When Dubuffet died in 1983, his prolific 40-year career had produced over 10,000 works which hang today at the MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Tate Modern, among others.
“There are always really annoying people who from the age of 10 have innate artistic genius that just needs to come out. Dubuffet was not that at all,” Berrebi said. “It took him 20 years to figure out how to find his voice and invent himself. To me, that is much more fascinating.”
Take a look at Desnudus here or watch it as described by Roger Ballen below: