In 1955 Dubuffet left Paris, abandoning a war-scarred and melancholy city to take a house in Vence in the South of France. During this period, and exemplified by the Texturologies and Materiologies series, Dubuffet shunned any sense of human presence from his work and turned to nature as the primary source of his investigations. When he returned to the French capital in 1961, there was a change in Dubuffet’s work that marked a completely new departure in contrast to his explorations of the tactile qualities of organic material in the remoteness of rural life in Vence. In a revitalized Paris, Dubuffet found a city completely different to the one he had left; optimism and cosmopolitan bustle had replaced the gloom and despondency that had formerly prevailed under German occupation and in the post-war years. This new vibrant atmosphere was intoxicating for Dubuffet and had an immediate, explosive effect on his work, culminating in the exuberant Paris Circus pictures of 1961-1962. The bustling streets, busy restaurants, window displays, and advertising boards of city life came to dominate his paintings. Where he had celebrated life on a minute scale in the countryside, he now celebrated humanity on a grand scale, transforming its energetic spirit into the subject of his art.
The L’Hourloupe cycle started in the summer of 1962 immediately following the Paris Circus series, and was so rich in invention and creativity that it was Dubuffet’s pre-occupation for the following twelve years. The early paintings of L’Hourloupe, such as Cité Fantoche executed in February 1963, engaged much of the same subject matter as the Paris Circus street scenes, but represented a shift in Dubuffet’s aesthetic dialogue; with increasing simplification, elements and experiences of the real world are eventually transformed into ciphers of the artist’s imagining. The stylistic mode increasingly relies on a linear pattern of structured cells, all presented frontally with no consideration for size or relative distance among the various elements. The later pictures of the Paris Circus also employed less specific references to the Paris locales, paving the way for the transition to the L’Hourloupe in which the focus is ultimately on the individual personnages. The isolated, solitary figures in Cité Fantoche, mark the beginning of this transformation, in which there are no longer any discernable references to shops or buildings. The figures in the paintings are more heavily outlined and the handling of oil pigment has less of the painterliness that is so apparent in the earlier Paris Circus paintings. The figures, as in most of Dubuffet’s oeuvre, have little individual identity, representing the mass of humanity and have little association with traditional notions of classic figurative art.
At the beginning of his career, Dubuffet favored an earthy tonality, but beginning with the Paris Circus, Dubuffet rendered his subjects with a spontaneous, explosive, and broad palette. In the present work we see subtle mutations of blues, reds, and whites against a neutral black ground and it was this basic palette that was to become prevalent in the L’Hourloupe from late 1963 onward. In Cité Fantoche, its simplified palette – with carefully placed and energizing highlights of yellow, pink and orange -- lends the abstractive figuration a clearer contour that elevates the caricature-like figures to an imposing presence within the composition. The agitated line of Cité Fantoche indicates a spontaneity and directness in keeping with the movement of Art Brut that we so commonly associate with Dubuffet. The flattened perspectival plane and the compressed distances are additional compositional devices, all redolent of naïve children's art and most importantly the raw vision of psychotic art that so vitally informed Dubuffet's oeuvre. Categorically opposed to 'cultivated' art taught in schools and museums, Dubuffet denounced the selective character of official culture with such masterworks as Cité Fantoche.
Cité Fantoche broadcasts “not only a gripping visual programme but also the heightened effect of painterly impulses and autonomous values.” (Andreas Franzke cited in Exh. Cat., Salzburg, Museum de Moderne, Jean Dubuffet, 2004, p. 162) The immediate force and vigor of execution in this monumental painting demonstrates Dubuffet's intimate psychological response to the city and its inhabitants that stood before him, which he transmuted into a unique realm inspired by his ultimate appetite for the naïve and unreal. The painting is at the forefront of Dubuffet’s extraordinary challenge to all existing aesthetics, opening the way for the adventurous inventions that populate the remainder of his career. Although still placed within the iconographic context of the Paris Circus, Cité Fantoche and ultimately the L’Hourloupe series is a plunge into fantasy, into a phantom parallel universe or what Dubuffet called the ‘Theatre of the Unreal.
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