During the difficult post-war years in Europe, meeting the Bedouin people of the Algerian desert, with whom the artist spent considerable amounts of time (and even attempted to learn the language), must have been a welcome escape from life in the city. As recounted by Dubuffet himself: “we came back from there absolutely cleansed of all the intoxications, truly refreshed and renewed, as well as enriched in the ways of savoir-vivre’ (Jean Dubuffet quoted in: Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, Vol. 2, Paris 1995, pp. 247-248). There is a long tradition among French artists of visiting North Africa. It was quite popular in the 19th Century amongst Orientalist painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Eugène Delacroix to visit North Africa in search of new sources of inspiration. In the 20th century, Henri Matisse, influenced by the Islamic Arts he had discovered during his travels to Algeria and Tunisia, liberated his work from the constraints of perspectival depth which had dominated the European arts until then.
The artist’s interest in the Bedouins was more than mere escapism after the war: in many ways, his fascination with non-Western cultures was linked to art brut; an interest in visual cultures that were independent of official dogmas and the art school establishment. Reacting against the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and progress that had dominated western societies, Dubuffet and his contemporaries turned to alternative traditions, such as the drawings of children or the mentally ill. The isolated lifestyle of the Bedouins and their rituals would have appealed to the artist’s visual sensibilities as they were beyond the reach of the mainstream European art-historical tradition.
Dubuffet became fascinated by his new surroundings, and captured its novelty in an exciting body of work. In the present work, two of the most important figures from El Golea, which are recurring motifs throughout the series, are depicted in their desert surroundings: the Bedouin with his bright white dress, and the camel. Portrayed against an imposing sand dune with a distant blue sky, the composition powerfully captures the artist’s stay in the desert, and the alternative it offered to the visual traditions of the West. In its privileging of feeling and colour over any formalist concerns, Palmiers aux Bedouins embodies the spirit of Dubuffet’s post-war oeuvre.
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