Kootz Gallery, New York
Arthur Tooth & Sons, London
E. J. Power, London (acquired from the above in January 1958)
Thence by descent to the present owner
London, Tate Gallery, Jean Dubuffet: Paintings, April - May 1966, p. 39, no. 60, illustrated
Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Alberto Giacometti: A Line Through Time, April - August 2016, p. 41, no. 3.10, illustrated in colour
1954 was an important year for Dubuffet. Although he was still living in Paris, his wife was recovering from an illness in a sanatorium in Clermont-Ferrand, in central France. As such, the artist regularly travelled through the French countryside, and allowed the motifs of that environment to bleed into his praxis. As he recalled: “I became preoccupied with country subject - fields, grassy pastures, cattle, carts, and the work of the fields” (Jean Dubuffet, ‘Vaches, Herbe, Frondaisons’: Peter Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, New York 1962, pp. 96-103). He created a series of engaging rural landscapes in this year, as well as the celebrated series of Vaches, from which examples are now held in such prestigious permanent collections as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the National Museum of Japan. L’Homme au Papillon sits alongside these series as perhaps the most resolved and complete example from a group of 32 portraits that Dubuffet created in 1954, three of which are now held in permanent museum collections and the majority of which take characters of the French countryside as their subject matter. We are introduced to Le Planteur - the sower; Le Chevalier de Nuit - the Night Horseman; and L’Homme au Chapeau de Fourrure - the Man in a Fur Hat. In this context, we can discern a strain of self-portraiture in the present work. We imagine Dubuffet depicting himself as one of their number, equipped with an equitable, if alternative role: the butterfly man.
If 1954 was a big year for Dubuffet artistically, then 1955 was equally important in terms of his career development. It was in this year that his relationship with E. J. Power began. Ted Power was perhaps Britain’s most important collector in the post-war period, gifted with an extraordinarily discerning eye and extraordinarily progressive vision. Through his close links with the Tate and the ICA, as well as through his voracious appetite for acquisition, Power lent a significant hand in bringing a number of artistic movements to the UK in the 1950s: he was at once undoubtedly the primary exponent of American Abstract Expressionism in those years before it was fully appreciated in Britain; a champion of New York Pop; and captivated by Jean Dubuffet and the European avant-garde. His significance in the history of British collecting was best adjudged by Nicholas Serota, the former director of the Tate galleries on the occasion of the 1997 Tate exhibition, Brancusi to Beuys: Works from the Ted Power Collection – an extensive survey which honoured Power's legacy: “during the 1950s and 1960s, the main period of his collecting, he was quite simply Britain’s foremost collector of contemporary art” (Nicholas Serota cited in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate, Gallery, Brancusi To Beuys: Works from the Ted Power Collection, 1997, p. 7). Power went on to acquire more than 80 works by Dubuffet in five years, and eventually placed a large quantity of them in prominent museum collections, including three, which are now owned by the Tate. Over the years, the relationship between Power and Dubuffet developed. They became more than mere collector and patron and engaged in lengthy correspondence discussing the nature and relative merits of art and artists. It can be judged that, at the time, Power had one of the most intimate understandings of Dubuffet's output in Britain. Indeed he played a crucial part in the organisation of the artist’s landmark UK retrospective in 1966, an exhibition in which the present work was cast in a starring role.
To observe this work through the lens of the E.J. Power collection is also interesting with regard to its position in art history. This work aptly and succinctly demonstrates the creative dialogue that Dubuffet enjoyed with the Abstract Expressionists, many of whom were also represented in the E.J. Power collection. For example, just as Power owned exceptional works by Jackson Pollock, so too the background of the present work is filled with diagonal flashes of multitudinous colours, dashed in such a dynamic and energetic manner so as to directly recall the action-painting of the American master. Just as Power owned a Willem de Kooning Woman painting of superlative quality, the figure of this work is warped, distorted, and completed in blank white, unmodulated but for the scrapes and gouges that reveal the ground below, in a style that echoes de Kooning’s idiosyncratic aesthetic. We can further discern a parity with Clyfford Still, another artist represented in the Power collection, who created work with a similarly thick and tactile surface quality, replete with peaked impasto and visible brushstrokes. Dubuffet had lived in New York amongst these artists in 1951 and 1952, only two years before the creation of the present work. In style, this painting stands as testimony to his role in the progression of the twentieth-century avant-garde, and shows the mutual influence he enjoyed with his New York counterparts.
L’Homme au Papillon was created during an immensely fruitful time in Dubuffet’s career. In the early part of the decade, he had taken to including found natural objects in his art: not only using tobacco leaves in collages, but also sculpting figurative portraits from sea sponges. In the words of the critic Roberta Smith, “he turned to nature with ferocious and inventive delight… Basically Dubuffet put his nose to the ground and found art everywhere” (Roberta Smith, ‘Art Review: Dubuffet and the Abstraction He Found in Nature’, New York Times, 8 March 1996, online). The most successful of these innovative readymade endeavours were his butterfly wing collages. For these works, Dubuffet used butterfly wings as individual lozenges of variegated colour that could be combined to create kaleidoscopic portraits and landscapes, innately imbued with a strong sense of the bucolic natural world. These works were radical and well-received; to paste butterflies directly onto his canvas was to intentionally blur the lines between abstraction, figuration, imagination, and reality; it was to recall the paradigm-shifting artistry of Marcel Duchamp, and to prefigure the oeuvre of Damien Hirst by almost fifty years.
Dubuffet’s butterfly wing collages were executed in two main bursts of creativity: 11 were created between September and October of 1953, the year before the creation of L’Homme au Papillon, and 19 were made in the summer of 1955. Thus, it is no stretch to presume that the motif was at the very forefront of the artist’s creative consciousness in October 1954, when the present work was created. Once more we are put in mind of the self-portrait: we understand this figure as Dubuffet himself, depicted with distinctive round bald head, trademark wide-brimmed cap, and walking in harmony with the fluttering butterfly; the creature which populated, even formulated, so many of the artist’s most successful works around this time. In L’Homme au Papillon we understand Dubuffet as the innovator of the 1950s European avant-garde, who ransacked the natural world in order to transmute it directly into his art.
However, if Dubuffet was earnest in his engagements with the contemporaneous avant-garde, at home and abroad, he was resolute in his rejection of academic art-historical precedent. Indeed, the present work exemplifies the anti-civilised and ‘primitivist’ cultural project that the artist had pursued since the beginning of the post-war period and earlier. Dubuffet’s commitment to art stripped of affectation had begun when he was given the book Artistry of the Mentally Ill by Dr Hanz Prinzhorn. Prinzhon compared the art of children, primitive cultures, and the mentally ill, asserting that each of them should be granted individual consideration; he was a champion of their respective merits and relished the virtue of their position outside of society’s oppressive aesthetic dogma. Dubuffet was rapidly converted to his point of view. He saw a freedom of expression in those outsider art groups; an unfettered individuality and creative purity that he believed to be stifled in others by the structured and mimetic approach to art in civilised society. The intensely personal and solitary need of the mentally ill to create art dissociated from the desire to communicate with others impressed Dubuffet to such an extent that he became involved in amassing a collection of what he came to term Art Brut, in collaboration with André Breton, as well as Charles Ratton, a leading authority on African and Oceanic art. While Dubuffet acknowledged that his own immersion in society precluded him from ever being able to make true Art Brut, his exposure to outsider art nonetheless strengthened his resolve to work towards the production of art with no precedents whatsoever. The sheer originality of works like L’Homme au Papillon is testament to his success in this endeavour.
This painting also shows that, even if Dubuffet had no intention of taking influence from the annals of art history, he had a significant impact on those practitioners who followed him. The bravura vigour of his portraiture and the fluency of his draughtsmanship were hugely influential upon Jean-Michel Basquiat, while the immense textural solidity of paintings such as the present work can undoubtedly be viewed as antecedent to Anselm Kiefer’s heavily built up canvases. Moreover, in his use of butterfly wings, transliterated onto canvas as a means to splice abstraction and figuration into a single conceptual strand, Dubuffet acted as the direct forerunner to Damien Hirst, whose own butterfly collages did not appear until almost half a century later. L’Homme au Papillon is a truly outstanding work that is amongst the best of Dubuffet’s praxis in provenance, rarity, content, and style. It is an exemplar of Dubuffet’s paradigm-shifting oeuvre and stands as tribute to his perennial impact upon the international avant-garde.
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