The three works by Jean Dubuffet offered at Sotheby’s London Contemporary Art Evening sale on 28 June are not just a joy to behold, they also offer magnificent insight into the critical early years of the artist’s career. Given their wildly differing painterly techniques and the variety of treatment of their subjects, these three striking portraits speak volumes about Dubuffet’s perpetual reinvention of his art practice and his resolutely uninhibited approach to visual expression. A testament to the beginnings of Dubuffet’s lifelong preoccupation with portraiture, these works also illustrate his first steps in the conceptualization of Art Brut. A precious three works in a revolutionary personal art history, visible at one glance, this enchanting trio has recently emerged from the esteemed private collection where they have remained for decades.


The earliest work, Personnage au Bicorne, was painted just one year after the artist left the family wine business to pursue a career in art. In 1943, Dubuffet was seeking to capture Parisian life and show his disregard for traditional portraiture and conventional painterly values. The result is a painting where striations of vivid green, field of peachy orange and lines of cool blue come together to magnificent chromatic effect. Here is a Parisian, whose figure is painted close to the viewer, pressed to the background, cropped and distorted – just like it often appears in art made by children or the mentally ill. The bicorne hat is not to be taken as an homage to Napoleon, with whom it is commonly associated, nor as an expression of patriotism under Nazi occupation: It is just a bold Parisian statement, as bold as this figure’s representational force.


The transgressive spirit and nihilistic aesthetic on display in Ménage en Gris, Outremer et Carmine, one of the most enthralling paintings in Dubuffet’s early career, demonstrates just how much new ground the artist had been breaking in just two years. Set on a contrasting background of intricately layered brushwork, with densely painted zones of deep purple, searing orange and brilliant fuschia, the two rigid figures with simplified anatomies fill the entire composition and look straight at the viewer. Anonymous, prosaic and direct, they are purposefully depersonalized and neither beautiful nor ugly.


Fast forward fourteen years, and the body is abandoned. In Barbe Lumière des Aveuglés, from 1959, Dubuffet’s portrait lets the beard nearly dominate the man. It takes on its own mysterious identity, to the point of becoming the very essence of being. Yet this is still a portrait, as no beard looks like any other – just as no man looks like any other. As part of Dubuffet’s rare series of Barbes, this example is made all the more desirable for being one of the first oil paintings in this series and one of the most technically accomplished. With its impressive scale and intricate execution – a frenetic flurry of brushstrokes covering its entire surface where tendrils of black paint snake across its snowy ground – this work bursts with Dubuffet’s creative energy and his never-ending empathy for mankind.

 The Contemporary Art Evening Auction is in London on 28 June


28 June 2016 | London