Jean Dubuffet | Grand Nu Charbonneux

‘Nothing seems to be more false, more stupid, than the way students in an art class are placed in front of a completely nude woman… and stare at her for hours’ [1]

There is little romance to Jean Dubuffet’s large smoky nude, although she certainly has charm. She stands at 158 cm. tall, which was about the average height of a French woman in 1944 – and this is where the artist’s interest in verisimilitude begins and ends. Like an inspired child, Dubuffet presents us with a woman of impossible proportions: her oval head is jerked into full profile; the features of her face loom so large that her left eyebrow almost touches the crown of her skull; and her spindly neck flows without shoulders into a torso that sprouts two slinky arms, flowering into jazz hands.

Circular shapes structure her body along the rectangular support: a single, all-seeing eye at the top, a pair of concentric circles for breasts below, and then a loop around her stomach, a slitted ring of a vagina, and two horizontally bisected kneecaps. Her curves give her the quality of an ancient fertility goddess, while her primitive rendering might reflect the zeal for the prehistoric after the discovery in September 1940 of the Palaeolithic paintings in the Lascaux caves. Her mouth is open and it’s hard to tell whether she is offering a coy smile or a gesture of receptivity towards those on the other side of the canvas, who gaze – perhaps admiringly, perhaps aghast – at her glorious, crude, naked body.

Jean Dubuffet, Grand Paysage Noir, 1946. Image © Tate Modern, London. Art © 2022 Fondation Dubuffet, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There are hints of a childish sense of humour at work within the picture: look at the rusty colour that Dubuffet has daubed onto her slick of hair, which matches the tufts around her pubis and under her arms. Her feet are flexed, as if she is playing at standing on tiptoes. Or perhaps we should imagine that her outstretched feet are being seen from above? This confusion in perspectives is typical of children’s art and was a quality that Dubuffet consciously cultivated during this period. He used the technique in his irreverent approach to other art historical genres too, such as landscape: Grand Paysage noir (1946), with its signature high horizon line, could be read as a cross section or an aerial view, the thick black paint looking like nothing so much as fresh, steaming tarmac.

As Hal Foster has explored in his recent book Brutal Aesthetics (2020), the reigning authority on children’s art in France at the time was the philosopher Georges-Henri Luquet, who argued that the distorted proportions of a child’s artwork reflect the fact that they draw not what they see but what they know.[2] Dubuffet studied examples of their work in the hope of finding a way to capture a more vivid impression of lived experience: he wrote of 1943 ‘I was now questioning every single value, and artistic creation no longer seemed to require these skills that I had spent so much time acquiring in the past… I was interested in children’s drawings. For the first time, I gave myself complete “carte blanche” to paint freely and quickly’.[3] Although he soon moved away from children’s drawings in favour of other sources of inspiration, he would be committed to their spirit for a lifetime, declaring in his famous lecture on ‘Anticultural Positions’ at the Arts Club of Chicago on 20 December 1951, that he aimed for ‘a very direct and very sincere expression of our real life and our real moods’.[4]

Dubuffet was 41 when in 1942 he decided to hand over his wine business so that he could devote himself wholeheartedly to being an artist – hardly an enfant terrible. And yet he aspired to a kind of innocence; to create a picture untainted by tradition or fashion. When he coined the phrase ‘Art Brut’ (literally meaning ‘raw art’) to describe the work he so admired which was made by self-taught artists, he was interested in the idea that a child, or someone incarcerated or living in isolation or in psychiatric care, might be free from the terrible restrictions imposed by our cultural conditioning. They were free to make work that caused him to see ‘sparks fly’, especially in comparison to the ‘impenetrable, vitamin-lacking’ art admired in intellectual circles at the time.[5]

So if the Grand nu charbonneux offends our twenty-first-century sensibilities – aesthetic, feminist, or otherwise – then that was always Dubuffet’s intention, to break with the past. Here is a painting that does away with the niceties of a young woman posing seductively for an artist’s staged scandal, à la Manet’s Olympia (1863); here is a nude attacking the politesse of easel painting. When Dubuffet exhibited the work in his first solo show at Galerie René Drouin on the place Vendôme, his friend Jean Paulhan wrote in the accompanying catalogue that the exhibition was ‘not at all a ministry, nor a theorem, but a sort of rejoicing, something like a public celebration, a big farce’.[6] In fact, the public were not quite so entertained and a hostile group of 50 protesters gathered at the gallery.[7]

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. Image © Musée d’Orsay, Paris / Bridgeman Images.

The shock of Dubuffet’s depiction of women only intensified with his ‘Corps de Dames’ series, begun in April 1950, which sprang directly from his experiment with Grand nu charbonneux. In a catalogue essay for the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, the artist described his pain-staking methods, how he had created a thick paste of zinc oxide and viscous varnish to create ‘textures calling to mind human flesh (sometimes perhaps going beyond the point of decency)’ which were then brushed with sensual colours to suggest the ‘invisible world of fluids circulating’ in bodies.[8] The result was female forms that seem to have collapsed into an amorphous landscape of muscle and tissue.

How could viewers not recoil from the violence of this imagery, in which women’s bodies appear to have been steamrollered or spatchcocked? The timing heightened the sensitivity: Charles de Gaulle had only just granted women the right to vote in France in 1944, and that year had seen instances of women accused of having sexual relations with Nazi soldiers, which was known as ‘horizontal collaboration,’ being dragged into the streets and subjected to the humiliation of public head-shaving. Dubuffet was clear that his assault was not against women per se, but against the Western tradition of the female nude, which he found ‘miserable and most depressing’.[9] And yet it is hard not to associate his animosity with the terrible fallout from the Occupation and the Second World War – especially when considering that in the French language and imagination La France is always female.

Jean Dubuffet, Corps de dame paysagé sanguine et grenat, 1950. Private collection. © 2022 Fondation Dubuffet, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Indeed, toward the end of his life, on 3 August 1980, Dubuffet acknowledged in an unpublished letter to the curator Andreas Franzke that ‘you are right to assert that [in my work] the people in many cases… are treated like places, in the manner of landscape – as if they themselves were made of what they see and what occupies their thoughts’.[10] His approach to the female nude may have been an attack on ‘a very specious notion of beauty (inherited from the Greeks and cultivated by the magazine covers)’ but it was so much more besides – an attempt to break with the stale conventions of painting, yes, but more importantly, a reflection of his desire to capture how a person might be coloured by their context and the invisible threads of continuity that exist between the two.[11]

‘It pleased me’ he explained in his ‘Painter’s Notes’ in 1953, ‘to juxtapose brutally in these female bodies the very general and the very particular, the very subjective and the very objective, the metaphysical and the grotesquely trivial. According to my way of feeling, one becomes considerably reinforced by the presence of the other’.[12]

If we apply this thinking to his earlier Grand nu charbonneux, we might see how seriousness and levity are counterpoised in the image – which rests on a knife-edge between wisdom and naivety, vulgarity and charm. As if we are being told: humans must never deign to think themselves loftier than the mere matter of which they are made.

In the catalogue for Dubuffet’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1962, the curator Peter Selz considered how Grand nu charbonneux, ‘with its clumsy, awkward stance, its gesture of exclamatory display, its cruel but loving outline … is one of the strongest and boldest nudes in modern painting’.[13] Writing in the same catalogue, Dubuffet offered up his secret to achieving such a powerful effect: ‘the beauty of an object depends on how we look at it and not at all on its proper proportions… People have seen that I intend to sweep away everything we have been taught to consider – without question – as grace and beauty; but have overlooked my work to substitute another and vaster beauty, touching all objects and beings.’[14] And so this large smoky nude continues to cast her spell.

[1] Jean Dubuffet in Peter Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York, 1962), p. 97.

[2] See Hal Foster, Brutal Aesthetics (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2020), pp. 27-37.

[3] Chronology in Eleanor Nairne, Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London (London, 2021), p. 254.

[4] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Anticultural Positions’, notes for a lecture given in English at the Arts Club of Chicago on 20 December 1951, in Jean Dubuffet: Anticultural Positions exh. cat., Acquavella Galleries, New York (New York, 2016), p. 30.

[5] Jean Dubuffet, ‘L’Art brut préféré aux arts culturels’ [Art Brut Preferred to the Cultural Arts], pamphlet published on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name at Galerie René Drouin, Paris, 1949, n.p.

[6] Jean Paulhan, ‘Lèttre à Jean Dubuffet par Jean Paulhan’ [Letter to Jean Dubuffet from Jean Paulhan], in Exposition de tableaux et dessins de Jean Dubuffet [Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Jean Dubuffet], exh. cat., Galerie René Drouin, Paris (Paris, 1949), n.p.

[7] Jean Dubuffet, letter to Jean Paulhan, [1 November 1944], in Jean Dubuffet and Jean Paulhan, Correspondance, 1944-1968 [Correspondence, 1944-1968], ed. Julien Dieudonné and Marianne Jakobi (Paris: Galimard, 2003), p. 141.

[8] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Corps de dames’ [Ladies’ Bodies], in ‘Notes du peintre’ [Painter’s Notes], published as an appendix in Georges Limbour, Tableau bon levain à vous de cuire la pâte: l’art brut de Jean Dubuffet [A Well-Leavened Picture for You to Bake the Dough: the Art Brut of Jean Dubuffet] (Paris: René Drouin, 1953), reprinted in Prospectus et tous écrits suivants [Prespectus and All Subsequent Writings], vol. 2, p. 74.

[9] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Landscaped Tables, Landscapes of the Mind, Stones of Philosophy’, in Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, p. 64. Dubuffet originally wrote the text in English with the help of the artist Marcel Duchamp, for the eponymous exhibition catalogue at Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 12 February – 1 March 1952.

[10] Jean Dubuffet, in Raphaël Bouvier, ed, Jean Dubuffet: Metamorphoses of Landscapes exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel (Basel, 2016), p. 21.

[11] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Landscaped Tables’, p. 64.

[12] Jean Dubuffet, Notes du peintre, in Georges Limbour, L’art brut de Jean Dubuffet, p. 62.

[13] Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, p. 19.

[14] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Landscaped Tables’, p. 64.

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