W hen the Second World War broke out in 1939, Jean Dubuffet was a struggling, wine merchant in his late-thirties. Three years later, he quit his business to devote himself to art and shortly after Paris’s liberation, in 1944, he had his first solo show at the René Drouin gallery on the fashionable Place Vendôme.
Even at the start of his artistic career, Dubuffet had a very clear idea about the sort of work he wished to make. As announced in a 1945 text he wrote called Notes for the Well-Read, “the artist’s mind, his moods and his impressions [should] be offered raw… just as you eat a herring without cooking it, right after pulling it from the sea, when it’s still dripping”.
Dubuffet felt that western culture was derivative and clichéd, with artists of all kinds (not just visual ones but musicians and poets too) paying too much heed to their forebears and peers. There’s a story that, when Dubuffet was visiting New York in the early 1950s, Jackson Pollock gave him one of his paintings as an act of friendship. The Frenchman graciously accepted but passed it immediately on to a journalist-acquaintance, for fear that the work might subconsciously influence his own. Dubuffet was determined to stay original – or, as he put it, raw.
In the 1950s, he redefined two of the most established genres in all of art: the female nude (with his so-called “Ladies’ Bodies” series) and the landscape. It’s the latter that’s our focus here – a number of examples of which can be seen in the retrospective, Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty, currently on at the Barbican in London.
By the mid-20th Century, the glory days of French landscape painting – the days of the Barbizon School, the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists – were long gone. It had now become the preserve largely of part-time painters, who “scattered legions of easels through France’s woods and countryside,” as the art teacher André Lhote put it.
Dubuffet’s landscapes were a wholly new proposition. For one thing, they didn’t depict a particular place. They weren’t “descriptive of external sites”, he said, “but of facts which inhabit the painter’s mind” – a part of the body filled with “a disorder of images, of beginnings of images, of fading images [that] cross and mingle”. In other words, these are mental topographies more than physical ones. That’s not to say, though, that Dubuffet’s landscapes resemble nothing at all.
Their flat, nebulous expanses have been compared by some critics to the desert terrains of North Africa, which Dubuffet visited on repeated trips in the late 1940s; and by other critics to the cities reduced to rubble by bomb damage in the Second World War. Many have also cited the soil that the artist felt beneath his feet, after he moved from Paris to rural Vence (in southern France) in the mid-1950s.
And then there are works – such as Pommettes Rouges (1958), which is being offered in the Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s in London on June 29 – more suggestive of the Milky Way or a snow-covered field. It’s worth stressing that Dubuffet offered nothing so traditional as a vista that disappears into the distance. The viewer doesn’t look into his landscapes, so much as look at them, and the figures placed in centre-frame.
Dubuffet’s work in the genre falls into a sequence of interconnected series – including one named “Texturologies”, with which Pommettes Rouges is generally associated.
The typical Texturologies painting is mostly monochromatic, delicately built up in speckly paint and a planar abstract composition, which can seem boundless (and, dare one say it, Pollock-esque). What sets Pommettes Rouges apart is the way it features four red-cheeked figures in the landscape. It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to see the smiles on their faces as suggesting humanity and nature at one.
The eminent 20th century critic, Clement Greenberg, called Dubuffet “the only painter of real importance to have appeared in Paris after World War II”. And as the Barbican exhibition makes clear, he was an artist always on the look-out for new paths and possibilities. It’s sometimes said that major art works either help establish or help abolish a particular genre, movement or style. What to make of the pieces in Texturologies, then, which – in the case of landscape painting – do both at the same time?
Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty 17 May - 22 August 2021, is proudly sponsored by Sotheby's.