- Jean Dubuffet
- Légion Étrangère
- vinyl on canvas mounted on klegecel panel
- 86 x 177 inches
Milly and Arnold Glimcher, New York
The Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in August 1980
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, A Private Vision: Contemporary Art from the Graham Gund Collection, February - April 1982, p. 29, illustrated in color
Cambridge, Hyatt Regency Hotel, November 1983
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Extended Loan, August 1991 - March 1992
Explosive in its sheer vitality and compositional dynamism and forcefully volumetric even in its planar form, Légion Étrangère presents an endlessly mesmerizing web of woven and tangled shapes, which simultaneously beg and inhibit analytic description. Named in honor of the Légion Étrangère, a unique branch of the French military formed for foreign nationals who wished to serve the French Army, the present work adopts the philosophy of its namesake by integrating a compilation of disparate entities into a cohesive and singular configuration. What we in one instance see as a human figure, the very next emerges as a collection of variously composed contours and areas of color such that perspective and all notions of figure-ground division give way to the “flowing, whirling, meandering water” of mental space. (Ibid., pp. 447-48) As such, the present work embodies the crux of Dubuffet’s conceptual project, which he elucidated in his description of the form that he wishes his works to take: “that of an uninterrupted and resolutely uniform meandering script…[which] will thereby dissolve the categories which our mind habitually employs to decipher…the facts and spectacles of the world. Herewith the circulation of the mind from one object to another, from one category to another will be liberated and its mobility greatly increased.” (the artist in a letter to Arnold Glimcher, 1969) Indeed, we cannot help but unshackle our mind from the limits imposed upon it by rational thought and perception when viewing Légion Étrangère, embracing the full genius of Dubuffet’s destabilizing and ultimately electrifying aesthetic project.
The L’Hourloupe cycle, the culmination of Dubuffet’s pictorial ambitions and the series to which Légion Étrangère belongs, was begun in 1962 in the year after the artist returned to Paris from an extended stay in Vence in the South of France, and in the same year as his first United States retrospective exhibition, which began at the Museum of Modern Art in New York before travelling to Chicago and Los Angeles. The series, which occupied Dubuffet for over a decade, represented a marked shift in his dialogue. The recurrent subjects of his life-long activity – the themes of the human figure, landscape, and the mundane object – coalesced in these works, spreading and flowing into one another, contoured by black outlines and populated with a predominance of primary red and blue zones on a white ground. The result is, as maintained by Gaëton Picon, “a true system, a net in which everything is caught, a grille through which everything is seen, in fact an alphabet, letters and punctuation, with which everything is said: a set of preconditions for imaginative perception, within which it is possible to see everything, and outside which it is not possible to see anything.” (Gaëton Picon in Exh. Cat., London, The Waddington Galleries, Jean Dubuffet, 1972, p. 39) Implicit in this evaluation is the notion of utter absorption, visually and psychically, within the painted surface, a sensation that is inescapable when confronting the present work and the essence of Coucou Bazar.
Jean Dubuffet’s prodigious career, like the aesthetic innovations that it espoused, is one of contradictions. At once adamantly opposed to the guiding principles of occidental culture, and fully embraced within his lifetime by the very institutions that championed those theories, Dubuffet carved out a distinctive niche for himself within the confines of art history, effectively working from within to revolutionize modes of aesthetic perception. As early as 1923, nearly twenty years before he began to pursue painting in earnest, the artist read a book on the merits of the art of the mentally ill: Bildnerei der Geisteskranken by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn. Incendiary for its suggestion that art created by asylum inmates was worthy of serious aesthetic consideration, this book was a revelation for Dubuffet, if not the source for many of his future theoretical premises. These theses, first illuminated in the artist’s Anticultural Positions speech of 1951, all corresponded to a rejection of the most basic tenets of occidental culture: namely, the value of categorical thought and the notion of beauty. In defiance of the traditional Hellenic notion of Logos – which prides consciousness of self, logical reasoning, and free will above all – Dubuffet developed his own idea, ironically named Logos, the fundamental nature of which permeates all of his work: all things are relative, equal, and subject to change. Eschewing all notions of categories and hierarchies, Dubuffet rendered the concepts of true and false, beautiful and ugly, real and unreal obsolete, instead allowing for a celebration of his multitudinous forms as inherently separate from cognitive analysis. Thus we are encouraged, even forced, to consider all of our preconceived artistic notions anew when approaching a painting such as Légion Étrangère; as the artist himself stated, “…when one looked at a painting of this kind, one looks at everything around one with a new refreshed eye, and one learns to see the unaccustomed and amusing side of things.” (the artist cited in Prospectus, vol. I, p. 47)