- Jean Dubuffet
- Personnage au Bicorne
- signed and dated XI 43
- oil on canvas
- 73 by 60 cm. 28 3/4 by 23 5/8 in.
World House Galleries, New York
Palais Galliera, Paris, 21 June 1966, Lot 220
Frank Perls, Beverly Hills
Donald Morris Gallery, Detroit
Galerie Maeght, New York
Christie's, New York, 13 May 1980, Lot 79
Waddington Galleries, London
Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above in 1982)
Thence by descent to the present owner
New York, World House Galleries, J. Dubuffet, October - November 1960, n.p., no. 1, illustrated in colour
Detroit, Donald Morris Gallery, Dubuffet: Paintings, Drawings, Gouaches, 1946-1966, March 1974, n.p., no. 1, illustrated
Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Dubuffet, March - June 1993, p. 29, no. 5, illustrated in colour
Neuss, Langen Foundation; Munich, Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung; and Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Museum Lothar Fischer, Jean Dubuffet: ein Leben im Laufschritt, February 2009 - January 2010, p. 8, no. 1, illustrated in colour
Max Loreau, Catalogue des Travaux de Jean Dubuffet, fasc. I: Marionettes de la Ville et de la Campagne, Paris 1966, p. 112, no. 205, illustrated
Hugo Schmale, Marianne Schuller and Günther Ortmann, Wissen/Nichtwissen, Munich 2009, illustrated in colour on the front cover
It would be easy to ascribe a mood of patriotic vitriol to the present work; to say that, through such prominent inclusion of the bicorn hat, the artist was making deferential reference to Napoléon Bonaparte, of whom that sartorial detail is such an immediately redolent motif. 1943 would have been a particularly poignant moment to make such an artistic statement, as Dubuffet’s beloved Paris was still quashed under the horrific spell of Nazi occupation. However, such a grandiose message of historic significance seems directly at odds with the central tenets of Dubuffet’s oeuvre. He was most interested in capturing Parisian daily life in a simple yet beautiful way. His art was an homage to the every man: “It is the man in the street that I’m after, whom I’m closest to, with whom I want to make friends and enter into confidence and conviviance, and he is the one I want to please and enchant by means of my work” (Jean Dubuffet, Prospectus aux amateurs de tout genre, Paris 1946, p. 17).
Moreover, this painting seems stylistically opposed to a traditional history painting or portrait of a notable public figure. Across the entirety of the composition, Dubuffet rejects a noble mode of depiction and shows utter disregard for those conventional painterly values of three-dimensional perspective, volumetric illusion, foreshortening, and modelling. His figure is distorted, cropped and close, pressed up against the background which itself has devolved into a swirling field of bright green. The holistic effect of the work is much more redolent of a child’s painting than grandiose nationalistic propaganda; not in the sense of any particular inaccuracy or inability, but rather in the manner in which it finds solutions to representational challenges that completely circumvent traditional artistic techniques.
However, even more than from children’s art, Jean Dubuffet took influence from the art of the mentally ill. He had discovered this little-known tranche of production as early as 1923, in Dr Hans Prinzhorn’s seminal tome on the topic – Bildnerei der Geisteskranken. Prinzhorn contended that artworks executed by asylum inmates were worthy of serious aesthetic consideration; that they manifested a universal creative urge which had been stifled by cultural inhibitions and sensibilities. His writings were instrumental for Dubuffet, and in the years surrounding the present work’s execution, he invented the now famous collective term for an ideology of outsider-art: Art Brut. Comprising not only the art of the insane, but also the work of children, prisoners, primitive art, and graffiti, Art Brut championed an approach to art marking untrammelled by convention. As wonderfully announced by the present work, the raw expression and a non-hierarchical attitude to subject matter embodied by Art Brut, was the perfect foil for Jean Dubuffet’s own desire to capture the mores and tropes of daily life. In this manner, Dubuffet’s praxis served as inspiration to countless artists: in the present work, the swirling background certainly leads us to think of Cy Twombly’s painterly style, while the bold figure, executed with bravura representational force, exemplifies the manner in which this artist served as one of the principle precedents for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paradigm shifting oeuvre.