Robert Fraser Gallery, London
Private Collection, London
Sotheby's, New York, 12 October 1975, Lot 193 (consigned by the above)
Robert Elkon Gallery, New York
Private Collection, London
Christie's, London, 1 December 1994, Lot 31
Stanley Seeger, London (acquired from the above sale)
Sotheby's, New York, The Eye of a Collector - Works from the Collection of Stanley Seeger, 8 May 2001, Lot 60 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Max Loreau, Dubuffet et le Voyage au Centre de la Perception, Paris 1966, p. 49, illustrated
Max Loreau, Catalogue des Travaux de Jean Dubuffet, fasc. XIX: Paris Circus, Lausanne 1969, p. 79, no. 144, illustrated
Renato Barilli, Dubuffet: Le Cycle de l'Hourloupe, Paris 1976, p. 11, no. 9, illustrated
The Paris Circus is the most famous series of Dubuffet’s career, inspired by the frenetic heartbeat of urban commotion that Dubuffet witnessed upon his return to the city after several years spent in the countryside in the small town of Vence. Dubuffet had left Paris despondently in 1955, when the city was still gripped by a melancholic post-war mood and traumatised in the aftermath of Nazi occupation. Upon his return in 1961, he found the capital a totally different place. Optimism and cosmopolitan bustle had replaced the gloom that formerly had prevailed. The new vibrant atmosphere proved intoxicating for Dubuffet and had an immediate and explosive effect on his work. The subsequent Paris Circus pictures are some of the most vivacious and engaging of his production, humming with movement and brimming with dynamism and impact. Such is the saturation of their colour palette and the impact of their crowded compositions that the works seem to shimmer and pulsate with unbridled energy. They emit a sense of absolute metropolitan optimism entirely in contrast to Dubuffet’s works of the preceding years. In the artist’s own words: “The principle thing about [my paintings of this year] is that they are in complete contrast to those of the Texturology and Materiology series that I did previously. They are in every way the opposite… In reaction against this absenteeist tendency, my paintings of this year put into play in all respects a very different intervention. The presence in them of the painter now is constant, even exaggerated. They are full of personages, and this time their role is played with spirit” (Jean Dubuffet, ‘Statement on Paintings of 1961’ cited in: Peter Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, New York 1962, p. 165).
Cortège was executed on the 8th of September 1961, during the height of the Paris Circus period. Articulated in vivid colour and frantic brushwork, this painting conveys a sense of the thronging urban mass. We are presented with a group of four figures, linked in a foreshortened circle and defined by individual strokes of red, green, yellow, and blue. They are shown in such a blur of colour that, in many instances, their bodies – indistinguishable and inseparable from one another – seem to merge and overlap. In this regard, Cortège should be viewed as a precurser to the Légendes series, which includes the aforementioned La Gigue Irlandais – one of the last coherent groups created during Dubuffet’s Paris Circus period. They are characterised by their kaleidoscopic mode of depiction consisting entirely of patchwork fields of colour. The effect is that of a homogenous all-over composition, with different figurative elements seeming to emerge and recede out of a field of diaphanous colour. Cortège occupies an important position within Dubuffet’s wider oeuvre – executed in the midst of his most important series, but also completed with one eye looking forward to those important artistic endeavours that were still to come.
This painting also plays a significant role within the wider history of twentieth-century art. Dubuffet was notoriously resolute in his rejection of academic art-historical precedent. He was a founder of the Art Brut movement and purposefully steered his sphere of influence towards the art of children or the mentally ill, rather than the accepted Parisian salons of preceding decades. However, this is not to say that he worked in a vacuum. Indeed, the very composition of this work, with the figures appearing linked and foreshortened in an elliptical ring, seems steeped in art historical redolence. We can recall Matisse’s Dance (I), or even Nicolas Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time held in the Wallace Collection in London. Cortège also merits comparison with Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, painted in 1907 and now housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York: both works utilise a warped mode of depiction where foreground is indistinguishable from background, while the influence of African and Oceanic cultural objects upon Picasso’s painting chimes with Dubuffet’s reliance on ‘outsider’ art forms. In the depictive style of the present work, Dubuffet also appears to have looked to his more immediate painterly peers. In the flashes of bright hot colours, in the thickness of the brushwork, and in the feverish immediacy of the composition, we can detect the influence of the American Abstract Expressionists, particularly Willem de Kooning and Sam Francis, who created a similarly irregular honeycomb of individually coloured cells in his work. Dubuffet had lived in New York between 1951 and 1952, and would return there the year after the present work’s creation for a MoMA retrospective. His ties to the city and its avant-garde artists were particularly strong at this stage in his career and the fruits of the relationships he held are manifest in Cortège.
Translating the verve and hubbub of 1960s Paris, Cortège conveys the joy that Dubuffet felt upon his return to the metropolis. It can be held up as a milestone within this artist’s paradigm-shifting oeuvre, adroitly explicating the fluency and fluidity of his painterly style. Through its interpretation, we can further understand not only Dubuffet’s dedication to the fundaments of Art Brut, but also the manner in which he incorporated and absorbed influence from his American counterparts. Cortège embodies the imaginative and playful spirit of Dubuffet’s Paris Circus. In his own words: “Art should always make us laugh and frighten us a little, but never bore us” (Jean Dubuffet, Propsctus aux amateurs de tout genre, Paris 1946, p. 43).
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