Mysterious hat clad men loiter, march and trudge across a richly painted gouache riotous with the colors of the Parisian street. Demarcated in dense compositional grids, these characters capture the essence of throbbing Paris, its energetic street fair, its dark underbelly and its cosmopolitan character. Windows frame a series of figures perched high above, overseeing this new-found circus of activity. Street numbers shout out in nonsensically random order as Dubuffet loses the viewer in his maze-like, fly-by tour of Paris. Ominous and at times absurd poetic aphorisms compete for our attention creating a metaphorical map that philosophically charts Paris’s newfound identity. This is the story of Paris and its bewildering revolution caught afresh by an artist returning from a self-imposed exile.
Returning from the remote rural life of southern village of Vence in 1961 after a 6 year spell away from the city, Dubuffet encountered a city transformed from the melancholic mood of the post-war period. The lingering trauma of the early 1950s had transformed into a flourishing of hope. The development of the Marshall Plan and the rise of the Fifth Republic in 1958 with the government of Charles de Gaulle brought France and Paris unrivaled economic growth that would become known as the Trente Glorieuses (Thirty Glorious Years). Paris experienced a total renovation nearly as radical as the transformation of Dubuffet’s canvases. Referring to the sober and earthy works of his Vence period, Max Loreau, the leading Dubuffet scholar, exclaimed at the time of this restored joie de vivre: “Jean Dubuffet has shed his ground-worshipper tunic. The period of austerity is over. His ‘matériologue’ side sleeps; make way for the playful and theatrical Janus, the dancer and shouter.” (Max Loreau, Catalogue des travaux, Fascicule XIX, Paris-Circus, Paris 1965, p. 7) As Dubuffet stated, “The principle thing about [my paintings from this period] 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. 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) He goes on to write elsewhere, “in the paintings I now plan to do there will only be aggressively unreasonable forms, colors gaudy without reason, a theater of irrealities, an outrageous attempt against everything existing, the way wide open for the most outlandish inventions.” (Dubuffet cited in A. Frankze, Dubuffet, New York, 1981, p. 147)
The extent to which Dubuffet saw these works as approaching abstract conceptions of the city and its atmosphere should also be infused with an understanding of the darkness that belies the works' visual optimism. For all the city’s renewed vigor and Dubuffet’s celebration of it, the Paris Circus works and in particular Rue Saint-Lazare (La Gratouille) recall Guy Debord’s iconic statement that the “spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained total occupation of social life.” (Guy Debord, “The Society of the Spectacle,” Paris 1967, online) Phrases now ring out for their insidious undertones: le mals tiu (lout), l’indesirable (the undesirable), la grattouille (the itchy). The bold red that cloaks the background of the present work refers as much to the energy of the city as it does to the neighboring red light district, close to Rue Saint-Lazare. On Dubuffet’s return, the city’s underbelly beat as strongly as its daily trade. The maison close, Paris’s famous opium brothels, roared with trade. In the densely woven anonymity of the city, the viewer is left uncertain as to the profession of Dubuffet’s secretive characters. Butchers, bakers or vagrants, Rue Saint-Lazare (La Gratouille) is a celebration of all the pleasures 1960s Paris offered.
Finding commonality with the Pop explosion that took hold of New York and centered on the consumerism of a rapidly industrialised America, Dubuffet returned to Paris electrified by its transformation. New wave cinema, a sexual revolution and economic prosperity created a city that poured itself onto his canvases in a kaleidoscopic assault of the senses. Reminiscent of the nineteenth century flâneur, Dubuffet sauntered through the very streets he depicted caught up in the throng of passersby, himself both the observer and observed. He is in there somewhere, lurking around a street corner, or behind the arch of a door. This is a self-portrait of Paris painted by one its greatest Parisians.
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