In 1945, after attending a show of Jean Fautrier’s work in Paris, Dubuffet resolved to transform and crystallize his personal style. Deeply moved by the purity and directness of Fautrier’s thick, textural abstract works, Dubuffet sought to emulate the quality of raw honesty as witnessed in Fautrier’s paintings. Instigated to experiment with the materiality of his medium, Dubuffet began mixing pastes formed by various conglomerates of asphalt, tar, lead, and mud fortified with cement, plaster, varnish, and other liquid glues. Like the Dadaists, Dubuffet was fascinated by materials, particularly old, discarded “non-art” matter; yet he transgressed the Dadaists in the way he viewed such materials as a heterogenous mixture forged together into one unified substance. Splendidly evidenced by the present work, one can envision Dubuffet applying his paste to the canvas and then carving into it with a tool such as a spoon, knife, or his own fingers—effectively inscribing his signature into the cement. Here, we see that Dubuffet not only works with his material, but most importantly, in it.
Gesticuleur confirms Dubuffet’s rebellion against predominate artistic expectations and standards. Emblematic of the most shocking and exuberant early portraits, the present work is defined by its crude figuration and anatomical impracticality. Dubuffet fits the body tightly within the frame of the composition, giving the figure an appearance of being compressed and wedged into the picture plane. Such a tactic emphasizes the immediacy of Dubuffet’s approach and his blatant rejection of the sophisticated techniques of perspectival and compositional arrangement, ordinarily held as sacred aspirations for any figurative painter. As Peter Selz observes, “The figures of 1945 are shocking only if approached with preconceived notions of classical beauty. Ugliness and beauty do not exist for Dubuffet as he becomes fascinated with the relation of nature (his material) to man (the emerging image). He loves to make much of the wrinkles, deformations, grimaces of the sitter, but he is by no means concerned with the individuality of the person.” (Peter Selz, “Jean Dubuffet: The Earlier Work,” in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Jean Dubuffet, 1962, p. 30)
Gesticuleur most significantly illustrates the early beginnings of Dubuffet’s foray into the realm of Art Brut, of which he is considered the founding father. Influenced by Hans Brinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill, Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut, meaning “raw art” or “outsider art,” as his classification for a mode of art produced by non-professionals working outside the aesthetic norm. Dubuffet’s portraits took interest in values of the everyday, insignificant, and lowly. Inverting the longstanding aim of portraiture to extract verisimilitude and immortalize the dignified high-class, which he viewed as a pretentious and isolating practice, Dubuffet chose to paint portraits of ordinary Parisians he saw on open the streets or in the metro. Within his series of early portraits, there are generic markers of certain “types” of people, based on occupation, age, gender, and other categories. Dubuffet accompanies his figures with actions or accessories that mimic signs of bourgeois respectability, creating caricatures of women and men broken down into categories such as funny women, threatening women, whore women, tired men, exclamatory men, and other universal, simplified characterizations of the human condition.
Insisting on the raw candor of his figures, Dubuffet eschews the misinterpretation of his portraits having a deeper layer of “psychological insight.” As Selz observes, “One assumes that these are penetrating images of the human psyche because they so often astonish us with wild, uncanny, obscene, or hilarious suggestions of our own states of mind as represented in our appearances. Dubuffet, however, has simply abstracted certain expressions and physiognomical characteristics found commonly enough in the human race and deployed them to display his own vivid sense of irony and amazement when confronted by the human comedy.” (Ibid., p. 31) Emerging from the most defining year in Dubuffet’s career and one of the earliest paintings in his celebrated portrait series, Gesticuleur embodies the imaginative and playful spirit of Dubuffet’s most beloved figures. “Art,” said Dubuffet, “should always make us laugh and frighten us a little, but never bore us.” (the artist in his publication Prospectus aux amateurs de tout genre, Paris, Gallimard, 1946, p. 43)
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