Andreas Franzke, Dubuffet, New York 1981, p. 56
With its raw and textured surface, Jean Dubuffet’s Les Alentours de Saint-Souris (The Environs of Saint-Souris), 1949, immerses the viewer in a transcendent, almost prehistoric realm of primitively etched figures and forms. Thickly rendered in oil paint on burlap, the painting portrays a bustling scene in the small French town of Saint-Souris, in La Palme: five delineated figures appear against a flattened landscape setting replete with cobbled streets, village shops, trees, earth and sky; above them, a single bird soars through the air. The work comes from the French artist’s celebrated series of Paysages Grotesques, which he begun in 1949 after embarking upon the last of a succession of three influential expeditions to the Sahara desert. Following in the tradition of artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Henri Matisse and Eugène Fromentin, Dubuffet left France for Algeria in search of artistic inspiration. Here, he became captivated by the scorching North African sunlight, the vast expanse of sandy deserts, and the vibrant culture and nomadic nature of the Algerian tribespeople. Seeking to capture the essence of his invigorating experiences in paint, Dubuffet began to carve, scratch and scrape his canvases, often filling them with unconventional materials such as sand, tar or gravel, and accentuating their inherent two-dimensionality through employing a linear syntax composed of reductive and simplified forms. Esoteric and visceral, the resulting compositions are instilled with a universal and timeless allure that recalls the primality of ancient cave paintings. As Dubuffet would later reflect, “Perhaps it was the time I spent in the deserts of White Africa that sharpened my taste... for the little, the almost nothing, and especially, in my art, for the landscapes where one finds only the formless” (Jean Dubuffet cited in: Mildred Glimcher, Jean Dubuffet: Towards An Alternative Reality, New York 1987, p. 9).
Dubuffet was deeply affected by the shifting and transmutable lifestyle of the nomadic tribes he encountered in Algeria. He admired the ephemeral quality of their existence which differed so greatly to the conventions and constraints of Western civilisation. In June 1948, enthused by their unfettered and ritualistic way of life, Dubuffet established La Compagnie de l’art brut in Paris, alongside his contemporaries Jean Paulhan, André Breton, Charles Ratton, Michel Tapié, and Henri-Pierre Roché. With Dubuffet at the helm, the artists of the Art Brut movement strove to break with the staid traditions of the past by embracing an unrefined and wholly instinctual pictorial language. As Dubuffet explained in a letter to Jacques Berne after his first trip to Algeria, “we came back from there absolutely cleansed of all the intoxications, really refreshed and renewed, as well as enriched in the ways of savoir-vivre” (Jean Dubuffet cited in: Hubert Damisch, Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, Vol. 2, Paris 1995, pp. 247-48). Influenced by Hans Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill, Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut, meaning ‘raw’ or ‘outsider’ art, to classify a mode of creation that functioned outside the aesthetic norm, and celebrated instead the quotidian and the commonplace. In physically carving into the paintwork in Les Alentours de Saint-Souris, Dubuffet imbues his painting with a tactile sense of the organic world, heightening his poetic quest for an untutored and liberated art form.
The present work has been signed, dated, and dedicated, in the upper right hand corner, 'à Joë Bousquet'. A friend of the artist, Bousquet was a prolific twentieth-century poet whose oeuvre is often associated with the Surrealist movement. Born in 1897 in Narbonne, France, Bousquet spent his childhood holidays in La Palme, where the present work is set. After being wounded in battle during World War I, the poet was left paralysed and remained bedridden until his premature death in 1950 – just one year after Les Alentours de Saint-Souris was painted. Indeed, Dubuffet had portrayed him in his incapacitated state in an earlier painting from 1947 entitled Joë Bousquet in Bed. During these difficult years, Bousquet found a powerful form of solace and escapism in his writing, in which reality and imagination became seductively entwined. Dubuffet was greatly inspired by his extensive body of poetry and prose, and the present work, which was housed in Bousquet’s personal collection in France, is a touching tribute to the artist’s friend and muse.
The land and the earth hold great symbolic significance for Dubuffet. In his paintings, figures and landscape frequently undergo a process of metamorphosis as they appear to diffuse into one another: “Portraits and landscapes should resemble each other because they are more or less the same thing,” he stated of his artistic process in 1947; “I want portraits in which description makes use of the same mechanisms as those used in a landscape – here wrinkles, there ravines or paths; here a nose, there a tree; here a mouth and there a house” (Jean Dubuffet cited in: Exh. Cat., Riehen/Basel, Foundation Beyeler, Jean Dubuffet: Metamorphoses of Landscape, 2016, p. 13). Indeed, in the present work, people and place enigmatically converge: the statuesque figures with mask-like heads reach the height of the tree tops; leaves and branches morph into cobblestones and street signs; space and depth unite as one in a majestic celebration of the perfect flatness of the picture plane.
Dubuffet became fascinated by the innate characteristics of sand during his voyage to the desert, and the present work seems to embody, in both texture and palette, its powdery tactility. He recorded how the footsteps of men, women, children and animals would be imprinted into the sand’s malleable surface, only to disperse and disappear over time, in a potent mirroring of the very cycle of life itself. “They are not preserved for a long time,” he wrote; “they are erased by other footprints, equally radiant, from other feet. All the soil of the oasis so trodden and stepped on, full of marks and signs, is like an immense notebook of drafts, of improvisations… in which one lives, submerges, dissolves, and sinks” (Jean Dubuffet cited in: Exh. Cat., Madrid, La Fundación “la Caixa”, Jean Dubuffet: Del paisaje físico al paisaje mental, 1992, p. 82). With its sandy physicality and dreamlike forms, Les Alentours de Saint-Souris beautifully encapsulates Dubuffet’s existential contemplations.
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