For Dubuffet, an artist who lived through both World Wars and their ensuing destruction, peace-time countryside provided a safe haven, a refuge from the distractions and brutality of the city. In 1955 the artist first left Paris for Vence and began to create work that focussed on the textures of naturally occurring phenomena found in the soil and topography of the land. The naïf compositions that began emerging in Dubuffet’s work extended his dialogue with Art Brut and began merging figure and landscape, thus implying a fundamental connection between man and his environment. By 1959, the year of the present work’s execution, the artist's simplicity of media and wholehearted embrace of nature had reached its climax. With a decided move away from the artificial and the urbane, and a heightened sensitivity to the world around him, in 1957 Dubuffet exclaimed: “Look at what lies at your feet! A crack in the ground, sparkling gravel, a tuft of grass, some crushed debris, offer equally worthy subjects for your applause and admiration” (Jean Dubuffet, ‘Empreints’ in: Herschel B. Chipp Ed. Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book for Artists and Critics, Berkeley 1968, p. 611).
The start of Dubuffet's experimentation with unorthodox materials and techniques first began when, following a trip to the Savoie with Pierre Bettencourt in 1953, the artist produced small collages from butterfly wings. This use of organic material in his flat works reached a climax with the Elements Botaniques, compositions entirely comprised of leaf and plant matter, which like the present work, also date from the last phase of Dubuffet’s time in Vence. As a result, L’écraseur des fleurs – which displays a form of figuration entirely absent from the Matériologies and utilises the same collage facture as the Tableaux d’assemblages – should be seen as part of a small series of works that constitute the pinnacle of Dubuffet's interrogation of the natural world and man’s place within it. Even its title, which literally means ‘the crusher of flowers’, is a play on man’s impact on his environment, and provides a springboard for the ensuing Paris Circus paintings in which the artist celebrated his return to the cosmopolitan hubbub of Paris. Indeed, just as the process of collage is at once generative and destructive, the Écraseur is a destroyer of nature who at once revels in, and relies upon, its presence.
The juxtaposition of destruction and creation inherent in the dismemberment and recycling of paintings to create something altogether new appealed to Dubuffet immensely, and provided the foundation for much of his later work. Indeed, assemblage, a term that Dubuffet himself coined to describe his own work as well as that of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, Bruce Conner and Ed Kienholz, is a pithy summation of Dubuffet’s overarching artistic practice, which constantly sought rich and pictorially inventive effects via the chance juxtapositions of his technique.
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