Barbu Hirsute holds a decisive place of authority within the influential early series of Mirobolus, Macadam et Cie paintings. Forty-eight paintings from the series were first exhibited in May 1946 at Dubuffet’s second major exhibition at the Galerie René Drouin, where they stirred enormous controversy for their brutish compositions and crude application of materials; yet managed to sell out within days. Incensed critics like René Huyghe compared the paintings to Alfred Jarry and his riotously shocking 1896 play Ubu Roi, unquestionably drawing parallels between their wildly Dadaist sensibilities. The provocative originality of Dubuffet’s Barbu Hirsute is embodied by his conviction that identity is only fully revealed at the limits of definition: “In order for a portrait to work for me, I need it to be hardly a portrait. At the limit where it is no longer a portrait. It’s there that it functions with its greatest force" (Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Jean Dubuffet 1943-1963, 1993, p. 29). Dubuffet’s preoccupation with materiality is tangible in the intensely pebbled surface of Barbu Hirsute, creating a compellingly expressive figure that continues to challenge artistic boundaries seven decades after its creation.
The naïvely rendered figure’s toothy grin, anatomically disproportionate head and textured twine head of hair, eyebrows, and beard epitomize the genesis of the artist’s signature graphic vernacular. Dubuffet’s preoccupation with quotidian life in Paris, and his commitment to capturing the uplifting resolve of the human spirit in the aftermath of the war, is perhaps nowhere more eloquently expressed than in the present work. For Dubuffet, “Man’s need for art is absolutely primordial, as strong as, perhaps stronger than, our need for bread. Without bread, we die of hunger, but without art we die of boredom” (Jean Dubuffet, Prospectus aux amateurs de tout genre, Paris 1946, p. 36). Bearing a richly textured surface defined by a heavily impastoed and variegated application, Barbu Hirsute is exemplary of Dubuffet’s most revolutionary interventions into the traditional application of oil paint. In 1945, after attending a show of Jean Fautrier’s work in Paris, Dubuffet resolved to transform his personal style. Deeply moved by the purity and directness of Fautrier’s thick, textural abstract works, Dubuffet was inspired to create works emulating this quality of sincerity of expression.
Instigated to experiment with the materiality of his medium, Dubuffet began mixing pastes formed by various conglomerates of asphalt, lead and mud fortified with cement, plaster, varnish, and other liquid glues. Dubuffet believed that conventional techniques inspired conventional imagery whereas unaccustomed non-art instruments, supports, and media stimulate the mind to unprecedented adventures. Unique to this period of Dubuffet’s work, the subject’s toothy grin and fashionable bowtie are brutishly carved into the heterogeneous paste of oil paint, sand and rocks using a tool such as a spoon, knife, or even Dubuffet’s own fingers. Through this handling of materials Dubuffet creates an immediacy and directness between the figure and viewer, bringing to life his belief that, “Art should always make us laugh and frighten us a little, but never bore us” (Jean Dubuffet, Prospectus aux amateurs de tout genre, Paris, 1946, p. 43). Here, Dubuffet probes the modern human condition through the rawest of emotion, depicting a humble, optimistic representation of solitude beneath the clouds of war. The thickly worked surface oscillates between the surreal exuberance of the figure’s expression and the somber background, which possesses a textural tactility evocative of the scratched and eroding city walls of the urban landscape that fascinated the artist. In this sense, Barbu Hirsute embodies a critical transition in the artist’s career following the brightly colored Marionnettes of 1943 and 1944, which directly prefacing the darker earth tones of this coarsely worked Hautes Pâtes of 1946.
Operating under the condition that gesture defines identity, the present work reveals Dubuffet’s method of categorical oversimplification, closely intertwined with the larger goal of depersonalizing the individuality of his muse to focus instead on common features shared by all men—as found in the overt, trivial details that relate one person to another. 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. The juxtaposition against the dark background allows the crudely drawn figure, lacking geometric perspective, to stand out allowing the texture of the figure to become as important as the outline itself. Dubuffet abandons traditions of three-dimensional perspective, volumetric illusion, and prescribed color relationships for a more elementary, direct presentation of two-dimensional space. His crudely drawn head and body reflect a childlike sense of wonder and naïveté that characterized the artist’s best work. The Museum of Modern Art curator Peter Selz noted: “These figures of 1945 to 1946 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)” (Peter Selz, “Jean Dubuffet: The Earlier Work,” in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Jean Dubuffet, 1962, p. 30). The present example solidified Dubuffet’s place as the great ‘matiériologue’ of the 20th Century.
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