Conceptually, the Théâtres de mémoire series refers to Frances Yates’s book The Art of Memory, published in 1966; Yates’s book explores the ways in which memories were formed, stored and retrieved in an age before the printing press. According to Yates, the development of memory rests on the two fundamental concepts of place and image. A critical example Yates utilizes is Giulio Camillo’s ‘Theatre of Memory,’ a sixteenth-century project that attempted to map the patterns and systems of memory in a physical space and later informed the title of Dubuffet’s series. Considered a groundbreaking contribution to the discourse of human knowledge, The Art of Memory served as a valuable source for Dubuffet, who visually translated Yates’s ideas into the remarkable group of large-scale works he executed between 1975 and 1980. Following several highly prolific years, the artist found his studio strewn with hundreds of works he had neglected to catalogue or store; from the jumbled layers of drawings and paintings creating random juxtapositions of figure and ground, Dubuffet was inspired to conflate the various images into original works using the technique of assemblage. Dubuffet first cut out shapes of figures from the strata of works on his studio floor; he then outlined different arrangements of these disparate parts by affixing them to his wall with magnets or pins. By situating existing images from current works in an entirely new configuration, Dubuffet illustrated Yates’s core tenets of how place and image solidify memory in a pictorial space. Of this ambitious series, Dubuffet remarks: “These assemblages have mixtures of sites and scenes, which are the constituent parts of a moment of viewing. Viewing by the mind, let us say, if not the immediate viewing by the eyes. …The mind totalizes; it recapitulates all fields; it makes them dance together. It shuffles them, exchanges them, everything is astir…There is a great loss in what the eyes have caught when the mind gets hold of things. There is also a great addition; for the mind has quickly transfigured, substituting its own images for the ones it receives, mingling its own secretions with what the eyes send it.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Pace Gallery, Jean Dubuffet: Théâtres de mémoire, March – April 1977, n. p.)
La quête de l’ouest features six distinctly cut out drawings of individual figures that have been executed on paper and subsequently laid onto a painted canvas in a layered collage. Each figure is enclosed in a discrete white background, complicating the figure-ground relationship of these cut-outs and the painted canvas onto which they have been pasted. Although flattened along the same picture plane, they exist in distinctly separate physical and mental spaces, as they do not overlay or interact with one another. Unlike traditional Western paintings that focus the viewer using single-point perspective, La quête de l’ouest presents a barrage of imagery that recedes in and out of figuration and abstraction. Dubuffet elaborates on his rejection of an academic artistic tradition, the repudiation of which is sharply evident in the present work: “A work of art is only of interest, in my opinion, when it is an immediate and direct projection of what is happening in the depths of a person’s being. I feel that our classical art is derivative…It is my belief that only in this Art Brut can we find the natural and normal processes of artistic creation in their pure and elementary state.” (The artist cited in Prospectus et tous écrits suivants, Volume 2, Paris, 1967, pp. 203-204) Dubuffet’s signature Art Brut figures, executed in a purposely crude and childish fashion in contrast to a more verisimilar representation of the human body, reside in a frenetic tumult of line and color; complementary shades of lavender and periwinkle intertwine with sumptuous blocks of brick red, sinuous lines of butter yellow, and passages of a brightly varied blue. Two particularly graphic coils of orange and yellow crinkle at the upper right hand corner, an almost vague suggestion to the sun or other celestial body. The majority of the characters face left, or if reading the title quite literally, to the West, perhaps a flippant reference to classical Western painting. Despite the blizzard of discordant energy and seeming lack of organizing principle or schema to the work, La quête de l’ouest is in fact the result of Dubuffet’s painstaking process in which he arranged and rearranged various compositions of his cut outs. The figures presented in this snapshot of Dubuffet’s memory could as easily be different views of the same person, remembered by the artist in a multitude of ways, as it could be six distinct individuals.
La quête de l’ouest perfectly manifests Dubuffet’s focus on the unreliability and volatility of memory and how recollection diverges from initial observation. The present work conflates Dubuffet’s signature ‘Art Brut’ and the modern technique of collage in an arresting psychological landscape. Valérie Da Costa Fabrice Hergott writes: “This lucid body of work, characterized by its light heartedness, gradually reveals an anxious gaze: ‘The aim is to bring together in a single gaze various different moments of the gaze. The result is a mechanism similar to what in music we call polyphony…It seems to me that anyone who wants to communicate an idea of what is happening in his or her mind at any time can only do so by way of a cacophony of dissonant elements.’” (Valérie Da Costa and Fabrice Hergott, Eds., Jean Dubuffet: Works, writings and interviews, Barcelona, 2006, p. 90) The deluge of activity, rich bounty of discordant images and confused spatial organization coalesce in a frenzy of chaotic visual stimulation that vividly exemplifies one of the artist’s last and most profoundly complex series, the Théâtres de mémoire.