JEAN Dubuffet felt “pleased to see life in trouble.” One can’t help but think he would revel in the state we find ourselves in today. Over the course of last year, universally we have all been swept up in a wave of doubt. Everywhere we turn we question our media, our leaders, our police forces and even our scientists.
While we’re all wrapped up in controversy, there seems to be no better time for the Barbican, an institution that has always celebrated the underdog in the arts world, to showcase , Dubuffet’s first major exhibition in the UK since 1966, yet another revolutionary era.
Dubuffet’s challenging of authority is a theme that runs throughout his entire life. Born in 1901 in Le Havre, Dubuffet left for Paris aged 17 in order to study at the Académie Julian, but he decided to drop out after six months, choosing to explore his own studies instead in ethnography, philosophy and literature, before going on to work for his father’s wine business, and then setting up his own.
In 1937 he narrowly escaped bankruptcy by smuggling wine across the demarcation line during WW2. It was only aged 41 that Dubuffet decided to entirely devote his life to art, deeply appreciating Art Brut, aka Raw Art — imagery that is created by unconventional artists from tattooists, to the incarcerated, to children, to graffitists, to those in psychiatric care, Dubuffet was bewitched by them all, “there are as many realities as we want there to be.”
Dubuffet kicked off his 40 year career in art with an exhibition in Paris at the René Droain gallery in 1947 where he overturned traditional depiction of portraiture, choosing to focus on his sitters characters rather than their physical appearance. Each portrait appears pompous, sickly and cartoonish, for he believes that “painting is a technique for acquiring knowledge, a way of seeing that is superior to mere sight.”
Going against the grain of course invites criticism, a predominant part of Dubuffet’s career which the Barbican doesn’t fall shy of —firstly for his anti-semitic rantings and secondly for his uncomfortable portrayal of women in his 1950s series.
Here women’s bodies balloon and blossom across the canvas in a phantasmagorical palette with exaggerated genitalia. Dubuffet defended his series, believing that his is a far more honest approach compared to the “more false, more stupid, than the way students in an art class are placed in front of a completely nude woman … and stare at her for hours.”
Just as his interpretations felt radical, so too did his technique, mixing quick dry enamel with oil paint à la the Abstract Expressionists, or using burnt out car materials in Little Statues of Precarious Life, 1954.
He further experimented in 1955 with his use of butterfly wings in Garden with Melitea, it was also during this period that he transcended the humble labourers toolbox consisting of sandpaper, glue, string, razor blades and shards of glass to the more high brow realms of art, for he chooses to “aim for art that is directly plugged in our current life.”
Today’s current life is littered with #fakenews, a topic Dubuffet explored early on throughout WW2, graffitiing over newspaper with the secret codes of resistance fighters, again elevating a medium that was once disapproved of, “precious meaning than most … large pretentious paintings.”
Pretentiousness he did not do, but large scale he most certainly did, peaking in the last decade of his life when from 1971-73 he created 175 objects and costumes which he hoped to “not look like a theatrical production properly speaking but like a painting.”
Indeed they were used for performance, firstly for the Coucou Bazaar at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and again at the Grand Palais in 1978 in Paris, living up to his hopes that “art should always make you laugh a little and fear a little. Anything but bore.”
Having been intermittently shut for a year, the Barbican unlocks it’s doors and unleashes the rebellious spirit that is Jean Dubuffet, reminding us that we can find our voice through art, for “painting is a far richer language than words.”
by Charlie Newman
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