Jean Dubuffet (French, 1901-1985) Mire G 13 (Bolivar) 1983 Jean Dubuffet (French, 1901-1985) Corps de Dame 1950 Jean Dubuffet (French, 1901-1985) Pinède 1943

Dismissing establishment art, Jean Dubuffet was hailed as an aesthetic pioneer. Alastair Smart enjoys the provocations of the wine merchant who created Art Brut

As the Second World War broke out, Jean Dubuffet was running a struggling wine merchants' business in the neighbourhood of Bercy, on Paris's Right Bank. He was 38 and following a family tradition; both his father and grandfather having been wine merchants before him.

Jean had studied briefly at the Académie Julian and long held aspirations of becoming an artist, but aspirations were what they remained. Real life – in the form of a wife, daughter, and numerous barrels of burgundy – meant painting was just a hobby.

In 1942, however, Dubuffet made a decision that would both change his life and transform Western art: handing over his business to a board of directors and taking up painting full-time. One suspects the move, at least in part, was a cathartic response to the Nazi occupation.
Whatever his reasoning, within two years – just a few weeks after the Liberation of Paris – Dubuffet was having a solo show at René Drouin Gallery, on fashionable Place Vendôme by the Ritz. The public
was so intrigued that the gallery had to employ security guards to control numbers.

Who was this artist who had seemingly appeared from nowhere? And what on earth was he painting? For centuries, from Poussin onwards via Ingres, French civilisation had been predicated on the splendour and continuity of its fine-art tradition – but Dubuffet suddenly seemed intent on ending that.

In his first series, the crudely brushed Métro, he depicted garishly coloured Parisians on underground trains, their figures so simplified and stylised they looked to have come straight from comic books.
"The more banal a thing, the better it suits me," Dubuffet said. "In my paintings, I wish to recover the vision of an average and ordinary man."

From 1946, his preference for the ordinary extended to materials too. For a number of years, Dubuffet adopted a technique known as haute pâte, in which he turned his back on oil paints and used instead a thick ground made from a mixture of sand, gravel, tar, coals, asphalt, cement, pebbles and/or glass. Colour was all but absent, and rudimentary lines were created by incising the surface.

The human figures who populate the haute pâte images recall those in prehistoric cave art, and perhaps that is no coincidence. The Palaeolithic illustrations at Lascaux in southern France had only just been discovered (in 1940), and Dubuffet sought to create art equally as authentic.

In his opinion – set out in Asphyxiating Culture and a host of other texts that he wrote throughout his career – Western culture was "derivative" and "clichéd". He claimed artists were far too observant of their forebears and peers, adding that "a work of art is only of interest when it's a direct projection of what's happening in the depths of a person's being".

It was duly the imagery of children, prisoners, clairvoyants, asylum inmates and other 'outsiders' he championed. Dubuffet called such work Art Brut (which literally translates as art that's raw or uncooked, but is better known in English as Outsider Art). He amassed a vast collection of such pieces. Often, he'd take time out from holidays to drop in on local mental asylums and buy patients' watercolours or drawings that took his fancy.

"Only in Art Brut", he said, "can we find the processes of artistic creation in its pure and elementary state." In 1972, he donated his 5,000 works to Lausanne, where they can still be seen in the Collection de l'Art Brut museum.

Dubuffet's thinking was not entirely original. The longing for a simple society unspoiled by traditional education dated back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. Dubuffet was also influenced by German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn, who, having started a collection of artwork by his patients, in 1923 published a book analysing it, The Artistry of the Mentally Ill.

The Frenchman, however, was the first artist to bring such thinking into the mainstream. Across the Atlantic, in New York, his work was shown by the prestigious Pierre Matisse Gallery; the eminent critic, Clement Greenberg, declared him "the only painter of real importance to have appeared in Paris after World War II"; and his stature was confirmed by retrospectives at both the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1963 and Guggenheim Museum ten years later.

Dubuffet would keep working right up until his death in 1985. Never one for following trodden paths, he was a master of reinvention. He claimed this was a result of keeping a great distance from other artists, insisting he had "zero interest in seeing work shown in galleries and museums". His quest was to stay forever brut. (When Jackson Pollock gave Dubuffet one of his paintings as a present in 1950, the latter passed it immediately to an accompanying journalist, for fear the work might, consciously or subconsciously, influence his own.)

Probably Dubuffet's best-known series is The Hourloupe (1962-1974), which consists of cheerful figures built up from jigsaw-like components. These ranged from small paintings to monumental sculptures – such as that commissioned by David Rockefeller for Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York.

Other major series include his Corps de Dames (1950), in which Dubuffet captured female nudes with anything but conventional beauty; and his dazzling, graffiti-like abstracts, the Mires (1983). Examples from both these series appear alongside a rare, early gouache called La Pinède ('The Pine Forest', 1943) in Bonhams' Post-War & Contemporary sale in June.

There are numerous paradoxes to Dubuffet's career. First of all, the artist utterly debunked the establishment yet he was consistently garlanded by it. Second, Dubuffet hoped to see every museum replaced by "a giant statue of Oblivion", but he is now remembered in the collections of every big museum of 20th-century art worldwide. Then, of course, there's the contradiction of his attempts to follow the tenets of Art Brut, though he was no child, prisoner or asylum patient. How many Outsider Artists have paintings sell for more than $20 million, as he has?

The paradoxes, though, are part of what makes Dubuffet such a figure of fascination. His influence has extended far and wide, most obviously on graffiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, but also in a way – through his argument that, essentially, anything by anyone can be considered art – on all multi-disciplinary artists active today.

Which isn't a bad legacy for a wine merchant from Le Havre, who only took up art in his forties. Perhaps there was a clue to his future 20 years earlier than that, though, when Dubuffet did his military service. He had been given an ostensibly humdrum posting at the meteorological corps in the Eiffel Tower – yet, within weeks, he became the first Frenchman in history to be dismissed from that office, after repeated fall-outs with his superiors. This was someone with no time for officialdom, a self-styled outsider who always did things his way.

Alastair Smart is a freelance art critic and journalist.

Sale: Post-War & Contemporary Art
Wednesday 27 June at 5pm
Enquiries: Giacomo Balsamo +44 (0) 20 7468 5837

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