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 Jean Dubuffet  (1901 - 1985)

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Lived/Active: France      Known for: mod painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Like Gauguin, Dubuffet started out as an unlikely candidate to be anything at all in the art world.   He was born in Le Havre, France in 1901;  his father was a prosperous Le Havre wine merchant.  Dubuffet tried painting for a while, then gave it up in disgust because he decided he was only imitating his Paris friends, Suzanne Valadon, Raoul Dufy and Fernand Leger. 

He went back to selling wine, got "a wife, furniture, a maid, a brother-in-law, a car, kids."  One day before World War II he started to paint again.  His wife left him, and the brother-in-law, too.  For the next few years, he worked the  back streets of Paris, painting little bistros and corset shops, jazz combos, and a host of men and women in the misery of routine.  In 1944 he got his first Paris show.   

His work took on a special excitement. His philosophy amounted to a sweeping rejection of Europe's cherished art traditions,  He became the leader of the Art Brut (raw art) movement, which proposed that the only art worthwhile was spontaneous and that those who are the most spontaneous are savages, lunatics and children.  Dubuffet collected the works of mental patients and  children  to such a large and interesting extent that these works are housed in their own museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.  In his own work, he used as his point of departure childrens' scrawls and the art of the insane.  He was convinced that "art has much to do with madness".   

The required view of Dubuffet is that of the artist as noble savage.  Agitated by a kind of cosmic giggle, his large energy and abundant talent have conspired to demonstrate that comedy and objectivity can be synonymous.  He made the accepted concept of beauty appear banal, and ugliness seem beautiful and powerful, even magical.  All graffiti artists are in his debt, whether they know it or not.  He often used mixed media such as asphalt, pebbles and glass to enrich his paintings' surface.   

In the early 1960s after the close of his Paris Circus period, Debuffet invented yet another period, entitled Hourloupe.  It was described by a nervous meandering line, a web, into which the human comedy was trapped for scrutiny.  He died in 1985.   

Written and compiled by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and reearcher from Laguna Woods, California.

Sources include:   
Time Magazine, April 22, 1966   
John MacGregor in Art and Antiques   
Arnold Glimcher in Architectural Digest   
John Ashbery in Newsweek Magazine, May 27, 1985   
From the internet, Electric Library (2)


Biography from RoGallery.com:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Jean Dubuffet was born in 1901 in Le Havre. In 1918 he went to Paris where he gave up his course in painting at the Académie Julian after six months and started working on his own.  He knew the painters Dufy and Leger and both had some influence on his otherwise 'self-taught' approach to art. By 1924 he had given up painting entirely and instead concentrated on running a wine business. In 1933 he started painting again, producing mainly puppets and masks, but in 1937 this creativity ended once again.  It was only in 1942 that he finally devoted himself to painting and to the direction that he has continued since. [Written prior to Dubuffet's death in 1985]

Dubuffet's return to painting was accompanied by a passion for primitive and naive art forms, as well as for paintings made by the psychologically disturbed. By 1945 he had started to collect so called 'ugly art' or Art Brut, and in 1948 he founded a society to promote this type of work. He also wrote some important statements, criticizing the cultural aims of post-Renaissance Western art, in the place of which he advocated the more spontaneous, non-verbal, and spiritually potent qualities of primitive cultural expression. This resulted in a totemic approach to image making which soon revealed itself in his first exhibition, where city life and images of men and women were presented with an aggressively simple and childish vigor. These paintings looked more like graffiti covered walls or tribal emblems than conventional oil paint.

The driving force behind these early works was Dubuffet's entirely novel and extraordinary painting technique. He combined almost any element with the paint surface, including cement, tar, gravel, leaves, silver foil, dust and even butterfly wings. In defence of this technique he stated that 'art should be born from the materials and, spiritually, should borrow its language from it. Each material has its own language so there is no need to make it serve a language.' Such an approach has drawn him into the field of sculpture, using materials gathered at first from beside Parisian railway lines; by the 1970s he was creating enormous architectural environments in concrete.

In 1945 Dubuffet painted one of his first portraits, a drawing of Jean Paulhan, who later introduced the artist to the group of writers and intellectuals that frequently met at the house of Florence Gould. She persuaded him to make another portrait, of the writer Paul L'Eautaud. This developed into a series and eventually into the third of Dubuffet's major exhibitions entitled Plus beaux qu'ils croient (portraits) (Better looking than they think). Dhotel nuancé d'abricot was one of this group. Andre Dhotel is its subject.

The portraits are named after the sitters, whose most curious features have been deliberately emphasized by the artist. They combine caricature, imagery and some factual elements. Dubuffet explained that for a portrait to go well: 'it must be scarcely a portrait at all. It is then that it starts to function at full strength!

Dubuffet's technique in Dhotel nuancé d'abricot can be reconstructed from a studio log book kept by him at the time. Laying the stretched canvas on the floor, he covered its entire surface with a thick, sticky pate of light colored oil paint applied with a spatula, like icing a cake. While it was still wet he took handfuls of ashes and sprinkled them over the whole area to darken the paint. Over this he dropped sand and then coal dust which would all, to a certain extent, sink into the surface. At this point some color was put on in the form of a thin 'apricot' mixture of yellow ochre, white and crimson brushed over the surface broadly. Some pure crimson was also put on, and is still visible through parts of the black crust.

The surface was now prepared to be totally covered with thick black paint troweled across with a palette knife, possibly with the addition of more ashes and dust. There was still no trace of the image at this stage - it would have looked instead like a plain smoke-blackened wall. With a broad spatula Dubuffet then carefully rubbed the materials into the surface and put the canvas on an easel to let any excess fall off.

It was only at this stage that the head was painted in with a cream white on a palette knife. Then, using a blunt point, he incised the contours of the head through this rich sandwich of paint and material, so that sometimes the canvas texture was revealed, as, for instance, on the side of the face to the left of the chin. The lines of the hair and the rest of the features were also drawn in with this instrument, sometimes lightly, as on the chin and spectacles, or deeply, as in the neck and shoulders, breaking through to the first thick impasto. A very thin mixture of 'apricot' paint and turpentine was then brushed over the face so that it ran into the gutters made by the ploughed lines, and stained the face with a warm glaze. Some of the original light paint of the face which was outside these boundaries was then blacked over. Finally, using a fine lettering brush the lines were enhanced with the addition of crimson, yellow ochre, black and white, in particular drawn into the trenches of the teeth, hair, nose and bow tie. These colors were used in a broader way in the earlier preparation of the surface, and thus the head and background appear unified visually.

The title of the work is, as usual with Dubuffet, an important final contribution. The result, in the case of Dhotel nuancé d'abricot, creates a humorous tension between what the viewer anticipated by the rather poetic description and what is actually confronted in the finished work with its primitive, earthy textures and skull-like gaze.

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, A-D):
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Jean Dubuffet developed his long career through the exploration of so-called “primitive” modes of expression and the rejection of conventional beauty. Raised in Le Havre, France, he studied art briefly at the Académie Julian, where he met Suzanne Valadon, Raoul Dufy, and Fernand Léger, among others. He gave up art to work in business in 1924 and lived in Argentina and France. Dubuffet returned to painting full-time in 1942; he would eventually base himself in Paris and in Vence, in the south of France.

He developed many series and stylistic approaches to his work, which he organized, documented, and exhibited with great care. This methodical approach to his prolific output belies the art itself. Dubuffet soundly renounced what he considered the conformity and orthodoxy of the Western canon and contemporary approaches to art. Instead, he embraced the opposite. Dubuffet found inspiration in a variety of idioms of “outsider” art: graffiti, children’s art, non-Western art, and art made by institutionalized mental patients (he collected art of the mentally ill). He sought out examples of Art Brut--a term he coined--and made three extended trips to the Sahara in his quest of authentic, creative expression, unspoiled by overbred contemporary society.

The art Dubuffet created featured deliberately clumsy, disorienting approaches to his subjects, as in "Joë Bousquet in Bed" (1947, Museum of Modern Art). Successive styles challenged traditional approaches to art in different ways. For instance, his "Corps des dames" series of 1950 subverts the archetypal signifier of beauty--the female nude--in thickly obese figures painted with slashing brushstrokes. And the "Paysages du mental" of slightly later in the 1950s, for instance, renders the oil medium viscous and unsettling by encrusting it with glass, sand or tar.

In the early 1960s, Dubuffet developed his series known as "L’Hourloupe," a graphically powerful group defined by sinuous dark outlines and red, blue, and white interiors. Later in the decade, he combined this basic style with media including polyester and epoxy, resulting in a shift toward a lighter aesthetic, which he employed in his "Coucou Bazar," an “animated painting” performance of costumed dancers and elaborate sets. Also in the late 1960s, the artist began working on his architectural constructions, which led to commissions for large-scale sculptures such as "Group of Four Trees" (1972, Chase Manhattan Plaza, New York) and the "Jardin d’hiver" (1969-70) at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Dubuffet had his first solo show in 1947 at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. The first of numerous museum exhibitions was held at the Schloss Morsbroich in Leverkeusen, Germany. He would go on to show at museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Tate, London; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Dubuffet published a manifesto in 1951 and a book, "Asphyxiante culture," in 1968. He died in Paris in 1985.

© Copyright 2010 Hollis Taggart Galleries

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