Jean Dubuffet LRB July 29, 2021

AlittleIn addition to this, you need to know more about it. weeks ago I ran into a young poet saying the book he was turning to during Covid was by Francis Ponge The Bias of Things. (Siding on the side of things, the translation of the title in the old Faber Selected poems, is intelligent, capturing as he does Ponge’s blend of sweetness and misanthropy.) One of the most awarded objects in the Jean Dubuffet exhibition at the Barbican, Brutal beauty (until August 22), is a pen and ink drawing by Ponge, bald, with a flat nose, smiling from ear to ear, waiting for the best of his portrait painter. It is 1947, and the artist and the model unite against existentialist gloom. “People are much more beautiful than they think”, said the Dubuffet’s poster. Portraits show that October. ‘Long Live Their True Figurine.’

Dubuffet, like Ponge, was essentially an actor. Look at his Abandoned house from 1952. Banish all thoughts of catastrophe. The rocks are nice. The ruined houses are happy to be on the way home. Consider the wrinkles and bubbles of paint all over the foreground of the image as the planet finally claims its rights, perhaps suppressing an attack of laughter. Compare Ponge’s prose poem “Moss”:

The vanguard of vegetation has long ago stopped on the rocks which remained stunned. A thousand stems of silky velvet then sat down cross-legged.

Since then, since the moss with its spear carriers began to stir on the bare rock, all nature is caught in an inextricable situation and, trapped below, panics, shoves, suffocates.

Worse still, the hair was growing; over time, everything got darker.

Oh obsession with longer and longer hair! The deep rugs that kneel when you sit on them now lift in a muddled suction. Hence not only suffocations but drownings.

Well, we could just scalp the old, hard, solid rock of these terry cloth landscapes, these soggy doormats: they’re so saturated, that would be doable.

Dubuffet’s “Abandoned House” (1953).

Granted, even with CK Williams’ version of ‘Moss’ as a guide, it’s hard to see a painting like Abandoned house – made on this date, using this range of colors, rubbing your nose matter – and don’t think about bomb sites and mushroom clouds. A painting from the same series is called The devastated Burg. It does not help that, during its first broadcast, Dubuffet accompanied the series of statements on “the formless” and “landscapes of the mind”. I don’t doubt his sincerity as a writer, but I think he always misunderstood (or chose to disguise) the tone of his paintings – the level at which they really affect us. He didn’t see (or wanted to talk about) the power of their lightness.

This power is visible throughout the Barbican show, but nowhere more strongly than in the dark room immediately to the right at the entrance. It contains three paintings from 1961. All of them are dazzling and full of laughter. The best is the greatest, Paris-Montparnasse. His obedience scene on the boulevard is mounted, as very often with Dubuffet en forme, in a crude and ready grid, shallow compartments like blades under a microscope, people locked in their cars and buses like infusoria, grimacing at the Ponge. (Or maybe screaming.) The overall color in the image is a translucent light brown, and the poop smear feel is intensified by areas of pale yellow, red, and blue, applied thinly and dry, then worked with the brush in a kind of scarified concrete. The contrast with Abandoned housethe bubbling is over. Dubuffet’s Paris is made of concrete blocks. Be careful what you touch. The words on the side of the 96 bus are counterfactual: “Grande Source Mineral Water”. From Vichy, I guess.

'Paris-Montparnasse' (1961).

‘Paris-Montparnasse’ (1961).

A minute or two ahead Paris-Montparnasse is enough to confirm the sophistication of the image. The smallest detail of the design, awkward and electric at first glance, is adjusted to the play of color and the pressure of the free but restrictive grid. Look at the man drinking beer inside the bus – look at the chatter of red on his cheek, or the geometry of his beer nose and arm. We can see his eye twenty paces away: it is the motionless center of the painting. Terrible – every character in sight (there are 31 of them) is trapped, flattened, rigid with special attention to something we’re happy not to be shown – but happy. Euphoric. They have never been so good.

One of Dubuffet’s concerns as an artist was the thin line between liveliness and vagueness in perception. His 1954 series of isolated figures emerging from the urban darkness, pressing against the edge of the painting, gives the idea its purest and most sinister expression: Night knight and Intervention, for example, are apparitions whose vagueness only worsens their proximity. These are characters that catch our attention in a poorly lit street. Carrying their rags like a weapon. Paris-Montparnasse continues the train of thought: the shocked individuality of each character is inseparable from the storm of brushstrokes that overtake them – the din of traffic noise, the cold glow of sodium. The image as a whole borrows its syntax from cubism: rectangular cellular structure, spider line, monochrome on the whole, sparkle of “touch” wherever there is emptiness. But in cubism, uniformity – that was the claim – came from coherence, from a logic discovered in things. At Dubuffet, unity is strength. People and things are steamrolled into the unit. This is the way it is.

From the start, among those who cared, it was agreed that Dubuffet was a major artist, and probably the last that France would produce for years to come. He stood at the end of a tradition. He had Watteau and Fragonard in his bones, alongside Renoir, Redon, Miró, Dufy. Again, at the level of opinion and self-reflection, Dubuffet was undoubtedly sincere in his wish to escape this legacy – he spent much of his career despising the paintings he saw the Left Bank – but he was not at all a fool: he knew very well that every movement of his brush reeked of taste, of learned precision, of delicacy. The Barbican exhibition rightly gives a place to the results of Dubuffet’s long work as a collector and propagandist of Art Brut: several galleries are devoted to the paintings and drawings he has brought together, made by madmen, loners. , the deeply disadvantaged and the ecstatic. They may well hold the visitor’s attention in a way that no Parisian past master is likely to do. Dubuffet would have sympathized. Perhaps there were times in his studio where he looked at the non-art world he had surrounded himself with and thought he had a chance to borrow its honesty and strangeness from it. But it would have to be borrowing, not counterfeiting. And in practice, the loan did not take place.

The hardest thing to decide in Dubuffet’s case, then, is what his thoughtful lightness and laughter look for, and why lightness has depth. (This is a question that comes up to many in the line of French art he inherited. Think of Corot or Monet or Bonnard.) There are a few phrases in a poem by Emily Dickinson that I think are useful, in particular with Paris-Montparnasse in mind:

Anguish – and the tomb –

Hum by – in the muffled coaches –
Lest they – wonder why –
Any – for La Presse du Sourire –
Interrupt – die –

It could almost be the script for the painting – especially since Dickinson’s sardonic gloom is so aroused by the line breaks and dashes, his version of “touch.” The French themselves can be tougher on the subject. Democritus, Montaigne tells us, “never went out in public but with a mocking and laughing face”. And her attitude is exemplary, says Montaigne, preferable to Heraclitus tears, “not because it is more pleasant to laugh than to cry, but because she is more disdainful, and condemns us more than the other; and it seems to me that we can never be despised as much as we deserve… We are not so full of evil as of inanity; we are not as miserable as we are bad. Florio’s translation is triumphant: “We are not so full of evil as clairvoyance and inanity. We are not so miserable as we are vile and abject.

But that, Dubuffet would have thought, brings comedy too close to moralization. (Sartre was his constant scarecrow. He hated Sartre’s criticism of Celine.) Real life leaves judgment behind. Laughter is automatic. The realization of a table such as Paris-Montparnasse, it follows, is linked to his refusal to decide – or to let his viewer decide – whether the right attitude to “modern life” is a veritable democratic joke or a kind of astonished compassion. Look at it, the new form of freedom! Watch babies in their motorized strollers! How could anyone – even my fools and visionaries – find a matching idiom?

About Guillermo Russell

Guillermo Russell

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