Jean Dubuffet: ugly, uproarious art that makes you feel alive

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Jean Dubuffet's 1984 painting Fulfilment (Epanouissement) - Collection of Milly and Arne Glimcher © 2021 ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London, Courtesy Pace Gallery
Jean Dubuffet's 1984 painting Fulfilment (Epanouissement) - Collection of Milly and Arne Glimcher © 2021 ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London, Courtesy Pace Gallery

The last big Jean Dubuffet retrospective in this country took place at the Tate in 1966. Walking through the Barbican’s revelatory new show about the provocative post-war French artist, you wonder: why did it take so long to stage another?

By any measure, Dubuffet, who died in 1985, is a compelling character. Though he trained, like Bonnard and Matisse, at the prestigious Académie Julian, he only dedicated himself to art at the age of 41, having worked as a wine merchant in his family’s business. Having made the switch, though, he didn’t hang about. An iconoclast through and through, he detested the august tradition of beaux-arts painting, and immediately decided to liberate himself from the shackles of, as he put it, “cultural conditioning”. Conventional ideas about beauty were, he declared, “old poppycock”.

To begin with, he made austere, streetwise artworks of startling originality, inspired in part by Parisian graffiti. Large Black Landscape (1946), in the first room, gives you a flavour: into a forbidding expanse of viscous grey, like asphalt poured directly onto hardboard, Dubuffet scratched a riot of amusing, antic, faux-naif doodles and pictograms. Suddenly, David Hockney’s scuffed, scrawled early phase makes total sense.

Before long, Dubuffet, always a dapper revolutionary, was painting likenesses of the Parisian beau monde that must be the least flattering in the history of portraiture. Created from memory with a doggedly dun palette, Dubuffet’s stick-men socialites appear flattened, as though squashed by a steam-roller. One resembles a twitchy flounder, disturbed on the seabed. Another looks like a pancake coalescing in a frying pan. He exhibited them in 1947 under the title, People Are Much More Handsome Than They Think. They’re hilarious.

Jean Dubuffet, Telephone Torment (Le Supplice du téléphone) 1944 - Collection Fondation Dubuffet, Paris © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London
Jean Dubuffet, Telephone Torment (Le Supplice du téléphone) 1944 - Collection Fondation Dubuffet, Paris © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Next, in 1950, he took his wrecking ball to the tradition of the female nude, which he considered “specious”. His flayed and splayed “Corps de dames”, or “Ladies’ Bodies”, are simply astonishing: sensual, quasi-abstract, marbleized forms, like slivers of carpaccio, in which you gradually discern fingers, buttocks, breasts. They are, somehow, so intimate they feel indecent. To create their extraordinarily fleshy surfaces, Dubuffet cooked up a sticky pâté of varnish and zinc oxide, which, applied with a putty knife, repelled the oils he thinly layered on top.

Dubuffet’s “pastes” were notorious: the surface of one painting, left above a friend’s radiator, melted onto the floor. But that was the sort of accident he loved. In his quest to refresh Western painting, he was constantly experimenting, mixing pigments with gravel, shoemaker’s glue, shards of glass. There are collages here made from butterfly wings.

Meanwhile, he collected thousands of examples of what he called “Art Brut” (literally: “raw art”), i.e., art by “outsiders”: the self-taught, children, those in psychiatric care. Here, he felt, was a vital alternative to the insipid art of the museums. The exhibition features two representative selections from his collection, now housed in Lausanne.

To many, Dubuffet’s own work will seem ugly, about as appealing as the contents of a cement mixer. There are figures here like burn victims. One frothing monstrosity looks like a poodle suffering a chemical attack. A glowing, swollen, spherical face looms from the shadows like the Man in the Moon, if it were made of Stilton.

Personally, I find Dubuffet’s pictures exciting. The artist’s spirit of defiance inspires admiration. All that experimentation demands respect. And, most importantly, his tumultuous imagery throbs with uproarious animal spirits, as people dance, cycle, play the piano, and have sex. Take a chance, see this show. This is art that feels alive.

From May 17 until Aug 22, tickets 020 7638 8891 barbican.org.uk

A further exhibition of Art Brut works is at The Gallery of Everything from May 22

Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty by Eleanor Nairne is published by Prestel at £39.99