Jean Dubuffet’s Aesthetics after World War II

Defying the odds, Jean Dubuffet, a French artist, held his first art exhibition in 1944, right before the Liberation of France. Post World War II artists in Europe saw the need for a new form of art and the old surrealism and cubism seemed no longer the tool to bring societal change. While, many artists were expelled or fled to New York to avoid the war, Jean Dubuffet was resolved to stay. Together with other French artists, they responded to the wartime trauma by developing the style, Art I’informel, in hopes to “un-form all categories [of art definitions and hierarchies],” and uphold their belief that, in this way, they could lead the audience to walk out of the disaster caused by the war.  At the age of 41, previously a wine merchant, Dubuffet entered the art industry and devised his own practices labeled as Art Brut. It focuses on the art created by people outside the professional art world, featuring the materiality of the medium, two dimensionality and primitivism of art. To Dubuffet, Art Brut was a complex statement about the contemporaneity of painting which “challenges the tribunal of artistic taste” as a response to the devastating cultural crisis of post-war Europe. In the process of this primitive form, Dubuffet both aliened and attracted audiences. There are three key visual practices in Dubuffet’s painting, which overlap in Art Brut practice and writings. They include the overpowering of the materiality, the recognition of the two-dimensionality of the canvas, and the primitive expression in relation to the inner voice. This paper will analysis whether there is a gap between Dubuffet’s perspectives on three unique artistic approaches and the audience’s interpretation.

In contrast to art from the previous periods, Dubuffet’s experimentation on Art Brut deliberately avoided order and formality. He identified that art has a wider mission than creating an aesthetically pleasing object; instead it serves artists to express their inner trauma like Dubuffet, who witnessed the destruction first hand during the period of occupation and thus, who understood the traumatized city after the war. The three paintings date between 1944 and 1946, provide a window into post World War II period.  

Jean Dubuffet is remained best knowing for the thick textured and gritty surfaces of his pictures, which is one of the key elements of Art Brut - “materials of fortune.”  To him, the first step of breaking away with the history of art is artistic norms is by to rejecting the conventional illusionism.  Specifically, Dubuffet discussed the manipulation of color that, “I don’t find this function, assembling colors in pleasing arrangements, very noble. If the painting was only that, I should not lose one hour of my time in this activity.” By opposing to addressing the tonal value of the work, Dubuffet focused on creating the volume of the object, which is perceived by human minds of the materiality of the work. This breakthrough was identified in Francis Ponge, “Dubuffet not only draws our attention to the fact of the words’ painterly construction but insists that was recognized in them the base nature of pigment itself by including stones and other recognizable inorganic and organic elements.”  Dubuffet does not draw did not imitate any art tradition and by this recognition of the physicality of materials he breaks broke the traditional academic rule; instead, he brought the nature to the representation. Hence, Tthe volume and density of materials push the figures onto the canvas and unlike traditional academic painting, viewer’s interpretation of the work is constantly interrupted by the awkwardness and uniqueness of the materiality. Theis focus on materiality distracts the viewer’s to experience the three-dimensionality perspective of the picture. However, this does not mean Dubuffet completely abandoned the spatial dimensionality of the painting; for Dubuffet, the dimensionality of the canvas is beyond the four corners of the canvas. Utilizing the relationship painting links up with its space around it, Dubuffet’s painting embodies the effect of “conjuring things,” which linked the painting to the after the post-war environment. 

Recognizing that the “conjuring” was a form sent developed by Dubuffet to communicate with his audience, Dubuffet rejected the academic tradition of the painting of the elites; instead, his Art Brut promoted the art of the schizophrenic artists, who are alienated from the society.  Dubuffet believes this alienation is precisely the essential element of real creative activity.  In his speech, Dubuffet claimed that “art is a language, instrument of knowledge, an instrument of expression.” Thus, he appreciates primitive art and acknowledges the continuity between human beings and nature by using materials such as tar, gravel, and sand. Works like the 1945 painting Brume du matin sur la campagne (See Appendix Image 1), View of Paris, The Life of Pleasure of 1944 (See Appendix Image 2), and  Façades d’immeubles of 1946 (See Appendix Image 3) exemplify Dubuffet’s combination of extreme materiality and two dimensionality in creating his the primitive paintings.

The first impression of Brume du matin sur la campagne is its red washed canvas, the child-like drawing of the figures and the encrusted textures. The canvas is consistently covered in dark and light red, conjuring a strong optical attraction that pulls viewer’s attention onto the canvas. The spatial values of the foreground and background elements reverse and contract themselves on the canvas, while the white strip in the middle suggests an inversion spatial relationship from the bottom to the top of the canvas. The foreground is the bottom part of the canvas and, which represents a closer relationship to the viewer while the background is the top part of the canvas, which represents the demonstrating the further relationship to the viewer. Although Dubuffet did not specifically outlined the spatial relationship, the viewer can reasonably guess assume this based on the fact that the white strip on the lower part of the canvas is thicker than that of the upper part. Meanwhile, the pig and man figures suggest that the figures are popping out of the canvas, like a foreground, and the red washed medium that is the background. Thus, When the viewer starts paying attention to analyze the details, the man and pig figure on the left side of the canvas are very distracting puzzling and the position of these figures confuses the viewer as the spatial relationship represented tells the viewer that the figures were on top of the red background. This reversal and contradiction disrupt any illusionism of figure over the ground, which breaks Dubuffet’s work from the optical experience created by color and brush strokes. 

Additionally, Tthe black line on the canvas outlined the figures in the work; while the Dubuffet scrubs the canvas, giving the tactile connotation of graffiti. Recognized by a New York art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, “Dubuffet’s way of painting in the 1940s merges two immediacies … Material and line collide - the paint pushing outward, the line digging inward - to create a surface not so much laid on flat as dynamically flattened: smashed and impacted between opposing forces. The lacerated paint leaks color, the exact like of which had not been seen before in painting.”  This gives promotes tension between the figurative description and abstract expression of the painting. The little house at the end of the road, the house and trees in the middle of the canvas, and the grids on the top of the canvas are all legible visible to the viewer which shows that Dubuffet is not tricking the observer by any means. The What’s more, the prioritization of pressing picture onto canvas, sets Dubuffet fundamentally apart from surrealism, which emphasized spatial relationship, where unlike the action painting in America, artists focused on gestures and brush strokes. Here, Dubuffet gives a strong tactile feel to the canvas and the work was emphasized on the volume of the work. 

In the same essence as Brume du matin sur la campagne (Image 1), in his work Façades d’immeubles of 1946 (Image 3), Dubuffet again used a singular color spectrum - white, grey and black - which created little tonal value in the painting. However, as the viewer moves closer to the canvas, the observer can see the little colors added around the windows and the human figures in blue, green and orange pigments. Different from the academic landscape, the observers can hardly feel the illusion of being in front of the view; instead, the viewer is attacked by the way Dubuffet outlines the building, windows, doors and human figures. Additionally, in the black background, the viewer is neither tricked by the illusion, nor like in Cubism, where the viewer need to recognize the abstract representation, “there are no hidden facets, no ruses.”  In this way, the painting looks as if it is being carved out from the canvas and thereforethus, more two-dimensional. 

    At first glance,Initially, observers may question Dubuffet’s effect that was put into the seemingly childish-like painting because of the un-alined windows - the lines in the painting appear more free-lanced than carefully carefully planned. However, Tthe strategic placement of human figures demonstrates that in fact the painting was actually carefully plannedorganized. Additionally, some windows have more blurry lines around them than the others - showings that the artists went back to the same place over and over again. However, when moving closer to the canvas revealsanalyzing the canvas closely there are many little minute details on the contour of windows and figures that not only show a singular color of white; but, and more colorful toners underneath. Thus, Tthe white and the black backgrounds is no longer pure blackare no longer distinct, but rather withcontain grayish and yellowish pigment layering over the black. This Further demonstrating demonstrates the careful attentive thought and detail Dubuffet put installed into this painting, thus putting and highlights the extra value of into the two-dimensionality.  

    In additioTn, the figure presented in Façades d’immeubles, is very fardistant from the descriptive representation of its reality. The brush work strokes on the figures arewere general and do not give alack a significant amount of details to the figure which shows conveys to the viewer the mood or action of the figures. On the lower level of the building, where it is closer to ground level, one figure on the left is facing toward the audience, while the figure on the right is showing his side to the audience and facing left.; however, Tthe viewer cannot clearly observe the facial expression of the figures, but rather,only just the general idea of the directions the figures are facing. This technique was applied to the other six human figures within the painting.  

    According to Da Costa, “his [Dubuffet’s] figures are always painted full face, with wide open eyes, and their whole bodies focused on potential spectators located on the other side of the surface of the canvas. Often his figures look out from the back or the edge of the painting facing towards. The star at the spectator with an absent air. While their eyes are isolated from their bodies. The iris floats inside the outline of eyes. The figures are not trying to flee the picture. With all the assurance of stupidity, they settle in.”  This has not only been proven in Façades d’immeubles, but also in his earlier work - View of Paris, The Life of Pleasure, in 1944. In this, five figures are lining up on the bottom of the canvas, with two of them on the right are facing towards the right and there is a clear motion of movement towards the right in their poses. On the contrary, the three figures on the right are facing towards the viewer with their hands stretching out on both sides and the wide opening of their mouth. This triggers the viewer to think of the context of this painting. The three figures appear to look like screaming out as if they are being confronted by the enemy and the two figures on the right look like appear to flee they are running away from the enemy. This is the three-dimensionality that Dubuffet wanted to impose to his audience - the “conjuring” of wartime memory when looking at the painting.

    Still, many critics look at the exoticism presented in Dubuffet’s work, despite the fact that the artist himself rejects the notion of using color to manipulate the viewer’s experience. Quoted in one of his speech, Dubuffet argued that “I don’t find the function of assembling colors in pleasing arrangements very noble. If painting were only that, I should not lose one hour of my time in this activity.”  On contrary, he identified the materiality as the undivided part of a painting; and painting is the most effective way to express the inner self. Viewed through the lens of the subjectivity of the physicality, “painting manipulates materials which are themselves living substances. That is why painting allows one to go much further than words do in approaching things.”  

    However, viewer subjectivity and misunderstanding created a gap in relation to what Dubuffet’s work intended to convey to his audience actually intended. In 1946, after looking at some painting analyzing paintings of Dubuffet, Henri Matisse concluded that “I do not understand what it is all about, but he has an extraordinary sense of color.…” He added, “and it’s a very French sensibility.” He critiqued Dubuffet’s efforts of reducing the color impression as much as possible. Matisse commented that Dubuffet’s work was focused on sensations and perceptions, instead of reality. 

 On the contrary, critics like Max Kozloff recognized Dubuffet’s effort at reducing the optical manipulation of colors, and as well as the importance of materiality of the paint. Thus, he “decided that Dubuffet’s color called for a special vocabulary combining ‘the rarest color perfumes’ with ‘digestive fantasies’: ‘caramel, pollen, sulphur, peacock blue, burnt brown sugar, orchid, cochineal.’ ”  Similarly, Georges Limbour, a French surrealistic writer, recognized that “for Dubuffet painting is matter rather than form. It is matter in the same way that world is matter. The unique approaches of Dubuffet’s painting lie in the fact that the perpetual and essential theme is not the object represented but the material used.” Due to the materials that Dubuffet used in his painting and the effects those materials create, many critics find the complexation in expression with minimal sensuous tonal values and exaggerated tactile surface introduced by Dubuffet.  This trend of Art Brut began enlightening viewer and artists to think about the new art expression after the destruction of the World War II with respect to the utilization of materiality of the painting. 

In addition, one of the most famous art critics, David Philips, looked regarded at Dubuffet’s painting in a three-dimensional way. In the article Patterns in Pictures for Art and Science, Phillips believes that there is “a dual reality” of the paintings, of which “they [paintings] can be perceived as flat objects, with certain shapes, brightnesses, contours, and colors, often with a frame around them. They can also represent three-dimensional reality, in which the flatness and [the] frame are ignored and the contours and colors are perceived quite differently.” According to Philips, the solidarity between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality makes them interchangeable and the viewer can go back and forth between these different perceptions of the painting. However, When Dubuffet constructs the dimensionality space, what he wanted was not to not create a spatial arena, but, to express the visual representation and emotion expression that a flat canvas can convey. In Prospectus, Dubuffet stated that “mental space does not resemble three-dimensional perceived space and has no use for notions such as above or below, in front of or behind, close or distant.” Thus, Dubuffet rejects the optical three-dimensionality and the illusion created in the academic paintings. 

This clear reaction is also emphasized in all the landscapes done after 1944. Recognized by Da Costa, “the space occupied by the sky [in those paintings] is more often than not restricted to a hesitant fringe. It has become a thin horizontal bank that stretches out across the whole breadth of the canvas, while the ground invades almost the entirety of the composition and is like a backdrop to the scene.”  This has been proven in Brume du matin sur la campagne (Image 1); View of Paris, The Life of Pleasure (Image 2); and Façades d’immeubles (Image 3)

Unlike the American artists, the art produced in Paris during Dubuffet’s period was inspired by the post- World War II reconstruction of the French society and infused with the long history of European painting tradition. However, Dubuffet’s anti-cultural position provided a leeway to the industry by introducing the volume and materiality of the medium, by blasting down the illusionism, and by embracing the outside artists. As detailed above, viewers misunderstanding occasionally produced developed a gap between Dubuffet’s intentions and the audience’s perception. However, The perceived ambiguity perceived is also the strength of his work that gives provides the certain degrees of power to the audience. Despite the misunderstanding, Dubuffet’s the extended vision of the boundaries of art and a greater freedom from conventional standards provides an alternative and a resolution to post-war France by challenging his audience to transcend hardship and start anew. 



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Image 1 - Brume du matin sur la campagne, oil on canvas, 89 * 116 cm, October 1945

Image 2 - View of Paris, The Life of Pleasure, oil on canvas, 88.5 x 116 cm, 1944

Image 3 - Façades d'immeubles, Oil on canvas, 151 x 202 cm, 1946