In Focus

Jean Dubuffet exhibition: Brutal Beauty at the Barbican

One of the great post-war artists, Dubuffet took ugliness and ‘fashioned it into something extraordinary’

In October 1944, an exhibition opened in Paris that scandalised the newly liberated city’s art world, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. The artist responsible was Jean Dubuffet, a middle-aged provincial wine seller who had never before shown his work in public – but whose art made the ageing avant-garde movements of the time look tame.

Dubuffet (1901-1985) looked not to art galleries for inspiration, but to the city’s graffiti-strewn walls, faithfully reproducing them in scrappy collages that made no concession to prettiness. His palette – “a melange of snot greens, piss yellows and shit browns” – could hardly have been uglier. His materials were not just oil, paint and clay, but urban detritus: dirt, broken glass, discarded newspapers, even dead insects. Most shocking of all was that Dubuffet seemingly “abandoned all pretence at skill”, in effect rejecting every rule of good taste. Yet, against the odds, he would come to be regarded as one of the most influential artists of his time: his ideas are “everywhere” in the art world today. When it opens its doors on 17 May, the Barbican will host the first major Dubuffet exhibition to be held in Britain for 50 years, bringing together a broad selection of his “anti-art”, and showing how he took ugliness and “fashioned it into something extraordinary”. 

Dubuffet did not dedicate himself to art until his 40s, said Claire Selvin in Artnews. Although he had studied painting in Paris as a young man, he had bridled at the rigidity of how art was taught, and quit in disgust, spending 20 years working in the wine trade, while maintaining contact with the prime movers of the surrealist movement. Crucial to his work was his interest in untrained – or “outsider” – artists, particularly the mentally ill. Their work, he believed, revealed much more about the human subconscious than anything that came out of the tasteful dogmas of modernism. “I have a great interest in madness, and I am convinced art has much to do with madness,” he explained. His early works replicated the untutored visions of the outsiders he admired: he painted childlike scenes depicting passengers on the metro, Parisian crowds and jazz concerts, sometimes incorporating unusual materials – “cement, foil, tar, gravel” – to blur “the boundary between painting and sculpture”. 

In one “notorious” 1947 show, Dubuffet even presented a portrait that purported to be fashioned from chicken droppings, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. Outraged Parisians “showed their disgust in organised protests”. Yet paradoxically, he was not an artist without skill. His sculptures are often wonderful: his portrait of Antonin Artaud sees the playwright “perfectly defined as a labyrinth of live wires”. By the 1960s, Dubuffet had become feted in both France and America, where he made several “gargantuan” sculptures. Composed of “giant cut-out figures, like vast jigsaw pieces”, they lacked the immediacy of his earlier work, but proved an enormous influence on the likes of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The defining characteristic of his art was an “impish” sense of humour. And while his works might seem unserious by comparison to the angst-ridden efforts of contemporaries, such as Alberto Giacometti or Francis Bacon, Dubuffet was unquestionably “one of the great artists of postwar Europe”.

Barbican Centre, London EC2 (barbican.org.uk). From 17 May to 22 August

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