Radical at the Hirshhorn: Dubuffet's rule was to break the rules of art and beauty


July 11, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

"Art," wrote Jean Dubuffet, "addresses itself to the mind, and not to the eyes. It has always been considered in this way by primitive peoples, and they are right. Art is a language, instrument of knowledge, instrument of expression." In so stating, Dubuffet proclaimed himself a profoundly 20th-century artist; and so he was, and so he is shown to be by the important exhibit "Jean Dubuffet 1943-1963" at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum.

Dubuffet was a theoretician and an experimenter, who rejected not only traditional notions of beauty, but also the idea of beauty itself as a function of art. He was one of the great throwers-out, believing that the heritage of Western art was useless and counter-productive, and allegiance to it kept artists bound to a path that was wrong.

Dubuffet not only wanted to get rid of accepted conventions, but also to "bring all disparaged values into the limelight," as he once said. In his own way he was a multiculturalist long before the term became popular. He admired the art of children, the mentally ill and other untrained artists, which he called art brut (or raw art), and which is now popularly called outsider art. He amassed a large collection of this work, now in a museum in Switzerland, and used its inspiration to defy the historical conventions of art in his own work. In debasing grand traditions and elevating the ordinary and the scorned, he has been called a forerunner of the pop art of the 1960s. The deliberate naivete of his style was a forerunner of the faux naive art of our own time. And, it was he who took graffiti seriously as early as the 1940s.

In true 20th-century fashion, his career was a succession of broken rules, including his own -- as soon as he did something, as we can see from this show, he wanted to do something different.

He constantly experimented with materials and approaches, making art out of everything from pebbles and butterfly wings to silver foil and plant roots. He built up surfaces so thick with glue, plaster and other such stuff that the images could be incised in them.

His "portraits" of friends -- such as the critic Paul Leautaud and the writer Georges Limbour -- are by all traditional standards grotesquely ugly, yet he called the series "More Handsome Than They Think." His nude women similarly fly in the face of convention, with great squarish lumps for bodies, tiny eye-like breasts and stick-figure arms.

He reminds one of Picasso in the fecundity of his imagination and of Klee in the extreme sophistication of his naivete. But whereas Klee's work retains the concept of beauty, Dubuffet's specifically shuns it. And while Picasso was an early bloomer, Dubuffet didn't really settle down to his art until he was in his early 40s.

Years as dilettante

He was born in 1901 in Le Havre and had enrolled in art school there by the age of 16. However, he spent the decades of his 20s and 30s principally as a wine merchant (his father's trade) and intellectual dilettante. He took up art for good in late 1942 and produced his first mature works shortly thereafter.

He was not to produce the works for which he is now probably best known for another 20 years. They were the series called "l'Hourloupe" (a made-up, untranslatable word), the paintings and eventually sculptures of interlocking segments that look like jigsaw puzzles which he created during the 1960s and 1970s. The Hirshhorn exhibit wisely ends with the earliest of these, for they became -- odd for so experimental an artist -- tired and repetitive.

Instead, the show concentrates on the two decades of his greatest creativity, beginning with a group of delightful, childlike paintings of 1943 and 1944, including "View of Paris, the Life of Pleasure" (1944) with its figures dancing in front of a row of shops. Despite the fact that he was working in Nazi-occupied Paris, there is no sign of war in these pictures, which are the happiest works in the entire show.

Painting graffiti

By 1945 he was painting graffiti in "Wall With Inscriptions" and building up thick surfaces in paintings such as "Madame Mouche." The next year's "Will to Power" is a big, hulking male nude who looks like a stupid bully, with a thick coat of body hair made of pebbles. Dubuffet's opinion of the power-hungry is not in question.

His "More Handsome" portraits of 1946-1947 may bear some physical resemblance to their subjects, but they're actually doing several things at once. On the one hand, they could not but make their subjects, whatever they think of their own looks, glad that they don't look as bad as these paintings. On the other hand, they are a genuine tribute because Dubuffet disliked what others thought was beautiful, preferring what others considered ugly -- "a little numbskull of a regatta yacht doesn't interest me as a dirty trawler full of cod does." But more important, these odd portraits do leave the impression that they're communicating something of the essence of their subjects.

Experiments of '50s

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