BRIGHTON, U.K. — Perhaps it is little wonder the last time Jean Dubuffet was reviewed in a public gallery in the United Kingdom, the year was 1966 and the decade was swinging. The French painter’s love of raw creativity was of a piece with the social revolutions taking place. His invention of Art Brut was perhaps the rough, raw yin to Pop art’s glossy yang.
Fast forward to 2012, and Chichester, West Sussex, could not seem further from the wild optimism that characterizes that decade. This is a provincial and genteel setting for Dubuffet‘s work, a location where good manners are a prerequisite. His last major exhibitions on these shores were where you might expect them to be — at the ICA and at the Tate.
But nestled in a well-appointed backstreet in this cathedral city you will come across a white-cube space with major stakes in both the worlds of pop and marginalized art. Pallant House features artists like Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton in its permanent collection. And since 2006, the gallery has run a program of work by “outsider” artists. “Outside-In,” as it is called, now occupies pride of place in its modern wing. Dubuffet’s rooms are a secondary consideration. Perhaps that’s how he would have wanted it.
“In my opinion,” wrote the painter in notes for a 1960 television interview, “Each generation should dump the art of the preceding generations on the scrap heap and produce their own art, which will likewise be dumped by the following generation.”
But Dubuffet was not even a particular fan of his contemporaries. In 1945 he began to seek out work from beyond the art world, and soon built up a collection of work from the margins of western society, largely from asylums. He coined the term “art brut” or “raw art,” and referred to its creators as authors rather than artists. Artists, he felt at the time, were too much tainted by education and the framework of the art world.
Some 50 years on, cynicism comes easy. Unlike his stable of “authors,” Dubuffet made a living from art and was free to travel around France and internationally. But according to curator Katy Norris, there was nothing exploitative about these relationships. They were in fact two-sided affairs.
“He had the right idea, his principles, as to why he was collecting Art Brut, the value of those people and their artwork. He was completely honest,” she was quick to point out.
Dubuffet’s correspondence with artist Nigel Henderson gave Norris a good sense of the artist’s character. “I’ve had copies of his letters and [Dubuffet] was so encouraging and so kind telling him to keep working. He just loved creativity, so he’d encourage anyone to keep creative and he was very supportive to the artists in the Art Brut collection,” she explained.
So what Dubuffet took from marginalized creators was a spirit of freedom rather than any technical tricks or ideas. The French artist worked in a prolific range of styles, all of them more or less his own. He worked with sand, earth, and tarmac on his canvases long before Neo-Expressionism. He includes comic, crude figures long before the street-derived styles of, say, Jean-Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring. And he was even doing collage with butterfly wings from 1953, long before Damien Hirst in the mid-1990s.
As a result, Dubuffet deserves to be more frequently exhibited in the UK. The current show at Pallant is timely and focussed but, despite his attitudes to the art world and the past, you wonder why this painter and thinker hasn’t yet been given a posthumous blockbuster here. After all, write Valérie Da Costa and Fabrice Hergott in their 2006 book on the artist: “Dubuffet belongs to a very small group of those few major artists, such as Duchamp, Picasso, Mondrian, and Beuys, whose works have profoundly modified our vision of art.”
But Dubuffet’s was at times an ugly vision, and he has found more lasting favor in the home of Abstract Expressionism, New York, rather than in London, a relative backwater in terms of visual art at the time of the artist’s death (1985). Curator Norris also pointed out links between de Kooning’s Woman series and Dubuffet’s equally flattened series of female figures, Corps de dames. It is fair to say that Ab-Ex whetted the Americans’ appetite for the Frenchman’s brutalist aesthetic.
Another reason Dubuffet has slipped from our grasp in the UK may have been the range of his activities. Along with the painting, he collected and wrote, whereas the same might not be said for figures like Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud. And the influence of the Collection d’art brut cannot be underestimated. In 1962, the holdings returned from a stay in the USA and Dubuffet came once more under their spell. The following 12 years found him engaged in the longest, most ambitious series of his career: L’Hourloupe.
Characterized by thick black lines and a palette of primary red and blue, L’Hourloupe might be described as work by a disillusioned, hyperactive Mondrian. It is figurative and modular, with interlocking cellular components that build into inanimate objects such as beds or now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t faces and figures. It is a matter of record that Dubuffet hit upon the look while doodling in a telephone pad in semi-automatic style. And the name, in case you were wondering, is equally digressive, containing echoes of the French words for shout, howl, and wolf.
The current show at Pallant concentrates on this period of the Frenchman’s output, demonstrating both the energy and the anarchy of his brut-inspired vision. We even catch a glimpse of Dubuffet’s later moves into sculpture and architecture, with one L’Hourloupe figure carved out of polystyrene with a hot iron. Bent at the abstracted knees, he or she leans back in a posture of welcome, like a chair. It’s no less embracing than any of the other works in this revelatory show.
“I think he saw his ideas as very unique to him,” said Norris of Dubuffet’s attitude to the art of the insane. “But it came as a part of a whole social change after the Second World War, a completely different way of thinking about things and [he] was amongst that.” In a world where a hospitalized artist like Yayoi Kusama can dress windows for a luxury brand like Louis Vuitton, it is important to realize we have come some way in the treatment of such talents since the 1960s and 1970s. That is the legacy of Dubuffet.
But, as Norris said, any moment would be a good moment to reassess this particular career: “The way he takes inspiration from pure creativity is almost timeless,” she said That final adjective alone tells you how overdue and urgent this show is, whether you are making art on the margins of society or just viewing it from the fortunate surrounds of the art world itself.
Jean Dubuffet: Transitions can be seen at Pallant House (9 North Pallant, Chichester, West Sussex, UK) until February 3, 2013.