“An important change appears to be taking place… Certain values long held to be definite are now beginning to seem dubious if not completely false.” The French artist, Jean Dubuffet, was speaking not only of art but of all areas in society, when in 1951 he addressed the Arts Club of Chicago. It is then somewhat apt that after twelve months of monumental societal change, the Barbican welcomes us back post-lockdown with the first major UK exhibition of Dubuffet’s work in over 50 years: Brutal Beauty.
Dubbed the ‘father of outsider art’, with endless experimentation and ideas as radical and unconventional as the mediums he chose to create with – mud, sand, pieces of glass, coal dust, pebbles and straw, mixed with thick oil paint to create crude and arresting textures – Dubuffet challenged Western concepts of beauty in art.
In 1918, aged seventeen, Dubuffet enrolled at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris, but after only six months of studies, disillusioned and discouraged by the discussion of art and its academic instruction, left to return to his home of Le Havre, where he would go on to take over the family wine wholesale business.
Eventually, in his 30s he would return to Paris, establishing a branch of the family’s business and creating an artist studio where he began to actively make art once more. Yet, in 1937, quickly becoming fed once again with what he saw going on in the art world, his art-making came to an abrupt stop, and his focus turned to saving the family wholesale trade.
Not until 1942, at the age of 41, did Dubuffet devote himself fully to his art. By now it had become a practice so rooted in the rudimental, the authentic and humanistic approach to image-making and rebelled totally against the tired conventionality of tradition; this target for his ire had become his reason to be.
The artist believed that the everyday mundanity of life contained more art and poetry than academic art or great painting. Eschewing traditional practices, Dubuffet’s aim was to dip the art world in a primal sense of humanity, hitting refresh on ideas of creativity and art away from the commercial industry of the times – and onto today.
“Look at what lies at your feet!” he once said. “A crack in the ground, sparkling gravel, a tuft of grass, some crushed debris offer equally worthy subjects for your applause and admiration.”
Barbican’s Brutal Beauty exhibition showcases more than 150 of Dubuffet’s art pieces, spanning four decades, and bringing together early portraits, fantastical statues, butterfly assemblages and giant colourful canvases.
Alongside the artwork, here is a rare opportunity to see the inspirations behind Dubuffet’s anti-cultural positions; an intimate view into the many sources that helped shape his work, with two rooms solely dedicated to Dubuffet’s private collection of Art Brut – a term coined by Dubuffet himself, meaning ‘raw art’; often referred to as ‘outsider art’. Art Brut was created by self-taught artists and non-professionals working outside of the aesthetic norm, such as psychiatric patients, prisoners and children.
For Dubuffet, these works were a direct riposte to the rigid nature of high modernism, instead, a celebration of an individual’s subconscious and intuitive artistic vision: a mindset Dubuffet honed through conversations with contemporaries including surrealist writer André Breton and expressionist painter Jean Fautrier.
This intersection of minds, along with an introduction to Brassaï’s photography, saw a shift in Dubuffet’s visual language, provoking discovery into alternate sources of inspiration. The streetscapes of Paris, graffitied and scrawled in messages, not only cemented his ideas of outsider art and freedom of expression, but were the genesis for such works as his series of lithographs titled The Walls and the painting Large Black Landscape: works reminiscent of an aged and crumbling, graffiti-covered wall.
“The more banal a thing may be, the better it suits me…” said Dubuffet. “Luckily I do not consider myself exceptional in any way. In my paintings, I wish to recover the vision of an average and ordinary man.”
Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty runs at Barbican 17th May – 22nd August 2021.
Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty by Eleanor Nairne is published by Prestel on 4 May 2021; £39.99 hardback, www.prestel.com.