Fascinated with the work of art in the streets, of naive paintings and things created by the mentally ill, Frenchman Jean Dubuffet managed to elevate the perception of ‘low brow’ art to the halls of ‘high culture’ venues and gallery spaces. But what was his secret?
Much of the rawness and visceral appeal of the art that inspired him came down to the lack of bells and whistles from academic scholarship. That the paintings and art he loved were free from the shackles of establishment rhetoric provoked the artist to approach his own art, and develop his own philosophy, in a similar manner.
At the heart of his artistic ideology lay the notion that the ‘low brow’ artist could create in a manner that was somewhat more authentic to the Truth that artists find themselves seeking, that their way of seeing the world was uninhibited by the cages that slowly begin to constrict our thinking as we progress through life.
Born in northern France's portside city of Le Havre, Dubuffet moved to study art privately in Paris at age 17, leaving only six months later to pursue the practice independently. Guided by this overwhelming sense of creating with freedom, the artist maneuvered through French society - including brief spells in Italy and Brazil - with intelligence and guile, making a wine dealing business that provided its produce to the Wehermacht during the occupation of France - generating moderate wealth in the process.
More than 20 years after his initial entry into art, Dubuffet began to exhibit his paintings, recognised at the time for their cerebral qualities, utilising the palette of Fauvism and featuring subjects, many of whom based on figures spotted around Paris in the city’s Metro system or around the streets, in confined spaces, their environment becoming an embodiment of their inner psychological state.
Mixed receptions from Paris’ notoriously demanding and saturated art-world defined his earliest shows. To many, he was unrefined. This could, probably, be related to his lack of formal artistic training. That he was able to begin carving out a name was not a strength to these people, but a situation that should never even have occurred.
On the other hand, many would proselytize his originality, breaking from what could be seen as an expected and normative Parisian style. Perhaps, then, unsurprisingly it wasn’t in Paris that his market flourished, but America, thanks in large part to his promotion by the well-known art dealer Pierre Matisse and the American media as a part of a very European flavour of avant-garde, a reputation that appealed to his audience.
Pushed towards studying the off-kilter, Dubuffet travelled several times to Algeria, enthused by the country’s roving nomadic tribes, stirring within him an interest in art as a means of ethnographic study and documentation, a perspective he carried with him when researching prisons and psychiatric wards to explore non-professional art. Put off by the insular nature of academic art, Dubuffet strived to incorporate the raw humanity found in the ‘outsider art’ that he simultaneously seeked out and helped promote.
Enthused by the resourcefulness of these various artists, who were able to do what they have with what was at hand, Dubuffet began to incorporate similar techniques and materials too, giving his work a tangible sense of life, a texture that becomes a part of the narrative.
When we look back at Dubuffet’s life, it can be remembered as one featuring a man as obsessed with creating art as he was experiencing it and, just as importantly, helping others experience both his own - which was in many ways a composite of his influences - alongside those who influenced him. In the process he coined the term ‘art brut’, essentially legitimising the art that could have otherwise been left on the margins.
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