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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

An Artist Out of Step

Jean Dubuffet Self-portrait, 1966
Artists are often accused of being "out of step" with the rest of the world. The excuse is that we "...march to the beat of a different drummer." We often zig when we should have zagged, and as a result, sometimes get zinged. We often fail when we should succeed and against all odds, succeed when least expected. As a result, we're expected to do the unexpected and when we don't we're blamed for selling out. The art history books are full of as many stories of artists who failed to succeed as with those who failed to cope with success. In Le Havre, France, in 1901, was born an artist who knew both sides of this equation. Some forty years later, he would become the second most famous artist in France (after Picasso). Young enough to be Picasso's son, and owing a stylistic debt to the Spanish expatriate, as well as the abstract surrealist, Joan Miro (also Spanish), he was nonetheless quite antithetical to much that Modern Art stood for. His name was Jean Dubuffet.

Apartment House, Paris, 1946, Jean Dubuffet,
oils with sand and charcoal.

Dubuffet came to Paris at the tender age of seventeen to study at the Academie Julian. It was there he came to know Suzanne Valadon, Raoul Dufy, and Max Jacob with whom he studied. He struggled through wave after wave of ignominious failure as a typical Parisian, left-bank, bohemian artist.  Eventually, after seven years, he gave it up. He bowed to the demands of his family and went to Buenos Aires to work in the family wine business. There, he married, they had a daughter; he divorced, married again, and when war once more broke out in Europe, he briefly joined the French air force. Age and ill health saw him discharged after only a year. He was one of less than a handful of artists (including Picasso) who sat out the war in occupied Paris where he got back into painting. His first one-man show came in 1944, literally on the heels of the Nazi departure from Paris and the liberation of France, proving once and for all that a great deal of success in art comes from simple perseverance--being in the right place at the right time.  Except for Picasso, he was practically the only other working artist in town.

Site Avec 2 Personages, 1975, Jean Dubuffet,
child-like art.
Though in the right place at the right time, the problem was, Dubuffet was the wrong artist for his time. France and the much battered Paris art world (such as it was) longed for normalcy and stability.  Dubuffet's work offered neither. It flew in the face of all that was traditional. Critics dubbed it "Art Brut" (raw art). Dubuffet proclaimed that the truest art was that done by children and the insane. His style reflected this. Even his materials, sand, glass, pebbles, asphalt, discarded items, smashed and mashed into his oil paints struggled to refute everything that art in the much discredited past had ever been. Picasso was becoming tame and predictable. Dubuffet seemed the wild one, flinging everything he could get his hands on into his painting, then kicking dirt at it just for good measure. The much hated art phrase, "My kid could do that," was music to his ears, high praise, elevating the commonplace to the exalted, demoting high art to excrement. Eventually, both he and the rest of the world mellowed. By the time he died in 1985, a lifetime of struggle against history, art history, and doing the expected only to have to struggled once more against the unexpected being expected of him, Jean Dubuffet was acknowledged to be the finest postwar artist in all France, in the eyes of many, surpassing Picasso in the esteem in which he was held by his country.

Group of Four Trees, 1969-72, Jean DuBuffet, One Chase Manhattan Plaza, New York,
though appearing much like paper mache, it's really 25 tons of plastic,
aluminum, and steel.

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