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Definition: Dubuffet, Jean from Philip's Encyclopedia

French painter and sculptor. His best-known works are assemblages of materials (such as glass, sand, rope) arranged into crude shapes, called pâtes. He collected the work of untrained artists, coining the phrase art brut.

Summary Article: DUBUFFET, JEAN (1901-1985)
from France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

French painter, writer, sculptor, sometime untrained musician, born in Le Havre, France.

His use of everyday materials and dirt mashed into his pictures marked a key moment in late twentieth-century art. His attacks on academic art were equally influential, whether in the form of his own painted, cartoonlike worlds, free of contemporary perspective, of his writings, or of his championing of art brut (raw art), a type of art essentially unacknowledged until his interest in the 1940s. For Dubuffet, like the surrealists, art came from somewhere outside rational experience, and who better to take us there than the insane, the “untalented,” the childlike. Unlike the surrealists, that those who produced the art should be mad was not enough—it would still be the products that counted. This focus on the product can be seen in the vast amount of time he himself spent developing his techniques, ordering his work into series, and collating his own catalogue raisonné. His early work nonetheless set the tone for his career: in these pictures we see flattened landscapes (and often townscapes) with cartoonlike figures, out of scale, sometimes unconnected even with the rest of the specific form of nonperspective set up in the picture’s visual field.

Dubuffet was a late starter as an artist, and the French public and critics were equally slow to pick up on his work. He effectively began painting in the 1940s and was very quickly recognized in the United States as an important figure. His pictures sold well from regular shows in Pierre Matisse’s New York gallery, and as the leading modernist critic Clement Greenberg was writing about him positively in 1946, Dubuffet represented a major exception at a time when French art was seen as hopelessly behind the times. The Parisian art world persistently rejected Dubuffet’s naïve, primitivist pictures and did not know what to make of his use of clay, earth, and dirt within paintings (notably his Matériologies series). This use is precisely what caught Greenberg’s attention, as he took this interest in the material aspect of a picture (as opposed to a straightforward painting), correctly, as signaling a new departure for “painting.” Dubuffet’s first major retrospective took place in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), in 1962. The first staging of his Coucou Bazaar, a moving tableau of his Hourloupe series (made up of red, blue, and black lines only, in a continuous pictorial space, or sculpture), took place in New York, in 1973. The American reception of Dubuffet continually contributed to his reputation as a major artist of the twentieth century. Although he stayed in New York (in the Bowery) in 1951-1952, little of the United States features in his work, except the Bowery bums he liked. What singles Dubuffet out as an artist is that amid the portentousness of postwar art, his work is both inventive and humorous (see his portraits and his “Beard” series). Dubuffet died in Paris in 1985.

See also:


  • Dupleix, Sophie, and Daniel Abadie, eds. Jean Dubuffet. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 2001.
  • Paul Hegarty
    Copyright © 2005 by Bill Marshall

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