Today is the birthday (1901) of Jean Philippe Arthur Dubuffet, French painter and sculptor best known for founding the art movement Art Brut, and for the collection of works—Collection de l’art brut—that this movement spawned. Dubuffet enjoyed a prolific art career, both in France and in the United States.
Dubuffet was born in Le Havre to a family of wholesale wine merchants. He moved to Paris in 1918 to study painting at the Académie Julian, becoming close friends with the artists Juan Gris, André Masson, and Fernand Léger. Six months later, upon finding academic training to be distasteful, he left the Académie to study independently. During this time, Dubuffet developed many other interests, including music, poetry, and the study of ancient and modern languages. Dubuffet also traveled to Italy and Brazil, and upon returning to Le Havre in 1925, he married for the first time and went on to start a small wine business in Paris. He took up painting again in 1934 when he made a large series of portraits in which he emphasized the vogues in art history. But again he stopped, developing his wine business at Bercy during the German Occupation of France.
In 1942, Dubuffet decided to devote himself again to art. He often chose subjects for his works from everyday life, such as people sitting in the Paris Métro or walking in the country. Dubuffet painted with strong, unbroken colors, recalling the palette of Fauvism, as well as the Brucke painters, with their juxtaposing and discordant patches of color. Many of his works featured an individual or individuals placed in a very cramped space, which had a distinct psychological impact on viewers. His first solo show came in October 1944, at the Galerie Rene Drouin in Paris. This marked Dubuffet’s third attempt to become an established artist.
In 1945, Dubuffet attended and was strongly impressed by a show in Paris of Jean Fautrier’s paintings in which he saw art which he believed expressed directly and purely the depth of a person. Emulating Fautrier, Dubuffet started to use thick oil paint mixed with materials such as mud, sand, coal dust, pebbles, pieces of glass, string, straw, plaster, gravel, cement, and tar. This allowed him to abandon the traditional method of applying oil paint to canvas with a brush; instead, Dubuffet created a paste into which he could add physical marks, such as scratches and slash marks. The impasto technique of mixing and applying paint was best manifested in Dubuffet’s series ‘Hautes Pâtes’ or Thick Impastos, which he exhibited at his second major exhibition, entitled Microbolus Macadam & Cie/Hautes Pâtes in 1946 at the Galérie René Drouin. His use of crude materials and style incited a significant backlash from critics, who accused Dubuffet of ‘anarchy’ and ‘scraping the dustbin’. He did receive some positive feedback as well—Clement Greenberg took notice of Dubuffet’s work and wrote that ‘from a distance, Dubuffet seems the most original painter to have come out of the School of Paris since Miro…’ Greenberg went on to say that ‘Dubuffet is perhaps the one new painter of real importance to have appeared on the scene in Paris in the last decade.’
After 1946, Dubuffet started a series of portraits, with his friends Henri Michaux, Francis Ponge, Jean Paulhan and Pierre Matisse serving as ‘models’. He painted these portraits in the same thick materials, and in a manner deliberately anti-psychological and anti-personal. A few years later he approached the surrealist group in 1948, then the College of Pataphysique in 1954. He was friendly with the French playwright, actor and theater director Antonin Artaud, he admired and supported the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline and was strongly connected with the artistic circle around the surrealist André Masson. In 1944 he started an important relationship with the resistance-fighter and French writer, publisher, Jean Paulhan who was also fighting against ‘intellectual terrorism’, as he called it.
Dubuffet achieved very rapid success in the U.S. art market, largely due to his inclusion in the Pierre Matisse exhibition in 1946. Matisse was an influential dealer of contemporary European Art in the U.S. and was known for strongly supporting the School of Paris artists. Dubuffet’s work was placed among the likes of Picasso, Braque, and Rouault at the gallery exhibit, and he was only one of two young artists to be honored in this manner. A Newsweek article dubbed Dubuffet as the ‘darling of Parisian avant-garde circles,’ and Greenberg wrote positively about Dubuffet’s three canvasses in a review of the exhibit. His reception in the U.S. was very closely linked to and dependent upon the New York art world’s desire to create its own avant-garde.
Between 1945 and 1947, Dubuffet took three separate trips to Algeria—a French colony at the time—in order to find further artistic inspiration. In this sense, Dubuffet is very similar to other artists such as Delacroix, Matisse, and Fromentin. However, the art that Dubuffet produced while he was there was very specific insofar as it recalled Post-War French ethnography in light of decolonization. In June 1948, Dubuffet, along with Jean Paulhan, Andre Breton, Charles Ratton, Michel Tapie, and Henri-Pierre Roche, officially established La Compagnie de l’art brut in Paris. This association was dedicated to the discovery, documentation and exhibition of art brut. Dubuffet later amassed his own collection of this art, including artists such as Aloïse Corbaz and Adolf Wölfli. This collection is now housed at the Collection de l’art brut in Lausanne.
Influenced by Hans Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill, Dubuffet coined the term art brut ( “raw art”) for art produced by non-professionals working outside conventional aesthetic norms, such as art by psychiatric patients, prisoners, and children. Dubuffet felt that the simple life of the everyday human being contained more art and poetry than did academic art, or great painting. He found the latter to be isolating, mundane, and pretentious, and wrote in his Prospectus aux amateurs de tout genre that his aim was
. . . not the mere gratification of a handful of specialists, but rather the man in the street when he comes home from work….it is the man in the street whom I feel closest to, with whom I want to make friends and enter into confidence, and he is the one I want to please and enchant by means of my work.
To that end, Dubuffet began to search for an art form in which everyone could participate and by which everyone could be entertained. He sought to create an art as free from intellectual concerns as Art Brut, and as a result, his work often appears primitive and childlike. His form is often compared to wall scratchings and children’s art. Nonetheless, Dubuffet appeared to be quite erudite when it came to writing about his own work. According to prominent art critic Hilton Kramer, “There is only one thing wrong with the essays Dubuffet has written on his own work: their dazzling intellectual finesse makes nonsense of his claim to a free and untutored primitivism. They show us a mandarin literary personality, full of chic phrases and up-to-date ideas, that is quite the opposite of the naive visionary.”
From 1962 he produced a series of works in which he limited himself to the colors red, white, black, and blue. Towards the end of the 1960s he turned increasingly to sculpture, producing works in polystyrene which he then painted with vinyl paint.
In late 1960–1961, Dubuffet began experimenting with music and sound and made several recordings with the Danish painter Asger Jorn, a founding member of the avant-garde movement COBRA. The same period he started making sculpture, but in a very not-sculptural way. As his medium he preferred to use the ordinary materials as papier-mâché and for all the light medium polystyrene, in which he could model very fast and switch easily from one work to another, as sketches on paper. At the end of the 1960s he started to create his large sculpture-habitations, such as ‘Tour aux figures’, ‘Jardin d’Hiver’ and ‘Villa Falbala’ in which people can wander, stay, and contemplate. In 1969 ensued an acquaintance between him and the French Outsider Art artist Jacques Soisson.
In 1978 Dubuffet collaborated with U.S. composer and musician Jasun Martz to create the record album artwork for Martz’s avant-garde symphony entitled The Pillory. The much written about drawing has been reproduced internationally in three different editions on tens-of-thousands of record albums and compact discs. A detail of the drawing is also featured on Martz’s second symphony (2005), The Pillory/The Battle, performed by The Intercontinental Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Choir.
Dubuffet died on May 12, 1985, in Paris.
It seems to me that making couscous is a fitting tribute to Dubuffet since it is an Algerian staple, the country from which he drew inspiration, and since it is so popular nowadays in France. Couscous is a traditional Berber dish of semolina (granules of durum wheat) which is cooked by steaming. It is traditionally served with a meat or vegetable stew spooned over it. Couscous was voted the third-favorite dish of French people overall in 2011 in a study by TNS Sofres for the magazine Vie Pratique Gourmand, and the first in the east of France.
Traditionally semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry flour to keep them separate, and then sieved. Any pellets which are too small to be finished granules of couscous and fall through the sieve are again rolled and sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into pellets. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny granules of couscous. This process is labor-intensive. For the traditional method of preparing couscous, groups of women came together to make large batches over several days, which were then dried in the sun and used for several months. Couscous was traditionally made from the hard part of the durum, the part of the grain that resisted the grinding of the millstone. In modern times, couscous production is largely mechanized, and the product is sold in markets around the world in instant form.
To make instant couscous you simply bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the couscous, bring back to the boil, then turn off the heat, cover tightly and let sit for 15 minutes (instructions are always on the package). Uncover, fluff, and serve. Simplicity itself. It is used, like rice, to accompany all manner of meat or vegetable dishes.
Lamb shanks are an all time favorite of mine and are popular in Algeria accompanied by couscous. They were very hard to find in Argentina because butchers sold whole lamb legs with shanks attached, and are equally hard to find here in Yunnan because lamb is rare. Nonetheless here is my heuristic recipe for Algerian lamb shanks from memory.
Algerian Lamb Shanks
Heat olive oil in a deep heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and brown one lamb shank per person on all sides. Set the browned shanks aside. Adding more oil if necessary, add chopped onions and minced garlic and sauté until translucent. Add minced fresh ginger, powdered cardamom, saffron threads, chili flakes, powdered cloves, caraway, fennel seeds, powdered cinnamon, and salt to taste. I usually just add these spices in arbitrary quantities, adjusting them later to my taste as the shanks simmer. Add a handful each of blanched, sliced almonds and raisins (or saltanas), canned tomatoes and the zest and juice of one orange per 4 shanks. Return the shanks to the pan and cover with beef stock. Bring to a simmer and cook covered for about 2 hours or until the meat is falling from the bone. Let the liquid reduce but not dry out. Add diced carrot and fennel bulb and cook for about 20 minutes more until they are fully cooked but not mushy. Serve over couscous.