Pressing his hands against the window in Farley Farm House, Sussex, Jean Dubuffet smiles as he poses for a photograph taken by his hostess Lee Miller. He undoubtedly relished the hospitality lavished on him there by Miller and her husband Roland Penrose. But a hint of melancholy can also be detected in Dubuffet’s face. The year was 1955, and a decade had passed since he announced the advent of Art Brut at the end of the second world war. Profoundly affected by the horrors of protracted slaughter, Dubuffet was fascinated by the art of marginalised, imprisoned and mentally ill people, whose work he collected and displayed. Aiming in his own work at provoking “a shock”, he was determined to create an uncompromisingly raw, visceral and defiant art.
The outcome can now be experienced in a powerful show at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex. As a young man, Dubuffet had been uncertain about his direction in life. After studying art in Paris, he stopped painting in 1924 and took over his father’s prosperous wine business. By 1942, though, the 41-year-old Dubuffet was ready to commit himself to art. Unafraid to inject his work with the crudeness of graffiti, this middle-aged rebel won a wide reputation in a postwar world haunted by the appalling pain and violence it had recently suffered.
This exhibition focuses on a crucial period in the 1960s when Dubuffet developed his most inventive series of images. Returning to Paris after six years in the countryside of Vence, southern France, he moved from a cycle of work called “Celebration of the Earth” to a startling series entitled “Paris Circus”. And in 1961, when he painted “Affluence”, Dubuffet filled his canvas with a crowd of gigantic faces staring out with enlarged, wild eyes. Some are grinning, while others bare their teeth with a sinister, almost cannibalistic greed. But they also seem vulnerable, balancing their heads with difficulty on small, narrow torsos and spindly legs. A few appear to be talking to their neighbours, nobody is listening. Everyone seems to inhabit a world of his own, like the psychiatric patients who had made so many of the images in Dubuffet’s Art Brut collection.
Two months after painting “Affluence”, he produced another mesmeric vision of Parisian life called “Spinning Around”. This time the scene widens out to place these maniacal figures in the context of a busy street. They are all wearing hats that seem about to blow away, and several figures look giddy enough to be in danger of falling over. Even so, a sense of vitality runs through their bodies. They dance across manhole covers emblazoned with the words “Gaz de Paris”, and the shop signs at the top of the painting are interspersed with words such as “Révolte” and “Au désastre”.
By this time, Dubuffet was about to commit himself to a major cycle of work called “L’Hourloupe”. Determined to let his subconscious imagination enjoy a free-flowing role in his art, he decided that the title “L’Hourloupe” summed up this new freedom. He associated it with the words “hurler” (to shout), “hululer” (to howl), and “loup” (wolf). These paintings are undoubtedly disturbing, yet alive with anarchic playfulness as well. In “Site Inhabited by Objects”, Dubuffet appears to have excavated a landscape and discovered twisted creatures buried in the terrain. He burrows beneath everyday appearances, unearthing a primitive reality.
Working now in Le Touquet, northern France, near where his wife Lili was born, he fills a painting called “Nimble Free Hand to the Rescue” with belligerent figures who all appear to be threatening each other. But Dubuffet defines them in such a free, abstract style that they could equally well be juggling, and the title suggests that someone’s life is being saved. By the time he produced “Solario” in 1967, though, the immense head dominating the canvas seems bruised and battered to an alarming degree. He could even be a grievously damaged survivor of the war, and Dubuffet now shared a widespread fear that the world might soon be overwhelmed by nuclear destruction.
All the same, he never lost his irrepressible sense of humour. In a quirky film directed by Pierre Schaeffer, Dubuffet plays music on several instruments while he recites his nonsensical poem “The Flower Beard”, at one point mysteriously declaring: “Your beard is the sea on which I sail.” And nothing could sound more pleasant and inoffensive than “Teacup VII”, the title of a 1967 painting. Yet Dubuffet ensures that the drinker cannot be distinguished from the liquid being drunk. The tea appears to be swirling round the entire picture, and its effect seems as potent as alcohol.
Dubuffet, of course, knew all about wine. In the same year he even managed to inject an intoxicating allure into sculpture, making a dramatic polystyrene figure called “The Listener”. The stance of this alarming character is ambiguous: he could either be plummeting backwards or rallying in order to assert himself like a pugilist in a hostile universe. Perhaps Dubuffet often felt that way himself, and that is why he gained such stimulus from the art of mentally unstable people who asserted a visionary freedom of their own.
Until February 3, www.pallant.org.uk