According to Henry-Claude Cousseau, Jean Dubuffet went to the Sahara in 1947, 1948 and 1949 hoping to find a new provocation for his work.1 H-C. Cousseau, ‘L’Origine et I’Ecart: d’un art I’autre’, exh cat., Paris/Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1981, p. 160. One might wonder why this sought-after challenge was necessary to an artist living in post-war Paris, which was then in a ferment of creative activity. Dubuffet, who was forty-three when he held his first solo exhibition in 1944 and who had experienced some earlier indecision about committing himself seriously to painting, became deeply involved in the exchange of ideas which was taking place, but the early paintings which attracted attention at exhibitions held at the Galérie René Drouin,2 Mirobolus, Macadam & Cie, Hautes Pâtes 1946, then the portraits of Dubuffet’s contemporaries, Plus beaux qu’ils soient (Handsomer than they think) 1947. together with his subsequent Arab subjects,3 Arabe au burnous (Arab in a burnous), oil on canvas, 92.0 x 73.0 cm, was painted in Paris between May and June 1948. It was purchased for the National Gallery of Victoria in 1981 from the collection of M. Jean Planque, who had acquired it directly from the artist. cannot be understood without some consideration of his particular enthusiasm for I’Art brut

Dubuffet had been interested in extrasensory perception from 1923, when he had made a few drawings, but the term ‘l’Art brut4 The French term I’Art brut, first adopted by Dubuffet, is not easily translatable. It literally means raw art, referring to visual arts (painting, sculpture, drawing, etc.) which depend on pure intuition and inspiration, not learnt procedures. was first used by him in 1945 in Switzerland, where he began to study the drawings of patients in mental hospitals. His research was soon broadened to include marginal artists working outside the socially accepted framework of art. Unlike André Breton, who saw the isolation of the asylum as a condition of artistic integrity,5 Breton nevertheless collaborated with Dubuffet in 1948 on the Cahiers d’Art brut, and was a founding member of the Compagnie de I’Art brut. His views were published in L’Art des fous, la clé des champs, Paris, 1953. or André Malraux, who was to write in 1951, ‘The [mental and social] rupture of an artist is his safeguard and a supreme moment of his genius, that of the mentally ill a prison’,6 A Malraux, Les Voix du silence, Paris, 1951. Dubuffet claimed that such work is not abnormal, but a significant part of human expression. He once stated, ‘There is no more an art of the insane than one pertaining to people with ulcers or bad knees.’7 J. Dubuffet, exh. cat., L’Art brut préferé aux arts culturels, Galerie René Drouin, Paris, 1949: ‘Il n’y a pas plus d’art des fous que d’art des dyspepliques ou des malades du genou’. He recognised that children, untrained, naive or peasant artists, and clairvoyants possess qualities which are lacking or diminished in professional circles. They are genuinely inspired, independent of irrelevant cultural concepts, drawing their energy from primitive values. In the important catalogue preface composed in 1949, L’Art brut préferé aux arts culturels, Dubuffet contrasted the vitality of I’Art brut with the lifelessness of much contemporary art and thought. He wrote, ‘The intellectual operates too much sitting down, seated at school, seated at lectures, seated at conferences, always seated. Often asleep. Dead sometimes, sitting down and dead.’ In comparison, sparks fly from genuinely creative people, especially those who are not accepted, the ‘irregulars’. They are like lightning conductors. Authentic art appears when and where it is least expected. 

Dubuffet’s focus on I’Art brut was sharpened by his association with Gaston Chaissac, whom he first met in 1944. They later corresponded and exchanged visits. Chaissac, who described his own work as ‘modern rustic painting’, seemed to typify Dubuffet’s ideal of independence and originality. His utilisation of almost any material which came to hand, and his adoption of any two- or three- dimensional mode which suited his purpose at the time, must have appealed to Dubuffet. The fact that he survived happily as a prolific artist working in relative isolation from the Paris mainstream, of which he was critical, seemed to challenge the convention, still promoted, of the exclusivity of art. Chaissac’s method of expanding a drawing from a particular point of departure, using a process of accumulation of lines, images and patterns to create shapes which appear to fluctuate, almost float on the paper, instead of building a structure and relating parts to a whole, was also adopted by Dubuffet to some extent, although this manner is generally common among untrained or intuitive artists.8 For a detailed account of Chaissac’s little-known work and career see Cousseau, op.cit., pp. 161–62. 

Dubuffet’s belief in I’Art brut was translated into practical activity. He formed an important collection and actively promoted the artists through the Foyer de I’Art Brut, an exhibition and documentation centre which opened in the basement of René Drouin, Place Vendôme, in 1947. In June 1948, after his second trip to Algeria, Dubuffet was instrumental in officially creating an association, La Compagnie de I’Art brut; and in the same year the centre was transferred to a small building at the end of a garden behind Gallimard’s Editions, at 17 de la rue de I’Université. The largest and most important exhibition was held at René Drouin in 1949, when Dubuffet published what is now considered as a kind of manifesto, L’Art brut préferé aux arts culturels (L’Art brut Preferred to Cultural Art). This summed up ideas already printed in previous exhibition catalogues and in several issues of the Cahiers d’Art brut published by Gallimard under his direction. Dubuffet’s efforts to bring l’Art brut into the mainstream were closely linked with his own artistic evolution and the most intense period of activity in this regard occurred in conjuction with his three visits to the Sahara, which are recognised as having exerted a considerable influence on his work.9 Phaidon Dictionary of Twentieth-century Art, London, 1973, Dubuffet entry, p. 102. 

It is a matter of conjecture whether these visits followed from a desire to travel after the restrictions of occupied Paris (Max Loreau suggests that coal was rare and that it was easier to keep warm in Africa than in Paris!),10 M. Loreau, Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, fascicule IV, Paris/Lausanne, 1967. to escape from the tensions of a complex society into a simpler, more authentic culture, or whether they were a means of coming to terms with the rapid changes which had recently occurred in his life and work. Towards the end he suffered some disillusion and did not return to Algeria after 1949, preferring to concentrate on subjects closer to home; but, to begin with, his approach to the enterprise was positive. Leaving Paris in February 1947 he travelled from Algiers across the Sahara to El Goléa, where he stayed for two or three weeks. According to Loreau, 

he only had eyes for the arabs of the desert who bear, more than those of the North, the mark of Islam and the bedouin civilization. Moved by the spirit of imitation, he wanted to succeed in thinking like them; following the example of these wise people, he made an effort to be still and concentrate on living on little, to empty his mind of all superfluous needs: in fact, to do without everything but to see and paint.11 For a full account of Dubuffet’s visits to the Sahara see Loreau, op.cit. Arabe au burnous is listed and reproduced as no 224. 

He returned to Paris in April, where he executed a few paintings from the drawings and sketches he had brought back, and immediately began to learn Arabic with the intention of retracing his steps. After the exhibition of portraits in October, he left again in November 1947 and spent six months at El Goléa, living the life of the desert and communicating directly with the Arabs. His model seems to have been a local postman, with whom he became friendly. Dubuffet again produced a large number of drawings, notebook sketches and gouaches which, with the paintings based on them, were later grouped under a poetic heading, Roses of Allah, Clowns of the Desert, a title given by Dubuffet’s friend, the writer Georges Limbour, to an exhibition which was to be held in 1953 but did not take place. Almost all of these works represent Arab personnages, some frontal, some in profile, some with the addition of a camel, a palm tree or footprints. The gouache, Bedouin with Gazelle (fig. 1) is representative of the figure subjects related to landscape, executed on the spot during Dubuffet’s second voyage. 

After his return to Paris in April 1948 Dubuffet completed only twelve oil paintings, including Arabe au burnous, but they form a precious and distinct phase of his work. The foundation of La Compagnie de I’Art brut in June, and the removal of the collection to new premises, claimed his attention. He returned to Algeria for the last time in March 1949, but the resulting works concentrate more on the landscape than on figures. 

Arabe au burnous (fig. 2) fits easily into the group of oils and drawings dating from 1948, although it cannot be directly related to any of the preliminary studies. The large frontal figure is flattened out across the canvas, defined by lines gouged out of the top layer of paint to reveal the darker layer beneath. Dubuffet adopted a graffiti-like technique from the war years, when writing or scratching on walls conveyed strong political messages as well as earthy humour. The breadth and flatness of the figure, which would be further developed in the Corps de dames series 1950–51, is accentuated by the high horizon, which allows the painter to concentrate on the material aspects of the subject. The figure is invaded and modified by its desert environment. Paint, mixed with sand, used directly in the background, has been scraped across it to achieve a grittiness of surface and a movement suggesting a gust of wind. The facial grimace belies the apparently innocent humour of the rest of the picture. The war had engendered an attitude of cynicism and despair. Georges Bataille was to write that ‘the young writers felt that society had lost the spirit of its cohesion.’12 Critique, no. 1, Paris, June 1946. Sartre’s L’Etre et le Néant had appeared in 1943 and Les Temps Modernes was founded in 1946. By 1947 Existentialism had become fashionable. In 1945 Merleau-Ponty’s Phenoménologie de la perception argued that the body is the only condition of our existence, the only source of our mental and physical activity. Life appeared to many, less positive than Sartre, to be a farce on the brink of the abyss. Claude Simon was to write, in relation to Picasso, that he was a comedian ‘in the sense that comedy can be the only expression of man in the presence of the tragedy of life’.13 Claude Simon, La Corde raide, Paris, 1947. Dubuffet’s humour at this period has a fierceness, a sharp edge, which finds a parallel in the philosophy and literature of the period, but he was able to express it through another aspect of I’Art brut which he appreciated, the gutteral harshness of fairgrounds, carnivals and clowns. 

 

In comparison to other major art movements in Paris during the late forties, the post-Cubist charm of the ‘Jeunes Peintres de la tradition françhise’ (e.g. Manéssier, Bissière, Estève), the rhetoric of the Cobra group or the late phase of Surrealism, Dubuffet’s contribution, both visually and intellectually, stands out today as the most original and forceful expression. His emphasis on the physical act of painting, on creative spontaneity, and on the concrete reality of material substances as the only truths to be relied upon, were the foundation on which post-war contemporary art was built on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Arabe au burnous is of special interest, not only for its place in Dubuffet’s personal development, but because it was part of a short but significant period, which is only now beginning to be fully understood.   

Annette Dixon, Curator of European and American Art After 1800, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1982).  

 Notes

1           H-C. Cousseau, ‘L’Origine et I’Ecart: d’un art I’autre’, exh cat., Paris/Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1981, p. 160. 

2          Mirobolus, Macadam & Cie, Hautes Pâtes 1946, then the portraits of Dubuffet’s contemporaries, Plus beaux qu’ils soient (Handsomer than they think) 1947. 

3          Arabe au burnous (Arab in a burnous), oil on canvas, 92.0 x 73.0 cm, was painted in Paris between May and June 1948. It was purchased for the National Gallery of Victoria in 1981 from the collection of M. Jean Planque, who had acquired it directly from the artist. 

4          The French term I’Art brut, first adopted by Dubuffet, is not easily translatable. It literally means raw art, referring to visual arts (painting, sculpture, drawing, etc.) which depend on pure intuition and inspiration, not learnt procedures. 

5           Breton nevertheless collaborated with Dubuffet in 1948 on the Cahiers d’Art brut, and was a founding member of the Compagnie de I’Art brut. His views were published in L’Art des fous, la clé des champs, Paris, 1953. 

6           A Malraux, Les Voix du silence, Paris, 1951. 

7           J. Dubuffet, exh. cat., L’Art brut préferé aux arts culturels, Galerie René Drouin, Paris, 1949: ‘Il n’y a pas plus d’art des fous que d’art des dyspepliques ou des malades du genou’. 

8          For a detailed account of Chaissac’s little-known work and career see Cousseau, op.cit., pp. 161–62. 

9          Phaidon Dictionary of Twentieth-century Art, London, 1973, Dubuffet entry, p. 102. 

10        M. Loreau, Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, fascicule IV, Paris/Lausanne, 1967.

11        For a full account of Dubuffet’s visits to the Sahara see Loreau, op.cit. Arabe au burnous is listed and reproduced as no 224. 

12        Critique, no. 1, Paris, June 1946. 

13        Claude Simon, La Corde raide, Paris, 1947.