There’s something apt about an exhibition of Jean Dubuffet’s art in the Barbican. He created the notion of Art Brut – raw art – made by “those untouched by artistic culture”, including the inmates of mental asylums, and the Barbican is a prime example of Brutalist architecture. Certainly anyone who tries to navigate their way round it ends up a little unhinged. The Centre’s first exhibition in 1982 was post-war French art which included Dubuffet. Now, over half a century since the last big London show of his work at the Tate in 1966, we have an exhibition spanning his career, Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty.
Dubuffet is the anti-art artist, who rejected conventional notions of artistic beauty for the everyday, the mundane, the ugly – graffiti, street art, was for him more vital and invigorating than anything in the academies. That’s why the art of the mentally ill attracted him – he thought them untainted by artifice. This approach can be fun and subversive (Dubuffet in photographs has a huge smile): “Art should always make you laugh a little and fear a little. Anything but bore.”
You’d have to be very jaded to be bored by Dubuffet. His portraits from the Forties of literary greats at the salon of the American expat, Florence Gould, are as funny and artless as those of a child – except these clever caricatures capture likeness with a sure line. It’s unsurprising that one incensed subject tried to bash his portrait with his stick. With his taste for “funny noses, big mouths, crooked teeth, hairy ears”, Dubuffet would have been a brilliant illustrator of children’s books. His naïve-style oil painting of a crowded bus in busy streets from the 1961, Paris-Montparnasse, is playful – and clever.
In the hands of the untalented or unskilled, the art-that-eschews-art can be a way of hiding the awkward fact that the practitioner can’t draw or paint. But Dubuffet could. He wasn’t an artistic outsider; he took art classes at Le Havre and spent six months at an art academy and frequented artists’ circles in Paris; he was conventionally trained and skilled. He wanted to discard the conventions of artistic materials, often using cement, mud, glass, dust and a paste which he literally cut with a knife, but he was also master of that difficult medium, the lithograph.
Over the course of his career, he changed tack umpteen times, endlessly inventive and playful, from glowing assemblies of butterly wings (well before Damien Hirst got hold of them) to big theatrical cutout shapes with harlequin colours. His early female nudes subvert the norms: flattened, grotesque, sometimes scrawled shapes with teeny breasts and inescapable bums and fannies. He created a Brut Art collection by artists he admired: there is an interesting selection here, though it’s hard to discern anything you’d call a school.
For all that he was a philosopher of art (there’s a film of him talking about it), it’s hard to take his irreverent work in a solemn spirit. He didn’t succeed in tearing down the conventions, but he did send them up.
From May 17 to August 22