To some Jean Buffet had the greatest influence on modern art since Picasso.” My art,” Dubuffet had said, ”is an attempt to bring all disparaged values into the limelight.” In the 1950′s Dubuffet’s fascination with textures absorbed him completely; the earth moved upward on his canvases, pushing out both sky and people, leaving ”landscapes of the mind”. Others were less flattering in their appraisal. Life Magazine once wrote, ” His mud pie paintings reduce modernism to a joke: Dubuffet is not Grandma Moses, he is Grandpa Leg-Puller. His intentions are feeble, his techincal skill is low, his amusement value is that of juvenile finger painting. There is more human dignity in Al Capp’s Dogpatch than in the whole of Dubuffet’s work. ”
With the Danish painter, Asger Jorn, Jean Dubuffet ( 1901-1985 ) made six long playing records, using fifty instruments. This was in 1961 and came after Dubuffet’s above mentioned ”Haute Pate” series of art works. The basic rule was not to fall into the rhythms of conventional music by avoiding melodic line. The lyrical accompaniment sounded like a jumbled Gregorian chant sung by a Dominican monk who had partaken of too much sacramental wine. In short, it was the kind of music Dubuffet’s disarticulated little men would dance to if they suddenly were to become animated.
After the musical interlude Dubuffet returned to his 1942 style of gay colors and city life in Paris, from which he immediately moved on with his ”L’Hourloupe series, a style to which he remained faithful for a relatively long time. There is, in his passages from one period to another, an odd mixture of accident and inner necessity. Looking at his work with hindsight, the progression seemed inevitable, part of a master scheme.
Often, in fact, a new phase was triggered by chance factors such as imitation by other artists. Ever since 1944, Dubuffet had been subjected to the sincerest form of flattery. This pushed him to find something else or risking to imitate the imitators. Minor incidents had also prompted Dubuffet to change his style. It was after he discovered a shipment of sponges with grotesque shapes, which a dealer on Rue Monge despaired of ever selling, that he began to make his ”Little Statues of Precarious Life”. It was when he accompanied his wife Lili to central France because of her pulmonary trouble that he began looking at cows, which led to another famous period. ”The sight of that animal, procures for me an inestimable sense of well being because it radiates calm and serenity,” he said. Dubuffet proceeded to do for the cow what Picasso did for the guitar and Cezanne did for the apple.
Dubuffet’s ”l’Hourloupe” series began with ballpoint pen doodles on a notepad next to his telephone. ”L’Hourloupe” looks simple but is highly complicated, and it perfectly represents Dubuffet’s blend of the cerebral and the concrete; although Dubuffet said he was inclined to favor the concrete. At the same time his paintings, particularly ”L’Hourloupe” ones, are the result of a mental rather than a visual or a sensual process, which he underlines with elaborate titles such as ”philosophical stone of appeasement” or ”mental landscape with overlapping concretions”. With ”l’Hourloupe”, moreover, Dubuffet broke out, his incessant urge for flight from culture, ”….that rectangle nailed to the wall. We think it is normal to live in cubes and parallelepipeds, but there are no straight lines in nature. I want paintings that people are in, not in front of. Right now I have the idea that I want to build myself a complete l’Hourloupe universe, with vegetables, monkey wrenches, furniture, appliances, my own landscapes in front of my window, everything homologous, it would be wonderful, I would never have to go out, and it would have the added advantage that I couldn’t sell it because it wouldn’t be movable.”
Dubuffet argued that ‘culture’ that is mainstream culture, managed to assimilate every new development in art, and by doing so took away whatever power it might have had. The result was to asphyxiate genuine expression. Art Brut was his solution to this problem – only Art Brut was immune to the influences of culture, immune to being absorbed and assimilated, because the artists themselves were not willing or able to be assimilated. That is, Art Brut was outside rthe boundaries of official culture; separate because it was tied to no existing tradition.
Dubuffet characterized Art Brut as: “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where the worries of competition, acclaim and so
promotion do not interfere – are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professions. After a certain familiarity with these flourishing of an exalted feverishness, live so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.”
Interest in the art of insane asylum inmates had begun to grow in the 1920s. In 1921 Dr. Walter Morgenthaler published his monograph about Adolf Wölfli, a psychotic mental patient in his care. Wölfi had spontaneously taken up drawing, and this activity seemed to calm him. His most outstanding work is an illustrated epic of 45 volumes in which he narrates his own imaginary life story. With 25000 pages, 1600 illustrations, and 1500 collages it is a monumental work.
”In 1907, the French psychiatrist Paul Meunier published his L’Art chez les fous. Interestingly enough, for this he used the pseudonym Marcel Reja. Walter Morgenthaler, whose book on Adolf Wolfli Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler was published in 1921, many years later told my friend Alfred Bader, that at the time this book had been more harmful than beneficial. His colleagues in psychiatry simply did not take it seriously. Similarly, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, published one year later by Hans Prinzhorn, while causing quite a stir among contemporary artists, remained without perceptible impact on the psychiatric establishment. As late as 1956, the famous psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger saw in the lack of any relationship to artistic images and tradition proof positive for his thesis that fine arts and the creations of schizophrenics were mutually exclusive concepts.
But now, precisely that criterion that moved Binswanger to not regard the work of psychiatric patients as art – the lack of a relationship to cultural art – has become one of the main criteria of a species of art which the French painter Jean Dubuffet called ‘Art Brut’ (Raw Art). Even as a young man, Dubuffet had been fascinated by the illustrations in Hans Prinzhorn’s Bildnerei der Geisteskranken. In 1945, Dubuffet travelled to Switzerland. There, in the mental asylum of Waldau near Berne, he viewed the works of the schizophrenic patients Adolf Wolfli and Heinrich Anton Muller. In Lausanne, he came to know the schizophrenic Aloïse Corbaz and her remarkable drawings. Dubuffet was deeply impressed by the originality of this kind of art, which had been created far from models and the artistic mainstream in the seclusion of life in mental institutions. To him, the art of these people represented a kind of extreme individualism, free from all social and cultural constraints.” ( Dr. Leo Navratil )
”With schizophrenic patients, their total independence from cultural art is caused not only by their isolation in a mental institution, but also by the primary loss of reality of psychotics. In Dubuffet’s opinion, Art Brut artists did not need a special gift for drawing. He believed that everyone had the talent required, but in most it was repressed by cultural conditioning. If, as in psychosis, this conditioning is not effective, the chance for original artistic creation exists.
Also the ‘extreme individualism’, on which Dubuffet bases his concept of Art Brut, is found in its most extreme forms with schizophrenics. We must realize that schizophrenia does not make all patients alike. On the contrary, the individual peculiarity of psychotics is much more marked than in people of unimpaired mental health. Thus psychiatrists were right when they, as early as in the last century, saw psychosis as ‘individuality raised to its extreme.’ ” ( Leo Navratil )