Jean Dubuffet was born on July 31, 1901 in Le Havre, the son of a wine merchant. Until 1918 he visited a lycée focusing on classical languages and also enrolled at the École des Beaux Arts in Le Havre in 1916. In 1918 he moved to Paris to study painting. But after half a year at the Académie Julian, he discontinued his studies and chose the humanities as his subject. After his military service in 1923 he also stopped his artistic work and went to Buenos Aires for a year. In 1925 he started to work in his father’s wine store in Le Havre, and after returning to Paris in 1930, opened his own store which he kept until 1947.
Not before 1942, after a three-year service as a soldier during World War II, did Dubuffet go back to painting. In Paris he came to know the circle of surrealists around André Malraux and André Breton. He also became friends with Henri Michaux who advocated »Ecriture automatique« as defined by Breton. Moreover, Dubuffet met Jean Fautrier, exponent of informal painting, who treated his picture surfaces with layered material reliefs. Only two years later, Dubuffet presented his Marionettes de la campagne in a solo exhibition at the Galerie René Drouin. The paintings of this first phase of his work show colorful rural idylls with a network of winding paths and cyclists passing grazing or resting cows in field landscapes – a transfer in plane dimension. Dubuffet followed a painting prevalent in child-like and naïve art as well as the creations of Paul Klee, with their emphasized contours and reduced forms that ignored real proportions. In the paintings from 1943/44 the paint application structured in itself already showed Dubuffet’s interest in the representational value of the color surface. In 1945 Dubuffet started to systematically collect works done by children or naïve artists as well as the mentally ill, initially focusing on »Bildnerei der Geisteskranken« / »Artistry of the Mentally Ill« by Aloise and Adolf Wölfli. For his collection Dubuffet coined the term »Art Brut« / »Raw Art.« This term has sometimes been used as a stylistic category for Dubuffet’s own works that were otherwise placed in the context of Dadaism, Surrealism, or informal painting. In a fitting way, Dubuffet’s statement »my works strive towards irrealism« described his aversion to an inclusion into the »isms« of the time, while at the same time indicating an artistic goal.
During his travels to the Algerian part of the Sahara desert, Dubuffet found the structures of color and form that shaped his main work: earth-colored oil paints enriched with sand, plaster, or fibers, and worked in a relief-like, thick application of paint. Into these reliefs the contours of his figurines and abbreviated reality quotes were scratched and furrowed with the shaft of his brush. Sometimes Dubuffet enhanced the expressive power of his portraits through the application of natural materials like stones, pieces of glass, or ends of string. These materials then acquired the naturalist shape of eyes, buttons, moustaches, or trouser belts. Not only the tangible materiality of Dubuffet’s pictures shows a satirical, grotesque opulence. The strongly contoured shapes – silhouettes, paths, fences, boundaries – too, have their own satirical, but also cheerful laws and create the typical tenor of the artist’s pictorial worlds.
Dubuffet had a solo exhibition at the Galerie Pierre Matisse in New York already in 1947. There he may have met Mark Tobey, who developed a similar pictorial structure. Most probably, though, both artists were familiar with the figurative work of James Ensor. Starting in 1946, Dubuffet also commented on his artistic work in theoretical statements. His decided aim was to overcome conventional aesthetics. As an autodidact he titled his programmatic text with the statement: »Better Art Brut than the Official Art Scene.« Dubuffet’s aesthetics of the austere greyish brown, of trivial finds as assemblage, of the chapped surface done as relief, had its model in Picasso’s sculptural assemblages and in the works of Fautrier. Yet Dubuffet’s works were also pioneering in that they helped to shape what was to become an »aesthetics of the ugly« in 20th-century art.
In 1960 an artistic as well as musical collaboration with Asger Jorn developed. Jorn had been one of the co-founders of the group CoBrA in 1948. In 1962 Dubuffet turned away from the relief surface and created a series of works entitled L’Hourloupe which he continued until 1972. In this series painting was again two-dimensional, varying in meandering and maze-like ways between figurines and sheer form and color surfaces. A comic-like universe was created where vigorous colorful lines and islands take up the narrative part. With the figurative and contour-emphasizing Hourloupe series Dubuffet also entered the realm of sculpture and produced creatures that belonged, as to their temporal context, to Pop Art and Op Art. These assembled creatures were built from singular forms cut out of styrofoam or cast in polyester .
In his last series, the Donnee, Dubuffet adopted the idea of the pure gesture. With scrawly lines in strong colors or broken white he organized the black pictorial ground with an intense emotional expressiveness. In the last year of his life he also wrote his autobiography: »Biographie au pas de course.« Dubuffet had donated his collection of »Art Brut« to the city of Lausanne already in 1976. There a museum was created in the Château de Beaulieu and the Foundation Jean Dubuffet.
On May 12, 1985, Jean Dubuffet died in Paris.
Im Rausch der Kunst. Dubuffet und Art Brut: Ausst.-Kat. museum kunst palast, hg. v. J.-H. Martin, Düsseldorf 2005
Peiry, L.: Art Brut – Jean Dubuffet und die Kunst der Außenseiter, Paris 2005
Krajewski, M.: Jean Dubuffet. Studien zu seinem Frühwerk und zur Vorgeschichte der Art Brut, Bonn 2004
Schenkung Otto van de Loo: Ausst.-Kat. Nationalgalerie Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz, hg. v. F. Jacobi, S. Luig, Berlin 2003
Kunst über Grenzen. Die klassische Moderne von Cézanne bis Tinguely und die Weltkunst – aus der Schweiz gesehen: Ausst.-Kat. Haus der Kunst München, hg. v. Chr. Vitali, H. Gaßner, München, London, N.Y. 1999
Franzke, Andreas: Jean Dubuffet. Schriften in vier Bänden. Berlin, Bern 1994
Messer, Th.: Jean Dubuffet 1901 — 1985, Stuttgart 1990