Jean Dubuffets Art Brut Movement Essay

After two or three false starts, Jean Dubuffet became a prolific and monumental artist and writer who made a substantial and lasting contribution to world culture. And although he professed a profound disdain for culture and tradition, he cultivated and maintained relationships with leading French intellectuals, philosophers, artists and playwrights until his death in 1985. As important as Dubuffet’s own work was, his collection of outsider art which he termed Art Brut is probably even more important in the influence it has had than his own work.

Art Brut, which translates as raw art, was a collection of work by non-traditional, naive artists who were usually self-taught and made art which was not a response or reaction to historic art movements. The movement itself was directly inspired by the seminal work Artistry of the Mentally Ill by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn who was not alone in his interest in the art of the mentally ill most notably Dr. Walter Morgenthaler and his work A Psychiatric Patient as Artist also contributed to awareness of art being made in non-traditional settings.

In general, the zeitgeist of the latter half of the 1800s and the early part of the 1900s was one of expanding interest in the other. And as the size of the world shrank due to expanding European empires, artists looked for inspiration from non-traditional sources starting with China and Japan and ending with insane asylums and prisons. Works like Prinzhorn’s gave permission to artists to consider scribbles and doodles aesthetically. Thirty years later, tired of flaccid, emasculated, and impotent works, Dubuffet and Breton among other artists started the Art Brut movement in 1948.

These artist looking for art which was powerful, personal, and original, scourged asylums for undiscovered and untaught artists whose works satisfied the need for novelty. These artists believed in general that institutional art – art which emerged from culture – was devoid of oomph. Schizophrenics, obsessives, and deviants who lived in worlds with mythologies all their own, composed works which did not ignore or disregard design rules as normal artists do, they struck out in their own direction.

The rules, these outsiders followed, were seemingly so original that they filled the works with visual heroin for keen eyes craving a hit. Is there any wonder that these artists found such inspiration from these unlikely sources? Of course not, but I will argue that Dubuffet professed admiration for the ordinary and everyday is merely sophistry and that he fundamentally misunderstood the ideas of originality and creative in his Art Brut collection. In short, Dubuffet was a hypocrite and fraud in as much as what he said and did conflicted.

This in no way detracts from his status as one of the most important and interesting artists of the late 20th century. It just notes that he fundamentally misunderstood the core behind his Art Brut collection. Born into a wealthy family of bourgeois intellectuals, Dubuffet was born to be on a psychoanalyst’s couch. He had a nurturing and loving relationship with his mother, but his father preferred the company of books, papers, and intellectual friends to that of his wife or son. 2 Burdened with this baggage, it is no surprise that Dubuffet rejected authority, culture, and tradition and all that they stood for it.

In 1918, he studied painting in a Paris academy. His paintings from this period were mediocre and undistinguished. There was nothing personal about these works, they were stylistically similar to other art students then and now. Recognizing that he wasn’t making a contribution to anything, that he was wasting time studying painting, he dropped out after 6 months. And as many sons of bourgeoisie families have done faced with similar failures, he traveled first to Italy and later to South America where he studied literature, usic, linguistics, philosphy, poetry, psychopathology, and meteorology as only a man of the people can.

During these years of inbetweeness, I imagine him romanticizing his pretended poverty and hardship and later using these tales of flea-ridden hotels in the Amazon to embellish is credentials as a man of the people while he drank fine wine with the Wehrmacht3 in cafes along the Champs-Elysees and later engaged in frivolous philosophical discussions with Parisian and New York elites which praised the savage and criticized the bourgeois as only prodigal children can.

Rich parents and bourgeois culture permitted Dubuffet to be a prig. Well-positioned after supplying wine to the Nazis, Dubuffet again picked up his brush in 1942. This third attempt at contributing was successful and was marked by exciting spurts of growth and evolutions in his personal style. There is no question that from the mid to late 40s until Dubuffet’s death, he made his mark. The question I want to entertain is how did Dubuffet transform himself from a mediocre painter into one of the most interesting and exciting painters to emerge from post war France?

It is an interesting question in light of Dubuffet’s rejection and criticism of the originality and contribution of artists who follow seemingly traditional channels of art education. I will argue that Dubuffet’s style evolved by appropriating ideas from others, just as the artists he criticized did, but he used less orthodox sources. The core idea of Art Brut, a collection/movement Dubuffet started with Andre Breton and other artists in 1948, is the idea of originality of work.

These untrained, largely uneducated, lunatics, perverts, and deviants produced evocative spontaneous works which often are as unstable as the artists themselves. They often used improvised techniques which made their work distinctive, tactile, and visually intractable. The viewer is often left cringing as they try to look away, but can’t. These unconventional pieces snare the viewer by displaying so much raw emotional energy that they connect at a primal level – which is both thrilling and disconcerting. Because of our response to these works, outsider artists’ work appear more energized.

These works entrap the viewer because the rules they follows are ahistorical. Their seeming randomness excites and stimulates because the viewer is not aware of the rules the artist followed while making the piece. But, like all artists, they followed rules. Imagine the response from Henry Darger if someone corrected the anatomy of his Vivien sisters or changed the color of his soldiers’ uniforms. The decisions he made while creating his art were consistent and deliberate. We, the viewers, are surprised when we see girls with penises, because we know girls do not have penises.

The unexpected quality, when considered with the volume of Darger’s work, is invigorating and, I dare say, arousing to the limbic system. With more traditional work, it is easier for us to anticipate and accept the rules artist use and even when the rules are broken they are in line with historic trends and movements. The gap remains bridgeable, because the rules broken are not outside of the expected. If we consider Picasso and how he contorts and shifts eyes and ears around and transforms bicycle parts into bulls, once he has done it, we understand it and whether we like it or not we are never left feeling displaced.

Dubuffet believed that art which failed to make us uneasy was pointless dribble. For him, culture was a straight jacket which discouraged creativity and direct expression of emotion. If he was going to make his mark, he was going to it by waking us up from our slumber with a bucket of ice cold water. It might be a unpleasant awaking, but that what he believed was required. So, he borrowed ideas and techniques from outsiders to make art which was provocative, disturbing, distasteful, and unpleasant, but Dubuffet was not alone in this pursuit.

Other artists, especially the surrealists4, also looked to lunatics and deviants seeking to distinguish themselves from the cultural norms of their time. In 1945, Dubuffet saw a show of Jean Fautier’s work which was highly influential in directing Dubuffet’s work through the 1950s. Smudged and smeared, Fautrier art was raw, messy, and unrefined. Inspired by works like Fautrier, Dubuffet adulterated his paints with pebbles, mud, dirt, straw, tar, and any thing else he could think of that would prevent him from painting with a brush.

His oils became a thick paste in which he could scratch and mark. His goal was to be crude and unrefined and to force himself to abandon traditional techniques. This exchange and appropriation of ideas is important in our discussion because it points out Dubuffet’s career lasting hypocrisy of criticizing artists who were stuck in tradition, could only follow accepted tastes, and never had an original or independent thought in any of their work. I would argue that Dubuffet was just as guilty of finding inspiration in other’s work as the most entrenched traditional artists are.