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Jean Dubuffet
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Le Havre, France
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
The radical French artist Jean Dubuffet gave up a career as a wine merchant following World War II to challenge the conventional tastes of the art world with dark, primitive works in thick textures, only to later gain fame and fortune with a new graphic style in bright colors expressed in paintings, prints and sculptures. Jean-Philippe-Arthur Dubuffet was born in Le Havre in 1901, the son of a prosperous wine merchant. Educated in the local schools, he also took art classes at Le Havre’s École des Beaux-Arts. After receiving his baccalaureate degree he went to Paris and enrolled in the Académie Julian, where he studied painting for six months. He then lived in Paris studying art, music and literature on his own and met Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), Fernand Léger (1881-1955) and other avant-garde artists and writers in Paris. During a trip to Switzerland he obtained a copy of a book of drawings by persons with mental illness, which made a large impression on him. After a year of military service, he quit painting in 1924 and went to Buenos Aires where he worked as a draftsman for an industrial firm. Dubuffet returned to Le Havre to work in his father’s wine business in 1925, and in 1930 set up his own wholesale wine business in Bercy, near Paris. He began to paint again around 1933 and for a few years turned the business over to his partner to paint full time. By 1938 he had quit painting and returned to the wine business. Drafted into the French army in 1939, he was a discipline problem and was discharged the next year. Dubuffet resumed painting in 1942, and in 1944 had a solo exhibition at the Galerie René Drouin in Paris. He began drawing caricature portraits, which were shown in the same gallery in 1946, and sold his wine business in 1947. The Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York City mounted a one-man show of Dubuffet’s works in 1947, followed by several exhibitions in succeeding years. The culture and landscapes Dubuffet experienced during his three extended trips to the Algerian Sahara Desert had a great influence on his art. He had begun collecting works of art by those mentally ill, which he called “Art Brut” (“outsider art”), formed the Foyer de l’art brut to hold the collection, and mounted an exhibition of 200 of the works at the Galerie René Drouin in 1949. His 1950 Corps de dames (Ladies’ Bodies), paintings of corpulent nude women, confirmed his rebellious artistic image. Many of his lithographs and paintings from the early 1950s were nearly monochromatic, sometimes made with sand or glass in the paint, such as his landscape studies. Dubuffet began creating assemblages made of fragments of his paintings, various natural materials, aluminum foil and other objects. Major solo exhibitions of his works were mounted at the Cercle Volnay, Paris (1954), the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1955) and the Städtisches Museum, Leverkusen, Germany (1957, his first museum retrospective). The Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris displayed 402 of Dubuffet’s works in a major retrospective exhibition in 1960. He devoted much of his energy during the late 1950s and early 1960s to printmaking, particularly lithography, and pen drawings. In 1962 the Museum of Modern Art, New York originated another retrospective exhibition, which traveled to Chicago and Los Angeles. By this time Dubuffet began working on a new series he called L’Hourloupe, an invented word, in a new style involving thick black loops filled with bright primary colors, primarily red and blue. Executed in prints, paintings and statues, it became his signature style through 1974. His large statutes and monumental Édifices were made of polystyrene plastic, which could be cut and molded. Notable examples include Groupe de quatre arbres (1969-1972, Group of Four Trees, 11.5 meters high), commissioned by David Rockefeller and Chase Manhattan Bank for the bank’s new New York headquarters building, and Jardin d’email (1968-1974, Enamel Garden, 20x30 meters), created for the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands. In the early 1970s Dubuffet created a theater/dance project called “Coucou Bazar,” with scenery and costumes in the Hourloupe style, presented in 1973 at retrospective exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the Grand Palais, Paris. In 1975 Dubuffet returned to assemblages, making a series of large works called Théâtres de Mémoire (Theaters of Memory). He continued to paint and draw into the 1980s. The Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris) and the Guggenheim Museum (New York) mounted exhibitions celebrating his 80th birthday at in 1981. Dubuffet died at his home in Paris in May 1985. (TNB 10/2014) Selected bibliography: Franzke, Andreas. Dubuffet. Translated by Robert Erich Wolf. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1981. Husslein-Arco, Agnes, ed. Jean Dubuffet: Spur eines Abenteuers = Jean Dubuffet: Trace of an Adventure. Exhibition catalog. London, Munich and New York: Prestel Publishing, 2003.