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Jean Dubuffet: Soul of the Underground review by Mark Basco

Updated on April 2, 2015
Beard of Uncertain Returns November 1959 Oil on canvas
Beard of Uncertain Returns November 1959 Oil on canvas | Source

French artist Jean Dubuffet is known for his defiant approach in art making and his criticism on “high art” and mainstream culture, making him one of the few rebels in the art world that I truly appreciate. Jean Dubuffet: Soul of the Underground 1959, showing at MoMA was the first show that I have seen of Dubuffet. When entering the exhibit I was instantly drawn to the materials and blobs of form that my eye fixated on. I had to get closer. Soul of the Underground was the first work that I spent time on. My eye moved from corner to corner looking for patches of color and structure to piece together in my head. I found myself getting closer and closer to this piece; even crossing the black line that a security guard warned me about. As I stepped back from the piece, the amorphous blobs dissolved into a landscape, complimenting the color and material choices of his other works in the exhibit.

The monochromatic abstract paintings where enjoyable, but the figural pieces are what I enjoyed the most. Beard of Uncertain Returns 1959, painted with oil on canvas, has as much surface range as the other pieces with actual pebbles, sand, plastic, dead leaves, etc. These interpretations are fun to look at; almost child like or primitive depending on what colors he used. The thickly applied impasto, scratched surfaces, collaging and use of unusual materials are unconventional and are key to Dubuffet’s “outsider art” views.

A major part of the exhibit was a collection of lithographs that have the same treatment, with unusual materials, as his paintings. The prints have a variety of arrangements, mostly representational, done with the same style as his other figures. The lithograph Vacations 1953 depicts three figures floating in a black and yellow space. The figures themselves are very stiff but have very expressive facial expressions that seemed to carry some kind of narrative. There were plenty to look at and I liked them in a group so placing them intimately together, I thought was effective. The collaging and using of natural fibers like leaves, fruit peels, and dirt, in these prints were cohesive to his other work and is a great exploration of naturally made textured surfaces. His fascination with the surface and the use of natural materials makes the work feel emotionally raw for me. There is a real sense of grit and rough quality mixed with interesting compositions that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut to create a type of art unrestricted from intellectual concerns. This “raw art” or “outsider art” was art produced by non-professionals that worked dissimilarly from the norms of that time. Though Dubuffet encouraged this primitive way of making he often wrote about his art with a very scholarly approach. These writings often did not correspond well with Dubuffet’s ideals about art. Art critic Hilton Kramer even says, "There is only one thing wrong with the essays Dubuffet has written on his own work: their dazzling intellectual finesse makes nonsense of his claim to a free and untutored primitivism. They show us a mandarin literary personality, full of chic phrases and up-to-date ideas, that is quite the opposite of the naïve visionary” (3).

With Dubuffet’s rebel nature, especially to “high art,” he was known to reject conformists ideas which made me rethink of the context and space of where the exhibit was being shown. Knowing Dubuffet’s principles about “high art” and the history of what post war France was, I found it ironic that I he would have his own exhibition in MOMA which in my opinion would be considered “high art.” This brings up an interesting subject dealing with the changes in aesthetics over time. I also question Dubuffet’s intentions in challenging the viewer to recognize primitive art as beautiful and to look past art norms or does he simply create this kind of art aimed at the people that already respond to “raw art.” I know that Dubuffet’s rebelliousness was accepted with what was going on during the 1960’s but I just find it amusing that this is how it turned out; ironic but essential.

Vacations 1953 Lithograph
Vacations 1953 Lithograph | Source
Soul of the Underground December 1959 Oil on aluminum foil on composition board
Soul of the Underground December 1959 Oil on aluminum foil on composition board | Source

Work Cited

"EXHIBITIONS." MoMA. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

"Jean Dubuffet Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works." The Art Story. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.

Kramer, Hilton (May 1962). "Playing the Primitive". The Reporter. p. 43. Retrieved 16 September 2012.


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