Illustrated companion

In his lecture Anticultural Positions, given in 1951. Dubuffet said 'our culture is a garment which no longer fits. It is more and more estranged from our true life. I aspire to an art plugged directly into everyday living.' Dubuffet found his inspiration for such an art in what he called Art Brut, the art of outsiders, particularly the insane, and the anonymous art of graffiti. These things had a force and vitality stemming from the direct expression of their creators' feelings, untrammelled by any consideration of 'art'.

As well as reflecting the crude vision and energy of graffiti in the style of his images, Dubuffet developed a way of painting in which the colours and textures, and the materials themselves, evoked in an unprecedentedly direct way the urban environment in which graffiti, and the people and scenes that Dubuffet painted, are found. His paintings were made up of a thick messy impasto, in which oil paint was mixed with grit and other substances, including in some cases tar, as used for city roads. His use of tar was signalled in the title of his second exhibition in Paris in 1946, Mirobolus Macadam et Cie - Hautes P?tes. (Hautes P?tes, 'high pastes' is the term Dubuffet coined to describe these paintings). Furthermore, the images in the paintings were scratched or incised into the surface as graffiti are scratched onto a city wall.

In 'Monsieur Plume' this characteristic is particularly vivid, not least because, typically, Dubuffet has cut through a surface layer to a lighter ground beneath. This painting was included in Dubuffet's third Paris exhibition, in 1947, titled Portraits ? Ressemblance extraits, ? Ressemblance cuite et confite dans la M?moire, Ressemblance ?clat?e dans la M?moire de M. Jean Dubuffet Peintre (Portraits with extracted Likeness, with Likeness cooked and confected in the Memory, with Likeness exploded in the Memory of Mr Jean Dubuffet Painter). In similar playful and ironic vein the catalogue was headed 'Les gens sont bien plus beaux qu'ils croient' (People are much more beautiful than they think). These portraits, done from memory, were of his friends, writers, artists, art critics and art dealers. This is one of the six portraits Dubuffet made between December 1946 and January 1947, of the poet, painter and draughtsman Henri Michaux. The nickname 'Monsieur Plume' translates as 'Mr Pen' and probably refers to Michaux's prominence as a writer, combined with the fact that, even as a visual artist he was very much a draughtsman, strongly influenced by oriental calligraphy. The French writer Andr? Pieyre de Mandiargues commented on these works: 'Inscribed as if with the point of a nail in the stained plaster these are the best portraits of modern times.'

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.195