Jean Dubuffet

Fern in the Hat


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Jean Dubuffet 1901–1985
Original title
Fougère au chapeau
Lithograph on paper
Image: 527 × 400 mm
Purchased 1984

Catalogue entry

Jean Dubuffet 1901-1985

P77031 Fern in the Hat 1953

Lithograph 527 x 400 (20 3/4 x 15 3/4) on Vélin d'Arches paper 650 x 499 (25 5/8 x 19 3/4); printed by Mourlot Frères in an edition of 60
Inscribed ‘J. Dubuffet' below image b.r., ‘Fougère au Chapeau' below image bottom centre and ‘1/60' below image b.l.
Purchased at Sotheby's (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Lit: Noël Arnaud, Jean Dubuffet Grafik, exh. cat., Silkeborg Museum 1961, p.202 and p.250
Repr: [Max Loreau (ed.)], Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, IX, Paris 1968, p.45 fig.53, as ‘Fougèreau Chapeau'

P77031 was printed in December 1953 in sandy yellow, brown and black inks. The lithographic stone used to print the black outline of the figure and the black drips and splashes found in this image appears to have been used also to print the black and white print called ‘The Feather in the Hat' (repr. [Max Loreau (ed.)] 1968, p.41 fig.47, as ‘La Plume au chapeau'). Both works are among a series of thirteen colour and fourteen black and white prints that Dubuffet made in the period October to December 1953 when he returned to print-making after an interval of three years.

In the summer of that year Dubuffet holidayed in the Savoie region of France in the company of a friend named Pierre Bettencourt who caught butterflies. Dubuffet made collages of butterfly wings and, when in the autumn months these were not readily available, he made collages of ink-stained paper that had been torn hapharzardly into small pieces. Disliking the fact that the cut and glued edges of the pieces of paper were so visible, Dubuffet hit upon the idea of transferring the image of the assembled collage onto lithographic stones using special transfer paper. The prints that resulted from this procedure had the varied texture and surprising forms and images he desired and, unlike the collages, had the appearance of being made all in one piece. Writing in 1960 he recalled his method of making these prints:

During the last two months of 1953 I occupied myself principally with a series of lithographs ... certain of them in colour, most in black and white ... which were done with a very special technique. They resulted from imprints made with greasy ink on sheets of transfer paper (sheets specially prepared for transferring onto lithographic stones). I cut pieces out of those sheets, stuck them together with paste, and finally transferred the whole thing to the stone. For those printed in colour I used several of the imprints and printed them one on top of the other in different colours, according to how things worked out in the long trial sessions at the printer's, where a spirit of improvisation became the order of the day (‘Mémoire sur le dévelopement de mes travaux', quoted in [Loreau (ed.)] 1968, p.103).

In this experimental atmosphere Dubuffet began to use unorthodox materials in his print-making. He would spread dust, threads, sugar, salt, tapioca and semolina, or parts of vegetables onto a perspex sheet. Using lithographic ink, he would paint the sheet and then, employing either his hands or a rolling-pin, press onto the surface a sheet of lithographic transfer paper. The image of this paper would then be transfered to a lithographic stone or piece of zinc from which the prints would be pulled.

In making his textured surfaces Dubuffet was particularly drawn to using leaves and ferns. In P77031 imprints of ferns are found in the area of the cheek and left shoulder of the figure as well as in its hat. In lithographs of the period such as ‘Leaves with Bird' (P77184, repr. Max Loreau, Jean Dubuffet: Délits, Déportements, Lieux de Haut Jeu, Paris 1971, p.169) such vegetable matter dominated the imagery. A botanist friend named Dereux supplied Dubuffet with a collection of dried and pressed plants. In a text written in 1957 Dubuffet stated that he had asked his friend to collect for him only the most common plants because he had a certain distrust for rare things and he exalted in all that was most ordinary. He wrote that someone might point out that since he transformed the appearance of the materials he incorporated in his prints it surely did not matter whether the elements were rare or common. To this he responded that the success and value of such work depended above all upon the intellectual approach of the artist (‘Empreintes', in L'Homme du commun à l'ouvrage, Paris 1973, p.243). He then described the excitement and passion he felt in transforming the elements of everyday life into the materials of art:

It is a question of a manipulation - philosophic or poetic (it is the same thing: philosophy has never been more than leaden-footed poetry - which consists of bringing close together the most diverse facts in a very obvious and convincing form, of provoking the sliding from one level to another, from one order to another, of making just one thing capable of becoming at any moment any of the others ... My little bit of grass soaked in ink becomes a tree, becomes a play of light on the ground, becomes a fantastic cloud in the sky, becomes a whirlpool, becomes breath, becomes cry, becomes gaze (ibid., p.248).

The botanical elements used in P77031, however, are not greatly disguised. The imprint of the fern in the hat suggests, or stands in place of, a feather, while the fern-shapes elsewhere appear to play a largely decorative and textural role.

P77031 appears to have been made in three stages. A yellow tusche was roughly and unevenly applied by brush directly onto a lithographic stone, leaving the area of the figure left unpainted. The textured areas of brown ink suggest that Dubuffet used both direct impressions taken from ferns, threads and even, on the left hand side of the print, the side of the artist's hand, and irregular curvilinear torn-up pieces of inked transfer paper in making the second stone. The final stage appears to have been the pouring, dripping and vigorous splattering of black ink to create the outline shape of the figure directly onto a third stone. The print would have been made by the successive printing of the three stones.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.323-4


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