Jean Dubuffet

The Busy Life


Not on display
Jean Dubuffet 1901–1985
Original title
La Vie affairée
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1302 x 1956 mm
frame: 1318 x 1975 x 59 mm
Presented by the artist 1966

Display caption

This work belongs to a series that Dubuffet called ‘beaten pastes’ because the main paint layer resembled butter, into which he scratched the graffiti-like figures. He wrote ‘I am at a loss to explain just what it was in these paintings that gave me - that still gives me - such a keen satisfaction. It probably has something to do with the physical pleasure derived from spreading freely, with a large spatula as broad as one’s hand, this beautiful white paste... then letting the long knife wander over the smooth paste, tracing with such perfect ease graffiti of sonorous colours.’

Gallery label, November 2005

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Catalogue entry

Jean Dubuffet born 1901 [- 1985]

T00867 La Vie affairée (The Busy Life) 1953

Inscribed 'J. Dubuffet | 53' t.r.
Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 77 (130 x 195)
Presented by the artist 1966
Exh: Jean Dubuffet, Galerie René Drouin exhibition at the Cercle Volney, Paris, March-April 1954 (127); The New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptors, Museum of Modern Art, New York, May-August 1955 (works not numbered, repr.); Minneapolis Institute of Arts, September-October 1955 (works not numbered, repr.); Los Angeles County Museum, November 1955-January 1956 (works not numbered, repr.); San Francisco Museum of Art, February-March 1956 (works not numbered, repr.); Jean Dubuffet (1943-1957), Städtisches Museum, Schloss Morsbroich, Leverkusen, August-October 1957 (33, repr.); Documenta II, Kassel, July-October 1959 (Dubuffet 3, repr.); Jean Dubuffet 1942-1960, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, December 1960-February 1961 (120, repr.); Jean Dubuffet, Museum of Modern Art, New York, February-April 1962 (98); Art Institute of Chicago, May-June 1962 (98); Los Angeles County Museum, July-August 1962 (98); Jean Dubuffet, Galerie Beyeler, Basle, February-April 1965 (32, repr. in colour); Jean Dubuffet: Paintings, Tate Gallery, April-May 1966 (56, repr. in colour); Jean Dubuffet, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, June-August 1966 (49, repr.); Jean Dubuffet: A Retrospective, Guggenheim Museum, New York, April-July 1973 (64, repr.); Jean Dubuffet, Grand Palais, Paris, September-December 1973 (68, repr. in colour)
Lit: Peter Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet (New York 1962), pp.78, 80, repr. p.82; Max Loreau, Catalogue des Travaux de Jean Dubuffet VIII: Lieux Momentanés, Pâtes Battues (Paris 1967), No.89, pp.76-7, repr. in colour
Repr: The Tate Gallery (London 1969), p.160 in colour

Painted in August 1953. It is one of the series of paintings known as 'Beaten Pastes' (Pâtes battues) executed between March and December 1953 of which Dubuffet has written: 'These paintings are done with a smooth light coloured (almost white) paste, fairly thick, spread unevenly and rapidly with a plasterer's knife over layers already thickly painted and still fresh, in such a way that the various colours underneath show where the paste is missing, as well as tint the paste here and there. Then rudimentary figures, hastily traced with a round knife cutting into the paste, play over the surface like graffiti, the variously coloured strokes corresponding to the generally dark colours of the previously painted layers. I derived a curiously keen satisfaction from these designs cut into the paste (this white paste, ordinary pigment so finely ground as to resemble butter, gives them a lively subtle character). I am not sure whether this was due to the delicately shaded colorations they made visible, or to the way they seem to record the hasty character of the hand's movements (to me very eloquent). Then finally with a large brush I once more applied (but this time over all the layers) a few colours which blended and blurred all the rest. I am at a loss to explain just what it was in these paintings that gave me - that still gives me - such a keen satisfaction. It has probably something to do with the physical pleasure derived from spreading freely, with a large spatula as broad as one's hand, this beautiful white paste, dazzling and consistent, over a ground previously covered with dark colours, and then letting the long knife with rounded end wander over the smooth paste, tracing with such perfect ease graffiti of sonorous colours. It is the same pleasure that guides the hand of anyone who traces a very hasty design or a word in the fresh plaster of a wall or the freshly smoothed cement of a floor. The hasty uncontrolled character of the resulting design in my picture affords me acute pleasure. I get a feeling of satisfaction from the rough and rudimentary character that this hasty drawing gives to the objects I wish to evoke - the lines intentionally drawn to indicate the presence of some object are often indistinguishable from those that result from the rapid application of the paste and its "misses", so that the enveloping indefiniteness bathes the whole picture in a kind of ambiguity. Indeed far from keeping me from successfully evoking the subject I set out to represent, this ambiguity actually helps more in this respect than if the objects were clearly defined. It would seem that my obsession for representing things only in a rudimentary and uncertain manner forces the imagination of the person looking at the painting to function more vigorously than it would if the objects were more precisely represented, to such a degree that everything appears to his imagination, thus violently stimulated, with unaccustomed intensity'. (Quoted in Peter Selz, op. cit., pp.78, 80).

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.180-1, reproduced p.180

Film and audio


Work in Focus: Jean Dubuffet

Author Mark Haddon on The Busy Life by Jean Dubuffet


Mark Haddon on Jean Dubuffet

Author and artist Mark Haddon came to Tate to look at one of his favourite paintings


Microtate 18

Michael Rakowitz , Mark Haddon , Andy Holden and Richard Aldrich

Contemporary artists on a work in the Tate collection


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