Barbican Art Gallery (London, UK): Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty
In April 1950 the French artist Jean Dubuffet embarked on a series of paintings entitled Corps de dames or 'ladies' bodies'. The distortion of the female body in these paintings - it appeared as if flattened by a steamroller, with sexual parts laid bare - has led some commentators to compare Dubuffet's work to the contemporaneous series of Woman paintings by the Dutch-American painter Willem de Kooning. However, the grotesqueness of Dubuffet's images is often countered by the smiling insouciance of the figures. Furthermore, the marked parallels between the women's bodies and the natural landscape can be seen as celebratory of women's fertility. The writer and close friend of the artist, Georges Limbour, wrote in 1958, 'the famous Corps de Dames seemed monstrous to those who wanted to reduce them to what they were only in part - women. The texture of these bodies shows clearly that they are not big hunks of flesh, but rather terrestial slime, the substance of mountains and moors' (Jean Dubuffet: Paintings 1943-1957, exhibition catalogue, Arthur Tooth and Sons, London 1958, unpaginated).
The Tree of Fluids was first exhibited at the Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, in 1952. In the catalogue text 'Landscape Tables, Landscapes of the Mind, Stones of Philosophy' (reprinted in Selz, pp.63-72), Dubuffet described how, using zinc oxide and a 'lean but viscous' varnish, he had developed a special paste which repelled oil paint and created fantastic and unpredictable effects:
This paste, while still fresh, repels the oil, and the glazes one applies on it organise themselves into enigmatic branchings. Gradually, as it dries, its resistance to the fat coloured sauces weakens, and it assembles them differently. Its behaviour changes every fifteen minutes These branched facts, running trees, by which I saw my figures illuminated, have transported me into an invisible world of fluids circulating in the bodies and around them, and have revealed to me a whole active theatre of facts, which perform, I am certain, at some level of life. (original translation)
In the same passage Dubuffet mentioned The Tree of Fluids as a prime example of the application of his new technique to the female body, a subject which had dominated his work for the previous year and more. Explaining why he had become interested in this genre, he wrote:
the female body, of all the objects in the world, is the one that has long been associated (for Occidentals) with a very specious notion of beauty (inherited from the Greeks and cultivated by the magazine covers); now it pleases me to protest against this aesthetics [sic], which I find miserable and most depressing. Surely I aim for a beauty, but not that one The beauty for which I aim needs little to appear - unbelievably little. Any place - the most destitute - is good enough for it. I would like people to look at my work as an enterprise for the rehabilitation of scorned values, and, in any case, make no mistake, a work of ardent celebration.
The painting was previously owned by E.J. Power (1899-1993), one of the great collectors of post-war international art in Britain.
Peter Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1962, pp.52-3, reproduced in colour
Mildred Glimcher and Jean Dubuffet, Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality, New York 1987
Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Brancusi to Beuys: Works from the Ted Power Collection, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1996, p.32, reproduced p.33 in colour
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Film and audio
ListenThis month David Harsent presents his poem on Jean Dubuffet’s Le Arbres de Fluides 1950, and Susan Hiller’s After the …