Jean Dubuffet

Typist [from ‘Matter and Memory’]

1944, published 1945

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Jean Dubuffet 1901–1985
Original title
Dactylographe [from 'Matière et mémoire']
Lithograph on paper
Image: 255 × 153 mm
Purchased 1986

Catalogue entry

Jean Dubuffet 1901-1985

P77137 Typist 1944, pub. 1945 from ‘Matière et mémoire' 1945

Lithograph 255 x 153 (10 1/8 x 6) on Auvergne paper 325 x 252 (12 3/4 x 10 1/8); printed by Fernand Mourlot, Paris and published by Mourlot Frères in an edition of 60
Inscribed ‘18' below image b.r. in another hand; printed inscriptions ‘J.D.', ‘25 x 44' and ‘à Georges Limbour' b.l. of image and block of text (see below) near t.r. of image
Purchased at Christie's (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Lit: Noël Arnaud, Jean Dubuffet Grafik, exh. cat., Silkeborg Museum 1961, p.185, repr. p.24, as ‘Dactylographe'; [Max Loreau (ed.)], Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, I, Paris 1966, p.183, repr. p.191 no.360, as ‘Dactylographe'; Max Loreau, Jean Dubuffet. Délits, Déportements, Lieux de Haut Jeu, Paris 1971, p.21. Also repr: Francis Ponge, Matière et mémoire, Paris 1945, pl.XVIII; Jean Dubuffet. Livres et Estampes: Récents enrichissements, exh. cat., Bibliothèque nationale, Paris 1982, p.27, as ‘Dactylographe'; Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, 1986, p.101

The image shows a secretary at work at her desk, presumably transcribing the paper with shorthand in front of her onto her typewriter. Although the beginnings and endings of the lines on the typewritten paper are missing, the references to ‘stocks' and ‘creditors' suggests that the scene depicted is that of a business office. The typewritten note reads as follows:

la réalisation du
mieux des stocks
placés sous sèques
tre permettra
de verser aux
créanciers chiro
graphaires un divi

The financial content of this paper perhaps reflected Dubuffet's experience of working in the family wine business for many years in the 1920s and 1930s. The shorthand characters on the paper on the desk do not appear to have any clear meaning.

Georges Limbour, to whom this print is dedicated, was a boyhood friend of the artist. Together they enrolled at the Académie Julien, Paris in 1918. Dubuffet abandoned the course to pursue his studies independently but he and Limbour maintained their friendship. During the Second World War Limbour played a key role in making Dubuffet's work better known. After several false starts, Dubuffet returned to painting in 1942. Although he felt he was too old to have a career as a professional artist, he nonetheless wanted to paint for his own pleasure, pursuing his own non-academic path. One day in 1943 Limbour brought the novelist Jean Paulhan to Dubuffet's studio, who in turn brought a number of leading French poets and writers, including Francis Ponge. Through these contacts Dubuffet rapidly became part of the Parisian literary and artistic avant garde.

By this point Dubuffet had already reached what were to be the main premises of his mature work. Influenced by the cult of primitive and prehistoric art, together with that of children and the mentally ill championed by the Surrealists in the interwar period, Dubuffet rejected the modelling of volumes and the rigid adherence to the rules of perspective which were the hallmarks of academic art. In P77137 the side and top of the desk are depicted as if they are on a single plane, the typist's hands and fingers are individually drawn in a manner deliberately reminiscent of children's drawings, whilst the typewriter, with its seemingly organic protusions, appears comically animated. In common with the Surrealists, Dubuffet believed that the cult of genius and belief in the power of reason to elevate man above nature had had its day. Adopting what he called an ‘anti-cultural' stance, he proclaimed himself an artist of the people, one who responded to what was ordinary and uncomplex. This position, however, by no means entailed a rejection of modern life. He said in 1951, ‘I aspire to an art which is directly plugged into our current life, an art which takes its starting point from this current life, which emanates directly from our real life and from our real moods' (‘Positions Anticulturelles' in Jean Dubuffet, L'homme du commun à l'ouvrage, Paris 1973, p.68).

Dubuffet had first made prints in 1921 but it was not until July 1944 that he began to produce lithographs when he worked briefly as an apprentice in the printing studios of Fernand Mourlot. From September to November of that year he worked on the lithographs that formed the illustrations of the album published by Mourlot and accompanied by texts by Francis Ponge entitled Matière et mémoire (‘Matter and Memory').

The title was that of the famous volume published in 1908 by the leading French philospher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) concerning the relationship of mind and body. By many critics it was seen as the most perfect expression of Bergson's understanding of intuition and what he called the ‘élan vital' and exercised a great popular appeal. The allusion to Bergson's work in the title of the Dubuffet series of lithographs expressed not only a general respect for the work of this philosopher but also an honouring of the manner of his death. Although he had Jewish parentage, Bergson felt increasingly drawn to Catholicism in the last decades of his life. An awareness of the growing tide of anti-semitism in the 1930s, however, made him choose not to convert. To show solidarity with Jews in occupied Paris during the War, he chose to leave his sick-bed and stand in line in order to register as a Jew, in accordance with the law recently imposed by the Vichy government and from which he refused the exemption he had been offered. He developed pneumonia and died a few weeks later in January 1941. At the time little could be done to celebrate the life and brave death of the philosopher, but his name was much honoured in the literature of the immediate post-War period.

Although the choice of the title ‘Matter and Memory' for the Ponge and Dubuffet collaborative work undoubtedly signalled a hommage to Bergson, the title can also be seen as eminently suitable for Dubuffet's work of this period. The reference to matter may perhaps be seen as the artist's avowal of his fascination with non-art materials and the substances of daily life he used in his paintings. This tendency in his work was quickly exemplified in a series of paintings of 1946 exhibited under the title ‘Mirobolus, Macadam et Cie' in which he used a mortar-like compound including paint, sand, tar, gravel, stones and string. ‘Memory', the second part of the title, refered perhaps to the fact that, whilst he often recorded his ideas for paintings in sketches made from life, Dubuffet tended to compose carefully his finished works from memory. It was perhaps in recognition of Dubuffet's relative inexperience in the field of print-making and of his debt to the print-maker Fernand Mourlot that the album was subtitled, ‘ou les lithographes à l'école' (‘or Lithographs Made at School').

The illustrations in the album feature chiefly images of people, either presented as interesting in themselves (for example, ‘Profile of a Man with Moustache', repr. Silkeborg 1961, p.34, as ‘Profil d'homme moustachu' and ‘Miss Swing', repr. ibid., p.33, as ‘Mademoiselle swing') or engaged in specific activities, such as eating, cycling or grinding coffee. Amongst those images which, like ‘Typist', show specifically modern machinery and appliances are ‘The Torture of the Telephone' (repr. ibid., p.31, as ‘Le Supplice du téléphone') and ‘Cyclotourism' (repr. ibid., p.36, as ‘Cyclotourisme').

In a text he wrote in 1945 known as ‘Rough Draft for a Popular Lecture on Painting', Dubuffet discussed the reasons why he chose to record moments of daily life, taking as his example the scene of his wife grinding coffee in a hand-operated mill. He said that one day, although he had seen this action performed a thousand times, he suddenly saw the milling of coffee as a perfect subject for art. ‘Isn't turning the coffee-mill such an essential gesture in our lives, a gesture that's repeated every day, such a touching gesture for anyone because: it's so general!' (Mildred Glimcher and Jean Dubuffet, Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality, New York 1987, p.43). Although we find certain activities too ordinary to be paid any attention to, anyone coming from another culture, he said, would find them strange and fascinating. The text shows that at this point in the lecture Dubuffet planned to show slides of drawings entitled ‘Woman Grinding Coffee', ‘Telephone Operator' and ‘Typist'. It is not known if these images were in fact drawings and not prints, but their titles suggest they were at least related to the lithographic illustrations of the same subjects found in Matière et mémoire.

‘Typist' is the eighteenth of the thirty-four plates used in this volume. There are sixty copies of it on paper the size of P77137 and an extra thirteen on paper measuring 240 x 340 mm.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.326-8

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