Jean Dubuffet

Malmö Konsthall

I’m not sure what the crucial problem is in Jean Dubuffet’s later production, but it is large enough to make this exhibition appear weak and the majority of its hundred or so paintings, and as many drawings and prints, barren in their good-natured, French-bourgeois dexterity. The exhibition began with the early works of the big “Hourloupe” cycle, 1962–74, and ended with “Mires” (Test patterns, 1983–84). These introductory and concluding works in the chronological installation were the only ones which escaped looking oddly dated; the “collections” (Dubuffet’s word) of the mid ’70s, the “Parachiffres,” “Mondanités” (Mundanities), and “Effigies incertaines” (Uncertain effigies), are weak. Within the carefully drawn edges of amorphous forms cut from paper and pasted to gray, blue, and brown canvases one is confronted with conventional signs from the art informel vocabulary, and with crowds of the kinds of stereotyped faces and figures produced by six- or seven-year-old children. “My spontaneously sensuous representations,” Dubuffet calls these works, but to my mind they are mechanical and dull. Even as “suggestions” in the spirit of art informel (in which the viewer is the ultimate creator), they do not work. For if devil and mad-dog images have become worn-out clichés after only a few years in the iconographic arsenal of neo-expressionism, what is one to say about the “naivist,” battered, staring figure or face that even forty years ago was an emblem of “raw Ur-creativity” for Dubuffet and many other European postwar painters? Does the Romantic conception of mental illness as a fresh source of creativity show its unpleasant side here, in the form of limitation, repression, and maniacal repetition? Or is the anemic expression in many of these works simply a reflection of the growing difficulty of hiding the cynicism of the naivist view of the naive?

On another plane, perhaps the conflicts between Dubuffet’s theory and his practice, and within his theories themselves, paralyze his images. In his writings, which are hard to separate from his painted oeuvre, immediacy and spontaneity are celebrated beyond all otherrules of art. But this susceptibility to the aleatory, the “left-handed,” is opposed by sophisticated, definite statements about strategic decisions in the work, about intentions and meanings. I was not surprised when I read in the catalogue that Dubuffet has 12 full-time assistants; much of his work bears witness to deftness rather than to the mania he prizes.

In this context the energetic brushstrokes of the acrylics in the “Mires” series stood out as comparatively fresh, and pleasantly uncalculated. In their balancing between abstraction and figuration and their surprising, teeming energy, these paintings, the majority of which were shown at the Venice Biennale last year, are like wild traces of the first (and best) “Hourloupe” works. Such cyclical returns are typical of Dubuffet. It is not surprising to find that if one considers the centrifugal character of the “Mires” paintings, their tendency to appear as so many fragments of a potentially infinite fabric, one detects an affinity to the “Texturologies” and “Matériologies” of the late ’50s. Perhaps the “Mires” series also constitutes a small step back toward the materiality of Dubuffet’s painting from the ’50s, despite its acrylic paint and paper ground. And it also resembles the good vintages of Dubuffet’s production in its lack of traditional naivist elements, its distance from Art Brut mythology. This is perhaps what is needed to prevent Dubuffet’s famous statement that “art productions . . . are like Beaujolais wines—they keep their bouquet, I believe, only if they are drunk the same year” from seeming a valid characterization of his own works.

Lars Nittve

Translated from the Swedish by Lars-Håkan Svensson.