Observer/Anthony Burgess prize for arts journalism 2022: Rhoda Koenig on Jean Dubuffet’s Brutal Beauty | The Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism

Rhoda Koenig has lived fifty percent her everyday living in New York, 50 % in London. She has reviewed textbooks, art, and theatre for several publications and is the creator of The New Devil’s Dictionary

Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) was in advance of his time, while not, some may really feel, in a superior way. A promoter and collector of what he known as artwork brut (“raw artwork,” now known as outsider artwork), he contended that not only the unskilled but the mentally unwell have been capable of inventive greatness. His notion that education and awareness had been irrelevant, even obstructive, to creativity was taken up, a long time later on, by faculty boards following the style for “self-esteem”, which it certainly was superior at (briefly) generating than artwork.

30 a long time right before Norman Mailer wrote about the artwork of graffiti, Dubuffet was creating it for a gallery. Oil paint, which he noticed as fettered to hierarchy and history, was blended in his operates with humble, anonymous sand, tar, mud, ash, plaster and lava. When he exhibited these paintings in Paris in 1946, the disdainful French labelled them “cacaisme”. Very little did they know that such artists as Chris Ofili and Piero Manzoni would make the metaphor a actuality. A lot of of Dubuffet’s strategies were not new – the art of the crazy had been analyzed in the 20s, and his fascination in aleatory artwork echoed that of the surrealists. But his connect with for “instinct, enthusiasm, caprice, violence, madness” appealed to these who, in the wake of the next entire world war, experienced no fantastic religion in civilisation. Afterwards, he would be in tune with the beatniks and student rebels of the 50s and 60s. Regularly shifting models, he flitted from 1 avant-garde outpost to a further: not for him the tough slog of the infantry.

L’Hourloupe collection
L’Hourloupe collection… described by the artist as ‘grotesque still tragic’. Photograph: Jane Hobson/REX/Shutterstock

The Barbican retrospective Brutal Beauty displays works from every of Dubuffet’s numerous enthusiasms, like butterfly-wing collage (the stuff of kitsch tea trays) and “texturology” (a collection of beige-spattered panels that look like kitchen flooring or tasteful tweed). What is continual is the battle with paint, the feeling that Dubuffet has acquired it down on the floor and is breaking its arm. He would blend liquids that repelled just about every other, these kinds of as oil paint and enamel, generating a blotchy, pock-marked surface area that, when used for flesh, can look as distressing as the final result of a site visitors accident or as perversely attractive and luscious as decay.

The most successful of this sort of is effective right here is The Extravagant A person, in which the bubbling beige and purple paint will become massive, frilly sleeves the exact color as her shrunken, helpless arms and comically bewildered face. (Oddly for a cheerleader for madness and violence, Dubuffet produced quite a few other endearing creatures, amid which, in the exhibition, are a painting of a goofy-seeking cow and a sculpture of a little, astonished gentleman, with open up mouth and dazzled eyes.) Just one miracles, having said that, if Dubuffet hasn’t substituted a mere bodily clash of media for the artist’s eternal wrestle to subdue paint to the expression of a eyesight or strategy.

Certainly, Dubuffet known as for an artwork that was not tainted by society or idea. Even so, he did not necessarily mean for the spectator to strategy his work in an intellectual state of nature. Like any French mandarin, he wrote and lectured, commonly disseminating his non-plan strategies and, as the critic Harold Rosenberg mischievously stated, decreasing “the chance that [the viewer] will just respond to what he sees”.

Dubuffet’s future design was one particular of purple, blue and black traces on a white track record, in some cases as sculpture, scribbles produced a few-dimensional. He called it L’Hourloupe, suggesting the doom-laden “hour of the wolf”, and explained its manifestations as grotesque, still tragic. But the parts on show never live up to this gloomy billing. Wriggling and writhing, the sorts in his abstract paintings practically jump off the wall. And when the fashion is made use of in sculpture, the result is a energetic assemblage of tricolour human-sizing people out for a superior time. With startled or rapacious expressions, ruffled thighs, corrugated limbs, accompanied by a deconstructed pet, they are a welcome eruption of large spirits just after so quite a few rooms of dust and detritus. The fashion would occupy Dubuffet all through the 60s, preserving its zeitgeist in the materials of the ten years – plastic.

The present includes a lot of goods from Dubuffet’s artwork brut collection. The most touching are the brightly coloured, obsessively specific diagrams, symmetrical on not just one particular but two axes, like the base of an massive kaleidoscope. Were the artists searching for the get and certainty that did not exist in their minds or their world? That is only one of the queries influenced by a provocative present that troubles our notions of a lot more than art.