Book Review: ART BRUT

Form Dubuffet covDubuffet Drawings, 1935-1962 by Isabelle Dervaux (Thames & Hudson, $45)

Jean Dubuffet (1901-84) was a late starter, devoting more time to the family wine business than art until the age of 41, when, in Nazi-occupied Paris, he embarked on “a frenzy of drawing.” That’s how Isabelle Dervaux, curator of modern and contemporary drawings at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, describes his long-delayed explosion of creativity. Her exhibition of 100 varied works on paper is now on show at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through April 30, and it is not to be missed. The immediacy of these works, inspired by graffiti and the art of children and mental patients, was deeply shocking to contemporaries. Dubuffet called it Art Brut, and it quickly won acceptance in New York, where it was shown at the Pierre Matisse Gallery and eagerly acquired by collectors and major institutions.

The companion book is a must for every art lover’s library; superbly produced, full of perceptive essays, and comprehensive in its illustration of the work on show. It helps that the scale of the drawings is intimate, and most were drawn in ink or painted in gouache, both of which can be judged in reproduction much better than large canvases. Though nothing matches the experience of seeing these works close-up and appreciating the rich textures and diverse materials (including butterfly wings), the book comes as close to the originals as anyone could wish–and it’s a steal at the price.

The work is reproduced chronologically, starting with wartime studies of people in the Paris Metro, and continuing with sections on postwar portraits, expeditions to the Sahara, figure studies, collages, witty caricatures of beards, and finally the colorful Paris Circus, which circles back to the early work. A bonus is the selection of letters, printed in French and an English translation, which Dubuffet sent to his dealer, full of insights on what he was currently doing and how. He remarks that drawings are better than paintings, because one can do 50 drawings in a day and the last is likely the finest, whereas one has time to do only five paintings on the same theme before exhaustion sets in. Dubuffet emerges as a true original; one of the great 20th-century artists whose achievement has finally received the acclaim and scholarly attention it deserves.—Michael Webb

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