Jean Dubuffet, at MUCEM, Marseilles

Jean Dubuffet is the subject of a remarkable exhibition titled A barbarian in Europe, presented at Mucem in Marseilles until 2 September. 1.5 million visitors were expected to visit this recently-opened museum in 2019, which confirms that the success and attractiveness of this institution are growing.

A barbarian in Europe features 290 works and objects from significant collections including Fondation Dubuffet (Paris), musée des Arts décoratifs (Paris), musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac (Paris), LAM (Villeneuve d’Ascq), musée Cantini (Marseille) and Beyeler Foundation (Basel). These works are placed in dialogue with 30 artefacts preserved by the Mucem.

The exhibition centres on the crucial themes explored by the artist including joyful urban and rural scenes that function as antidotes against the horrors of WWII, folk art and puppetry, graffiti and marking, ethnography, psychiatry, counter culture and language. Dubuffet’s oeuvre was propelled by a constant evolution of techniques, seeking to dislocate site, space, and established continuities.

Particularly striking are the sections dedicated to his trips to the Sahara, and his research on “outsider artists” supposedly “free of artistic culture”. Throughout his life, the artist relied on a collaborative network that linked writers, ethnologists, and psychiatrists who participated in the emergence of cultural relativism theorised in the field of anthropology.

Dubuffet made three trips to the south Sahara in 1947, 1948 and 1949 where, as an amateur ethnographer, studied creative practice that involved participatory observation of the native musicians and artists. His travels were motivated by the desire to abandon a culture that he judged as oppressive and harmful to his creativity. The local landscapes reflected his interest in raw materials seen in various paintings displayed in the exhibition including Natura Genitrix, 1952, for example. Dubuffet’s interest in art brut, the art of the institutionalized and the untrained, whether a paleolithic cave artist or the writer of contemporary graffiti, led him to emulate this directly expressive and untutored style in his own work.

A masterpiece from the series of Corps des dames (Bodies of ladies), Le Métafizyx, August 1950, on view in the show, challenges the traditional figure of Venus-like beauty; the title where spelling and gender are distorted, encourages a reflection in which idealism is broken to encourage dissenting materialism.

Further highlights include The Lion dans la jungle, a crude drawing made by Dubuffet at the end of the war. It offers an image placed between the artist’s taste for a children’s drawings, a false naivety that evokes the jungles of Douanier Rousseau, mixed with ideas of prehistoric graffitis. The treatment of the trees and animal, fiercely anti-realistic, demonstrates Dubuffet’s far-reaching inspirations.

The exhibition closes with the presentation of the last book published during Dubuffet’s lifetime, Oriflammes. This short text of four handwritten pages is an oath in which the author challenges the reality of things in the world. It is accompanied by fifteen silkscreen prints from the series Mires.

Dubuffet began painting at the age of seventeen and studied briefly at the Académie Julian, Paris. After seven years, he abandoned painting and became a wine merchant. It was not until 1942 that he began the work which has distinguished him as an outstanding innovator in postwar European painting. His paintings from the early forties in brightly coloured oils were soon followed by works in which he employed such unorthodox materials as cement, plaster, tar, and asphalt—scraped, carved and cut and drawn upon with a rudimentary, spontaneous line.

The exhibition will later travel to the IVAM (Institut Valencià d’Art Modern) in Valencia (from 8 October 2019 until 16 February 2020) and the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (from 8 May 2020 until 3 January 2021) and is a must-see.



Images: Jean Dubuffet, Le Déchiffreur (The Decoder), 26 September 1977, collage of 28 pieces of acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, 178 × 214 cm. Musée d’art moderne et contemporain de Saint-Etienne Métropole. Photo © Cyrille Cauvet / Musée d’art moderne et contemporain de Saint-Etienne Métropole © Adagp, Paris, 2019.


Jean Dubuffet, Oriflammes, Marseille, éd. Ryôan-ji, 1984, four-page book of written text accompanied by 15 silkscreen prints. Collection Dr Bâton © Yves Inchierman © Adagp, Paris 2019.


Jean Dubuffet, Réchaud four à gaz II (Gas stove II), March 1966, oil on canvas, 116 × 89 cm. Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebaek, Denmark © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Donation: The Joseph and Celia Ascher Collection, New York © Adagp, Paris 2019.