Excerpt from Dubuffet and the City: People, Place, and Urban Space
It is impossible not to contradict oneself, just as it is impossible to avoid collisions on paths that have only one slope, but one must organize thoughts following the model of the circulation of cars in Tokyo, with lanes that are superimposed onto one another and on which traffic is organized in different directions.—Jean Dubuffet, 1978
More than ever, the city is all we have.
– Rem Koolhaas, 1994
On the wall of the room in which I write this book, at the Fondation Dubuffet in Paris, hangs a large painting titled Dramatisation. (1) It depicts, in its center, a figure seated at a desk, in the same position as mine as I sit here writing. In the painting, by Jean Dubuffet, the figure lifts its head away from the table and looks out to the left, just as I, in an almost perfect mirror image, look up to the right to meet its gaze. But while I sit in a silent and empty room, the figure in the painting is surrounded by people and places: figures walking and talking in pairs, men alone, in suits and ties, looking worried, or perhaps just lost in their thoughts. They do not interact with the seated figure, however, because each is enclosed in its own space – a space that is delimited by a brushstroke or by the limits of the sheet of paper on which it is painted. The work, indeed, is an assemblage of smaller paintings on paper, combined by the artist onto a canvas support. No fewer than forty-two pieces are fitted together in the picture, which measures approximately three meters (well over 10 feet) wide and over two meters (almost 7 feet) high.
Between the scenes containing figures are areas covered in patterns, scrawls, and other drawings. In some of them, I can make out a pond, a parking lot, the façade of a modern building, and, seen from above, a dizzying network of highways stacked one above the other, with cars moving simultaneously in different directions. Or perhaps I am just imagining things, and it is the figure seated at the desk who is remembering experiences, moments, and places. Then again, maybe the scenes and places have nothing to do with one another or with the seated figure in the center of the picture. In the same way that cars on a highway enclose random lives and stories that happen to move briefly into view of one another, Dubuffet, here, may just have been inviting us to think about things that happen concurrently and independently from one another in different corners of a large, bustling place—a city, let’s say. For although the series entitled ‘Théâtres de mémoire’ (1975 – 79), which includes this painting of 1978, is not explicitly about the metropolis, the way in which the works in this cycle juxtapose heterogeneous scenes, moments, and patterns to create large pictures always seems to me to evoke a certain idea of the contemporary city: fragmented, busy, and discontinuous, yet interconnected through invisible networks.
My aim in this book is, first of all, to trace and identify signs of the city in Dubuffet’s oeuvre. Some of them are self-evident, such as the figures of city dwellers that recur in countless works of all periods and the models for monuments he designed to be erected in the city. Further, the titles he gave to many of his paintings, drawings, and sculptures include the word rue (street), and several contain ‘Paris’ or ‘ville’ (city or town)—words that also show up in the titles of important series such as ‘Marionnettes de la ville et de la campagne’ (Marionnettes of the City and the Country) of 1942 – 45 and Paris Circus of 1961 – 62. In other works, traces of the city are less obvious. Paintings on paper included in the series ‘Lieux abrégés’ (Abridged Places) of 1975, Partitions of 1980 – 81, Psycho-sites of 1981, and ‘Sites aléatoires’ (Random Sites) of 1982 claim to be about unspecified sites and places yet are filled with figures in business suits that Dubuffet sometimes called ‘passants’, or “passersby”. The connection with the city seems to be more tenuous here, as in the aforementioned ‘Théâtres de mémoire’, and yet I hope to show that these works were similarly produced by a mind in which the urban imaginary was deeply rooted. The sentence I have placed above as an epigraph suggests as much. Taken from a letter addressed to the artist Pierre Carbonel, it dates to August 1978, a time when Dubuffet was fully immersed in making ‘Théâtres de mémoire’. The phrasing stuck with him, and he reiterated it years later in ‘Bâtons rompus’ (This and That), the book-length essay presented in the form of questions and answers that was published shortly after his death, in 1985. There, he introduced a small change in the formulation: “I believe that thought obtains usable fruit only by constituting itself in a plural circulation, in layers, that are like the superimposed layers on the stacked highways of Tokyo.” (2)
In both versions of the metaphor, Dubuffet used the spectacular image of Tokyo’s highway network to explain the workings of the mind. The image is both highly unusual and unmistakably Dubuffet. It is unexpected, because the artist rarely evoked a specific urban feature; moreover, he never visited Tokyo in person. Images of its highway interchanges must have come to him through the press or perhaps television, and we can imagine that they appealed to him – a Parisian of the generation that had witnessed the beginnings of the automobile industry – both as an incongruous folly and as the apex of motorized urban modernity. I can imagine he may also have enjoyed mentioning so casually, as if it were familiar to him, a city that was so far away, just as, a few years later, in the paintings of the Mires (Targets) series of 1983, he repeatedly referred to another place in Asia, equally unknown to him: Hong Kong’s Kowloon.
And yet, such a sentence as my epigraph could be expected from Dubuffet, if only because “contradiction” is a term that has come to define both the artist and the man. Some critics have raised it, for example, when confronted with his claim to paint like ‘l’homme du commun’ (Everyman) and the seemingly antipodal reality of an oeuvre that, in fact, resembles no one else’s. (3) Other authors have been keen to point out that the artist repeatedly proclaimed his disdain of museums yet, over the years, exhibited his work in and entered the collections of some of the world’s most eminent ones.
As for the idea of multiple streams of thought appearing simultaneously at different levels, as with cars converging and dispersing on a complicated highway interchange, this directly relates to what was perhaps Dubuffet’s most consistent ambition throughout his career: to capture thoughts and mental images in his works and, even more intently, to convey the processes by which such thoughts form in the mind and then disappear. At the level of his artistic practice, this intention explains the speed at which he sometimes worked (as reflected in the dating of his pictures, often to the day) as well as the large number of works he produced overall (about 10,000 works are recorded in his catalogue raisonné). In letters, statements, and literary texts, Dubuffet frequently articulated the aim that his painting, and painting in general, conjure thoughts and states of mind. In April 1944, shortly after completing the last of six paintings entitled ‘Vue de Paris’ (View of Paris) – each bearing a different subtitle – he explained that wish to his friend Jean Paulhan: “It’s as a joke that I title [them]: View of Paris. More exact title: ‘view of the human mind at the moment when the thought of a View of Paris is in the process of forming itself there.’ . . . Of course, it is a close fight, you have to implement all possible means, even tricks, it’s true, to come upon this moment and fix it.” (4) Statements from the very end of his career show how this idea of capturing and fixing a thought on canvas became more radical and transformed itself into a rejection of the so-called objective world, which he variously called “humanist vision” and a collection of “instituted images.” (5) These he sought to reject in favor of a personal notion of reality that he described in several texts, nowhere as assertively as in the 1984 punctuation-free calligraphic artist’s book ‘Oriflammes’ (Banners): “I know that there is no reality outside that which thought institutes I celebrate my marriage with the world that my thought is pleased to project it will be from now on my god my food my bath and my theater.” (6)
At this juncture, the first difficulties with dedicating a study to Dubuffet and the city appear. Dubuffet’s rejection of the notion of an objective reality, and his desire to fix and depict something as impalpable as streams of thoughts, mean that his work escapes the old categories of abstraction and figuration. Moreover, in view of his notion of “instituted images” (in other words, representations of things that are widely identifiable), the very idea of representation becomes problematic, as the goal becomes to represent thoughts and mental images rather than the tangible objects that surround us. Looking for traces and images of the city might then run the risk of flattening out Dubuffet’s work by selecting only those paintings and drawings that illustrate this theme most clearly, by including streets, cars, buildings, and their inhabitants painted more or less recognizably, according to the very “humanist vision” the artist decried.
Compiling an iconography of the city is not, however, the purpose of this book. Rather—and the inclusion of series such as ‘Théâtres de mémoire’, Partitions, and others bearing no explicit connection to the city plays an important role in this—it is to understand how the city figured into the formation and unfolding of Dubuffet’s practice and imaginary as a material, a source, and a vehicle for ideas and as the context in which his oeuvre developed over a period of more than forty years.
In turn, the issue of context poses additional difficulties with regard to Dubuffet’s aesthetic posture, because it is something that Dubuffet consistently rejected. To be an artist of his time was not his concern, and instead, consciously or not, he devised strategies to extract himself from the time and place in which he worked.
The first of those strategies can be found in Dubuffet’s having, to all intents and purposes, boxed up his youth and the works he produced during the first twenty years following his brief stint at art school. The works he thereby rejected include those he made during a period in 1920 – 22 when he socialized with the avant-garde artists grouped around André Masson, in Masson’s studio on the rue Blomet, and the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler as well as a moment of experimenting with making masks in Montparnasse in the mid-1930s after meeting Emilie Carlu (Lili), who became his second wife in 1937. Later, Dubuffet drew a veil over this period by calling it his “prehistory,” a term that has been widely adopted by art historians. Dividing his career into “series” and “cycles” of works also contributed to his ability to construct a personal chronology that, to a large extent, eluded the historical context in which his ideas emerged and took form.
Another tactic, reiterated in public statements and interviews, consisted in professing a patent lack of interest in and knowledge of his artistic contemporaries. He extended this stance by refusing to be considered a part of any art movement, including, for example, Art Informel, in the early 1950s. His letter to Michel Tapié following the release of the critic’s 1952 book on the subject, ‘Un art autre (Art of Another Kind)’, which featured a detail of one of his paintings on the cover, was perfectly unambiguous: “I refuse with the greatest force to team up with all this. I do not subscribe to anything that is claimed in this book.” (7)
A third way Dubuffet constructed himself and his oeuvre as hors contexte – to borrow a phrase from the philosopher and art historian Hubert Damisch – was by coining the term ”Art Brut” (in 1945) and fostering the study and collecting of art made by people living at the margins of society. (8) Art Brut supplied Dubuffet with an ersatz community of self-taught individuals, many of whom lived and worked in isolation from each other, from the world, and from the times in which they lived. Its success as a category meant that it could become – and, in some places, did become – the main, if not the only, aesthetic horizon against which Dubuffet’s work was measured, casting him as a Robinson Crusoe – as Damisch called him – among other Crusoes. (9) During the artist’s lifetime, these strategies were relayed in texts penned by authors who were close to him, such as Georges Limbour and Max Loreau. It is crucial, however, to move beyond the perception of Dubuffet as an artist working in isolation, disconnected from his surroundings, in order to propose new perspectives and create new understandings of his work.
The main context within which I intend to read Dubuffet’s art is the historical, geographic, and conceptual framework of the city during a period of time – the second half of the twentieth century – that saw the megalopolis become a global phenomenon. While the city as a changing notion and experience is my primary focus, I devote much attention to the particular case of Paris, where Dubuffet lived and worked for the greater part of his life.
In “Biographie au pas de course” (Biography on the Run), the autobiographical text Dubuffet wrote in February – March 1985, shortly before bringing his life to a close, the artist suggested the importance of the geography of Parisian neighborhoods to the fledgling provincial artist he was in 1918, when he discovered France’s capital city. Moving to Paris from his native Le Havre, in northern France, Dubuffet first settled in a room in the Quartier Latin. Soon after, “exhibitions of avant-garde paintings” and “modernist writings” convinced him that art should be “anchored in everyday life”: “I took aversion to the Latin Quarter and student discussions. I took up residence in cheap rooms in outlying areas, enjoying the most miserable lodgings. I brought only a small amount of material: a box of paint tubes, canvas-covered boards that I propped up against the back of a chair.” (10) A few pages and some time later, Dubuffet met Fernand and Jeanne Léger, and that new friendship led him to new neighborhoods: “I frequented in Montparnasse, in their company, restaurants for drivers and dance halls.” (11) In this account, each part of town, with its particular social and economic characteristics, became the context of a different aesthetics, leading, in turn, to different attempts at painting, before Dubuffet left Paris altogether (after what may have been a romantic disappointment) for Buenos Aires, where an uncle of his lived. Aside from residing there for a few months in 1924, the artist also traveled several times to Algiers during the 1920s, where part of the family wine business was located. Over the years, he also visited, among other cities, Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London, Chicago, and Venice as well as New York, where he lived and worked for six months in 1951 – 52. (12)
In the 1930s, Dubuffet acquired an exhaustive knowledge of Paris, largely through his professional activities: just as the philosopher Henri Lefebvre, the artist’s exact contemporary, gained primary knowledge of France’s capital by working for a while in the 1920s as a taxi driver – an experience probably invaluable to becoming, as he did, the foremost theorist of urban space – Dubuffet’s wine-dealing activities took him to all corners of Paris. (13) As a wholesale dealer in 1930 – 35, he worked in the Halle aux Vins in Bercy, a city within the city, selling wines to shops. A new attempt to rededicate himself to art was cut short in 1937, when he was forced to resume managing his business, which was close to bankruptcy. He changed his clientele from shops to cafés and restaurants, and, in the essay “Plus modeste” (translated in full as “More Modest”), he vividly evoked the daily efforts to keep the business afloat and make it profitable and describes an everyday life made up of “anguished cavalcades through Paris! The crazed quest for orders! The jostling rounds of bill collection until ten o’clock at night ! Litigation! Dog days! Endless rotten luck!” (14)
Paris changed a great deal over Dubuffet’s lifetime. The narrow, hilly streets behind the Panthéon where Dubuffet lived with Lili from 1935 to 1945 on the rue Lhomond, which appear in early paintings and drawings, remained relatively protected. But from the allée Maintenon, a small impasse off the rue de Vaugirard where he settled in 1945, Dubuffet was only a stone’s throw away from the Maine-Montparnasse development, one of the largest urban projects of the 1960s. The Paris of the 1940s had altered comparatively little since the late nineteenth century, when the Seine Department prefect Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann devised and implemented, under the lead of Napoléon III, a new master plan of the city and ordered extensive destruction and renovation of insalubrious areas. Haussmannian plans continued to be carried out into the 1920s. The Second World War and its immediate aftermath halted urban reforms devised in the 1930s, so it was only in the late 1950s that a flurry of new public plans and private developments of entire neighborhoods, including buildings, roadwork, and underground transportation, began to significantly modify the appearance of and everyday life in the city. Next to this, the emergence of new towns and so-called ‘grands ensembles’ – huge housing estates – changed the landscape of Paris’s rapidly extending suburbs. Within Paris, the most notable projects included the Maine-Montparnasse, Beaugrenelle, Belleville, and place d’Italie areas, the Réseau Express Régional (RER), the Boulevard Périphérique, and the project that caused the greatest upset and lengthiest debates: Les Halles. (15) In the city’s immediate outskirts, the development of the business neighborhood La Défense was of direct interest to Dubuffet, as he worked for several years, in the 1970s, on a commission for a large sculpture to be placed on the concrete deck situated on axis with the Palais du Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe.
While these large-scale projects were needed to make the city safer and healthier, and were indeed presented as such, the planning and building boom of the 1960s was also ideologically triggered, by a spirit of modernization; historians have noted the ways in which space, circulation, and “urban fabric” became key notions promulgated by technocrats and urban developers. Moreover, as France lost its colonial empire and became a founding member of what is now the European Union, centralization, which had, for a moment in the postwar period, subsided particularly following the publication, in 1947, of Jean-François Gravier’s influential book ‘Paris et le désert français’ – resumed in force. The idea that Paris should be the new capital city of Europe (a title it eventually conceded to Brussels) spurred monumental plans for modernization of the city’s infrastructure that, in time, turned Paris from a metropolis into a megalopolis. (16)
As abundant literary and artistic production attests, writers and visual artists responded to these changes to the city. Dubuffet’s answer was perhaps less immediately graspable than others’. He did not, like the writer and theorist Guy Debord, cut up maps of the city to create “psychogeographic” charts; yet, his ‘Tableaux d’assemblage’ and ‘Théâtres de mémoire’ create a similar effect of disorientation and singling out of particular “moments”. Nor did Dubuffet gather fragments of everyday objects to integrate them into works of art, as the Nouveaux Réalistes did; instead, he embraced new materials such as Styrofoam and ballpoint pens. And while Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Tati made, each in his own style, film essays and satires about the ‘grands ensembles’ and the anonymous-looking high-rises mushrooming throughout the suburbs, Dubuffet, instead, designed outlandish architectural projects destined to be built in some of those new settings. The artist did not, as the novelist Georges Perec did in 1978, stand at the intersection of the rue Mabillon and the boulevard Saint-Germain to describe every single person and car that passed in front of him. (17) Instead, he compiled a list of names and words he saw on those streets and, adding a few imaginary ones, turned them into an urban poem of sorts in ‘Trémolo sur l’œil’ (Tremor on the Eye), a wondrous little book that is reproduced in extenso and translated [in] this volume.
To analyze what Dubuffet did, how he did it, and to what effect, I propose to examine a number of works and series in the thematic chapters that follow. I first approach the city from a distance, from which it can be seen as a totality, before delving into its networks, looking at its inhabitants and its architecture, and, finally, in the concluding section, speculating about how it is possible to sense and represent place in a changing city.
Put differently, the first chapter deals with the ideas of “view” and “network” from Dubuffet’s ‘Vues de Paris’ of the 1940s, through the Paris Circus series of the early 1960s, and concluding with ‘Théâtres de mémoire’ in the late 1970s. Following this, I turn to Dubuffet’s conception of ‘l’homme du commun’ and unpack the notion of the “man in the street” to review its various conceptual and formal incarnations throughout his oeuvre. The third chapter examines Dubuffet’s architecture and sculpture projects. Starting with his 1968 exhibition ‘Jean Dubuffet: Édifices, projets et maquettes d’architecture’, which mimicked the genre of the architectural exhibition, I read his photomontages, architectural models, and monuments of the late 1960s and 1970s against the backdrop of the postwar International Style (and its offshoot, corporate modernism) in order to assess, through the artist’s exchanges with scholars, journalists, and architects, his ambitions and their reception. Finally, in the concluding chapter, I narrow the focus of my investigation to the concept of place, which is evoked in multiple titles of works, including the monument project for ‘La Défense, Site scripturaire’ (Scriptural Site), designed in 1973 – 74. Discussing the philosophical and geographic implications of these terms, I argue for their importance in Dubuffet’s oeuvre and its relation to the city.
As this outline makes clear, the book deliberately moves back and forth within Dubuffet’s chronology. To some extent, this is in keeping with the artist’s own practice: his career is more easily summed up visually as a spiral than as a straight line, and he frequently looked back to older work when attempting to take his investigations “in a new direction.” (18) Hence, ‘Paris Circus’ reprises ‘Marionnettes de la ville et de la campagne’, while ‘Théâtres de mémoire’ seems to recapitulate his entire oeuvre. In cutting through series and decades, I follow in the footsteps of the artist’s own spiral-shaped trajectory.
[unnumbered/blind headnote] Epigraphs: Dubuffet to Pierre Carbonel, August 15, 1978, in Jean Dubuffet, ‘Prospectus et tous écrits suivants’, ed. Hubert Damisch, 4 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1967–95), vol. 3 (1995), 469. (This translation from the French, and all others in the present volume, unless otherwise indicated, are my own.) In the notes to all chapters, these four volumes of Dubuffet’s writing will be abbreviated as ‘PES’, followed by volume and page number. Rem Koolhaas, “What Ever Happened to Urbanism?” (1994), in Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Rem Koolhaas, and Bruce Mau, ‘S, M, L, XL’, ed. Jennifer Sigler (Rotterdam: 010, 1995), 971.
Dubuffet’s catalogue raisonné, ‘Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet’, begun by the artist himself in 1964, was issued in thirty-eight volumes between 1966 and 1991 by several different publishers. The first twenty-eight volumes have introductions by the Belgian philosopher and art critic Max Loreau (1928 – 1990), and the last ten, by Dubuffet himself. Several volumes have been reprinted or republished in the intervening years. In the notes to all chapters, the catalogue raisonné is abbreviated as ‘CTJD’, followed by the volume number, title, and publication details.
(1) I am grateful to the Fondation Dubuffet for welcoming me during the research and writing of this book in the summer of 2017.
(2) Jean Dubuffet, ‘Bâtons rompus’ (1985), ‘PES’, vol. 3 (1995), 143.
(3) On this point, see Hubert Damisch, “Dubuffet ou la lecture du monde” (1962), reprinted in Hubert Damisch, ‘Entrée en matière: Correspondance 1961–1985, Textes 1961–2014’, ed. Sophie Berrebi (Paris: La Maison Rouge–Fondation Antoine de Galbert; Zürich: JRP Ringier, 2016), 87.
(4) Dubuffet to Jean Paulhan, [April 1944], in Jean Dubuffet and Jean Paulhan, ‘Correspondance 1944–1968’, ed. Julien Dieudonné and Marianne Jakobi (Paris: Gallimard, 2003), 66. Of the six paintings bearing this title, five have survived.
(5) These phrases appear in “Une image de la réalité pour les heures philosophiques” (1984) and “Réalisme radical” (1983), in PES, vol. 3 (1995), 444–45 and 446–47, respectively. The latter appears in its entirety [in] the present volume, translated into English.
(6) Jean Dubuffet, ‘Oriflammes’ (1984), ‘PES’, vol. 3 (1995), 233.
(7) Dubuffet to Michel Tapié, December 21, 1952, PES, vol. 2 (1967), 308.
(8) Hubert Damisch, “Dubuffet, un mémoire (1985–2014),” in Damisch, ‘Entrée en matière’, 19.
(9) This is how Hubert Damisch referred to Dubuffet in the preface to the volumes of the artist’s writings that he edited. In one or two letters written to Damisch toward the end of his life, Dubuffet appropriated the image of Robinson Crusoe. See Hubert Damisch, “Le veritable Robinson,” ‘PES’, vol. 1 (1967), 9–22.
(10) Jean Dubuffet, “Biographie au pas de course” (1985), ‘PES’, vol. 4 (1995), 467.
(11) Ibid., 469.
(12) On Dubuffet’s sojourn in New York and trip to Chicago, see Sophie Berrebi, ‘The Insider as Outsider: Dubuffet and the United States, 1945–1962’, PhD diss., Courtauld Institute of Art, 2003, ch. 2, ”The Geologist and the Dripper: Dubuffet and the New York School.”
(13) See Rémi Hess, ‘Henri Lefebvre et l’aventure du siècle’ (Paris: Métailié, 1991).
(14) Jean Dubuffet, “Plus modeste” (1945), PES, vol. 1 (1967), 92.
(15) See André Fermigier, ‘La bataille de Paris: Des Halles à la Pyramide; Chroniques d’urbanisme’ (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), and Marcel Cornu, ‘La conquête de Paris’ (Paris: Mercure de France, 1972).
(16) Jean-François Gravier, ‘Paris et le désert français’, 2nd ed. (Paris: Flammarion, 1958).
(17) Georges Perec, ‘Tentative de description de choses vues au carrefour Mabillon le 19 mai 1978’ (radio essay), available online at France Culture website as part of “Création on air,” podcast by Irène Omélianenko, February 3, 2016, https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/creation-air/tentative-de-description-de-choses-vues-au-carrefour-mabillon-le-19-mai-1978.
(18) Dubuffet to Geneviève Bonnefoi, August 4, 1961, ‘PES’, vol. 2 (1967), 479.