Great Works: The Cow with the Subtile Nose, 1954 (88.9cm x 116.1cm), Jean Dubuffet

Museum of Modern Art, New York

How, ranging across cultures, might we describe some of the characteristics of the cow? Try some of these possibilities, and ask yourself whether they make a good fit with your own assumptions about the nature of the beast and what it has come to symbolise. The essential benignity of the cow. The docility of the cow. The nobility of the cow. The untouchability of the cow. The ponderousness of the cow. The abundant fertility of the cow. The bucolic charm of the cow (in a landscape by Jacob van Ruisdael or Aelbert Cuyp, for example, in which the animal, amid all that gloriously soothing light, seems to embody the meaning of the pastoral scene in which it sits, eternally slumped, by giving it a kind of timeless rootedness.) Is that all?

Certainly not. Facing in quite a different direction, there comes, ambling along, udders gently swinging, this cow by Jean Dubuffet with the long, thinning and slightly skewed (could it have been broken and re-set?) nose. Is this not an example of the uproarious, no-holds-barred comedy of the cow? If so, it would be entirely at one with the practice of its maker. Jean Dubuffet, prosperous wine merchant turned painter in middle age, was a great champion of Art Brut – also known as Outsider Art. He amassed his own great collection, which was subsequently gifted to the city of Lausanne. Although not an outsider himself, he believed in – and embodied in his own work – the spirit of Outsider Art. Which is what exactly? Outsider Art is essentially untutored art, art which seems to run counter to the rules of the academy. Most outsider artists are self-taught, and Outsider Art itself is often driven by a kind of unruly intuitive verve – call it madness of a kind if you like (not all the great Outsider artists suffered from psychiatric disorders, but many of them did).

Is this cow mad then? Or is it merely naïve? It certainly seems to pose a mighty threat to the idea of the cow as the grave, heavy, timeless bearer of spiritual values. What then are this beast's characteristics? Fundamentally, they are physical. Many cows are regarded, as we have suggested above, as more than – or other than – physical. They bear a spiritual weight. They embody sanctity. This is no such cow. This is a ramshackle creature without a thought in its head, unstable on its skidding back legs, more a skin stretched out, pocked, pitted, weathered, post-tannery, and almost nailed to all four corners of the canvas, than a cow with a beating heart. Is it a childish view of a cow then? The jitteriness of its drawn outline seems to suggest as much. It looks flat, badly weathered, beaten about. It feels horribly contained within this space, which is far too small for it. What is more, this is a shocked creature. Look into its eyes. It was not expecting to be stared at by you and you and you. It was not expecting to be characterised and scrutinised in this way, the strange, cordillera-like bumps along its back, the odd, scratchy, green surround within which it is contained. Is this a field in which it stands? Has any field every been green in the way that this field is so pukily green? Could this stretch of green have the temerity to call itself a field? Those eyes are ridiculous too, the way they pop at us. They are raving eyes, raging eyes, eyes fresh out of trauma – or perhaps still deep inside it. How did those eyes come by all that pretty-girly blueness? How does that fit in with the idea of the cow?

And yet, for all that, we positively like this cow. Stripped of all pretensions to be anything other than a lumbering animal, it is one of us, we feel. So much washed-up flotsam and jetsam like the rest of us. Meat, surface area – in short, a thing that takes up space. Too much space within this cruelly straitened rectangle. It has no other baggage. It does not come to us invested with symbolism at all. It does not trumpet itself. If it were invited to bellow, it might well bleat. It is stripped bare of nearly all that old-time cowish stuff. And why not laugh at a cow anyway? If we can laugh at the ridiculousness of ourselves in the mirror, why not laugh at a cow?

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Jean Dubuffet (1901-85) was a French painter who embarked on his career as an artist in late middle age, having lived the life of a wealthy wine merchant until then. His work has a wild, childish, naïve quality to it. A great collector of Art Brut, he will always be regarded as one of its greatest practitioners.

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