Visual arts: How to grow old rebelliously

Jean Dubuffet was teasing, shocking and painting with reckless abandon into his eighties.
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The Independent Culture
IT HAS often been said that adults, in learning the inhibitions thought proper to maturity, quickly shed the joyous and reckless spontaneities of childhood. To find a painter who gives the lie to this old adage, a man who was painting with the reckless abandon of a child at the age of 84, you need to visit the Waddington Galleries on Cork Street, where a dozen late paintings by Jean Dubuffet, all executed after he reached the age of 80, are on show.

The French painter, sculptor and engraver Jean Dubuffet was among the most richly paradoxical and iconoclastic artistic spirits of the century. Born into a prosperous family of Le Havre wine merchants in 1894, he developed a passion for painting early on - his earliest canvases show the influences of Cezanne, Masson, Suzanne Valadon and others - but by the 1940s, he saw it as his mission to turn his back on everything that might be regarded as his own cultural inheritance, and to create a language of signs entirely his own. This language overturned almost every known rule about perspective, representation and figuration. His would be a language which would shock, puzzle, tease, disconcert and rebel with as much scratchy discordance as his hand and brain could muster between them. The great master of art brut was born.

His art passed through many phases, each of which has been documented with painstakingly passionate accuracy at the Fondation Dubuffet in Paris (located in an elegant, Second Empire mansion on the Left Bank, at 137, rue de Sevres; open to the general public on most days). Dubuffet worked with almost anything, and on almost any material that happened to come to hand: oils on canvas, oils on paper; acrylic on paper or canvas; with watercolour, pen, ink; on bits of cardboard; on newsprint, or on scraps of paper torn from some school exercise book; in notebooks.

No scrap of paper, no unembellished surface, was safe from his rapacious, frenzied fingers. He made paintings with sand rubbed into their surfaces. He made tumultuous and noisily crowded paintings out of much smaller paintings, all cut up and mounted in great cycles of collage - such as a wonderful series called Theatre of Memory (1975-1979). A little earlier, during the 1960s, Dubuffet discovered the wonders of polystyrene, how it could be cut, shaped and decorated at great speed - he was always known for his speed of execution. How blocky and monumental it seemed to be when first encountered by the eye! And yet how marvellously light and speedily workable in actuality! So like - and so unlike - stone.

The shaping of polystyrene led directly to the creation of cycles of monumental sculptures, which can now be seen in public spaces around the world.

But by the end of the 1970s, and in part due to ill health and back problems, he had returned to painting and drawing, and was working on a much smaller scale altogether. Dubuffet, being a Frenchman, was a great intellectual systematiser, and he tended to create works in series, each with its own resonantly suggestive name. The small-scale canvases on display at Waddington belong to three late series of acrylics, often painted on paper and mounted on canvas, called Mires, Sites Aleatoires and Non-Lieux.

Where - or what exactly - are these "non-places" to which Dubuffet makes allusion in some of these frenzied and vibrant late paintings? His own gnomic note to the series makes a reference to what he calls the usual intellectual opposition between existence and the idea of nothingness, and goes on to remind us that this notion of nothingness corresponds to zero in mathematics, which is, of course, a median point between negative and positive numbers.

The mechanisms of the universe itself, he argues, might also be said to consist of negative forces, which are in perpetual combat with their positive counterparts. "And I for one would be quite ready to believe," he concludes, "that the distinction we make between positive and negative is entirely illusory..." Hmm.

An illusory gout of smoke rises into the air at this point - he was a heavy smoker all his life - and we nod our heads sagely at these mature- sounding, intellectualising words, wondering whether he has half-explained everything or wholly explained nothing. Meanwhile, the frenzied, bald old child scribbles exuberantly on, cocking his cultural snooks, and delighting everyone.

Waddington Galleries, 11 & 12 Cork Street, London W1, Mon-Fri 10-5.30; Sat 10-1 until 1 April