Jean Dubuffet – Brutal Beauty review: One of the exhibitions of the year

The Barbican’s major Dubuffet exhibition, the first in this country since 1966, presents him from the outset as a performer-artist adept at projecting himself through the media

Mark Hudson
Friday 14 May 2021 16:20
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<p>Jean Dubuffet’s Skedaddle (L’Escampette), 31 October 1964</p>

Jean Dubuffet’s Skedaddle (L’Escampette), 31 October 1964

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Jean Dubuffet was one of the seminal artists of the immediate post-war period, a former wine merchant who only found his feet as an artist in his early forties, amid the bomb-blasted, graffiti-spattered streets of occupied Paris. He translated these devastated surfaces into paintings of unprecedented rawness, that were hugely influential throughout the angst-ridden Fifties.

Even more significantly, Dubuffet effectively invented outsider art – the art of the mentally ill – which he dubbed Art Brut or raw art, turning what had been a matter of largely medical interest into a lucrative art-world phenomenon. But how deeply felt are Dubuffet's paintings? Was he an authentic visionary of the streets, or more of an entrepreneur and a showman – even a conman: not so much an enabler of artists on the margins of society as an exploiter?

The Barbican's major Dubuffet exhibition, the first in this country since 1966, presents him from the outset as a performer-artist – a forebear of Warhol, Beuys, Emin et al – adept at projecting himself through the media. Blown-up images of his forceful bald cranium and slightly sinister grin seem to crop up every few yards, along with quotes – “Anything can be an object of beauty”, “Millions of possibilities for expression exist outside the accepted cultural avenues” – that situate him very much in his time. If such ideas have become commonplace, they were a genuine revelation in 1945.

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