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Dubuffet: the `barbarian' who became king of French art

WITH the recent passing of Jean Dubuffet at the age of 83, France lost its best-known living artist, and the only one to emerge after World War II whose place in art history seems assured. Nothing would have shocked those who attended his first Paris exhibition in 1944 more than the possibility that Dubuffet would ever amount to anything. The general reaction then -- and at his premi`ere New York show in 1947 -- was that this painter of brutish images that looked like the work of infants or psychological outcasts was himself somewhat mad and deserving of institutionalization. Most critics and the public were appalled. His work was attacked as obscene and immoral, as ultimate proof of 20th-century decadence, and he himself was reviled to a degree that made the attacks upon Jackson Pollock a few years later seem mild in comparison.

The problem lay in the art world's false perception of what he was trying to do. What it saw as barbaric and vulgar was actually a protest against the outdated ideals of beauty first set forth by the ancient Greeks but corrupted by decades of Victorian sentimentality. His position was crystal clear: ``Surely I aim for beauty, but not that one. . . . I would like people to look at my work as an enterprise for the rehabilitation of scorned values, and . . . a work of ardent celebration.''

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It wasn't long before some influential critics and curators caught on, and they began to understand that he wanted only to give substance and form -- to say nothing of credibility -- back to such traditional artistic ideas as beauty and truth. And that he was actually an extremely concerned and civilized man trying to establish new artistic guidelines. With these critics' and curators' support, the resentment against his work gradually began to disappear. It soon became apparent that he and his art served as desperately needed correctives for French postwar painting, which had lost most of its greatness and was fast deteriorating into not much more than handsome decoration. By 1950, in fact, sophisticated Parisians were fairly united in the opinion that if anyone could revitalize French painting, it was he.

Unfortunately, that never occurred, and the fabulous School of Paris that had amazed the world for decades, quickly became -- except for a few of its surviving ``old masters'' -- a matter of history. Dubuffet, however, quickly came into his own, and slowly emerged to become France's best living painter, an honor no one could deny him after the passing of Braque in 1963.

From then on, his reputation grew by leaps and bounds. Very few French postwar cultural leaders achieved anywhere near his level of respect, a distinction he carried easily and with good grace. By the mid 1960s, he was producing brightly colored canvases and three-dimensional pieces that resembled scrambled jigsaw puzzles. These were replaced by wildly free-spirited collages in the mid 1970s, and by even more colorful, brilliant, and delightfully idiosyncratic works after 1980.

His most recent exhibitions were characterized by a creative passion and a degree of inventiveness unmatched by any of the emerging Neo-Expressionists 40 to 50 years his junior, and by levels of intelligence and sensibility that put almost everyone else to shame. By anyone's standards, they were also extraordinary demonstrations of how youthful one could be in old age. Whitney Museum expansion

The museum building boom continues apace with the Whitney Museum's announcement that it intends to expand its facilities both laterally and vertically, and to the tune of approximately $37.5 million.

Michael Graves has been chosen as the architect for the project, which calls for the addition of approximately 134,000 square feet of new construction to the 83,500 square feet of the existing building designed by Marcel Breuer in 1966. According to the plans, the museum will be extended south to 74th Street, where a new entrance will be built for special purposes including after-hour events. The primary means of access, however, will continue to be the present Madison Avenue entrance.

Major components of the new structure, which will be 188 feet and 10 floors high, include 40,000 square feet of exhibition space for a continuing installation of the Permanent Collection, a 250-seat theater for public education programs, an orientation gallery, an expanded library and study center, and additional office and support space for operations.

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According to Graves, ``It is a particular challenge for an architect to combine a modern monument such as Marcel Breuer's original Whitney with the more elaborate faades of the prevailing context. We have attempted to use to our advantage the apparent contradiction of modernity versus a more figurative architecture. We believe our work reflects a particularly American spirit, one which combines architecture derived from traditional sources with the architecture of the recent past.''

A fund-raising campaign will begin this fall. Construction, it is hoped, will be under way in two years, with a target date of 1990 -- the Whitney's 60th anniversary -- set for the building's completion. Redon and Bresdin prints

Any exhibition devoted to the prints of Odilon Redon and Rodolphe Bresdin will automatically attract every genuine print lover for miles around -- especially if word gets out that it is being held at the Fitch-Febvrel Gallery here. This small and compact viewing space is one of the few remaining sanctuaries for the true print fanatics who insist that printmaking is a profoundly original form of expression and not merely a convenient means of image-duplication. An hour or two spent there holding or looking at tiny to large impressions of good to superb etchings, lithographs, engravings, or other examples of the graphic media, is always rewarding. And that is particularly true if the prints are by Redon and Bresdin.

At the Fitch-Febvrel Gallery, 5 East 57th Street, through June 29.

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