The Perplexing Art and Philosophy of Jean Dubuffet: “Barbe des Perplexités,” 1959

Students in “History of Twentieth Century Art” this fall had the option to research objects in the OSUMA collection. For the next few weeks on the blog, I will be featuring their research. First up is student Lindsay Gernhardt, who researched and wrote about Jean Dubuffet’s lithograph, Barbe des Perplexités. The following text is excerpted from her paper.

Jean Dubuffet’s work Barbe des Perplexités illustrates Dubuffet’s life, his artistic process, and his personal philosophy. Dubuffet was born on July 31, 1901 in Le Havre, France to a middle-class family that distributed wine. In 1918, he studied at the Academie Julian for six months, but was not inclined to stay. In 1923, a friend gave him a copy of Dr. Hans Prinzhorn’s 1922 book Bildnerei der Geisteskranken or Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Prinzhorn’s book offered a stimulating collection of pictures done by asylum inmates and examined the art of children as a point of comparison. Dubuffet found great inspiration in Prinzhorn’s study, and its influence allowed him to create artworks that undermined social, cultural, and academic conventions.

Jean Dubuffet in his studio in Vence, France, in front of works from the "Barbes" series, 1959. Photo © John Craven, courtesy of the Dubuffet Foundation (click image to visit their site).

Jean Dubuffet in his studio in Vence, France, in front of works from the “Barbes” series, 1959. Photo © John Craven, courtesy of the Dubuffet Foundation (click image to visit their site).

In 1944, Dubuffet had his first one-man exhibition at the Galerie Rene Drouin, and by 1945, he had acquired a large collection of works done by children, the mentally ill, “the primitive,” and the “naïve”—anyone who had never had formal training. In talking about his inquisition into the works of children, Dubuffet said, “my persistent curiosity about children’s drawings… is due to my hope of finding in them a method of reinstating objects derived … from a whole compass of unconscious glances, of finding those involuntary traces inscribed in the memory of every human being.” Dubuffet wanted to exterminate the false social and cultural pretenses placed on art and artists. He believed works by children and the mentally ill were unrestrained, truthful insights into the world of humans, uninhibited by society’s preconceived notions of intellectual, academic art.

Dubuffet’s own work during this period was considered “Art Brut” for its coarse, childlike style and sometimes disturbing content.  He felt the term, which had a negative connotation when used by critics, positively enveloped the style of art that was meant for all people, unlike conventional museum art. In 1945 his admiration of layered graffiti on the walls surrounding Paris led him to produce a series called Les Murs, or The Walls, in which he emphasized the importance of the common man’s need to keep records. Dubuffet said “my art is an attempt to bring all disparaged values into the limelight.” Dubuffet was not alone in his rejection of high art or his approach to creating art outside the “academic” box. Artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, and the Surrealists were already exploring “primitive” art forms while implementing new modes of expression by the time Dubuffet was in his early twenties.

Jean Dubuffet, "The Exemplary Life of the Soil" from the "Texturologies" series, 1958.

Jean Dubuffet, “The Exemplary Life of the Soil” from the “Texturologies” series, 1958.

For several years during and after 1958, Dubuffet experimented with lithography. Many times he would mix sand and other elements into the oil pigment used on his lithograph stone. Using natural elements and found objects, Dubuffet created unconventional landscapes depicting the earth’s soil. For Dubuffet, representing the soil in this way was a response to humanity’s failures during and after World War II. Dubuffet believed it necessary to start literally from the ground or “soil” up. The Exemplary Life of the Soil, of 1958, is an example of this and relates to the formal components found in Barbe des Perplexités.

Dubuffet learned different techniques with lithographic transfer paper allowing him to assemble pieces to his satisfaction before making the final print. By 1959, Dubuffet had returned to the human figure, cutting up lithograph paper into human forms, costumes, and facial elements. These new portraits were named the Barbes or Beards series. The series portrayed men with beards, using a wide range of surface textures for the facial hair that dominated the faces and heads of the figures. “The Barbes of 1959 were inspired by a friend’s likening of Dubuffet to a Stoic or sage,” a comparison of great philosophical significance to Dubuffet because sages were thought to have great wisdom beyond their years, not just the book smarts found in the customary educational institutions of Dubuffet’s era. It is no wonder Dubuffet’s friend compared him to a sage. Dubuffet’s personal philosophy, which he documented in essays and books, was extremely relevant to his artwork which “opposed the prevailing mood of post-war Paris and sparked enormous scandal.”  Many people living through the aftermath of the Second World War looked for a “redemptive art and a restoration of old values, but Dubuffet confronted them with childlike images that satirized the conventional genres of high art.”

Jean Dubuffet, "Barbe des Perplexités," 1959. Lithograph, museum purchase, Oklahoma State University Museum of Art, 10-0011.

Jean Dubuffet, “Barbe des Perplexités,” 1959. Lithograph, museum purchase, Oklahoma State University Museum of Art, 10-0011.

Jean Dubuffet’s 1959 lithograph Barbe des Perplexités is roughly twelve by nine and a half inches. At first glance, the twenty-first century viewer may be inclined to associate the figure of Barbe des Perplexités as an early printed rendition of one of Jim Henson’s Muppets (Henson’s first puppet show was in 1954). Like Henson, Dubuffet also enjoyed puppets. This seems apparent when looking on the friendly figure of Barbe des Perplexités. From a distance, Dubuffet’s piece looks like a collage made up of various types of torn paper or material. Although it is not an actual collage, Dubuffet did cut out shapes from lithographic transfer paper and made several assemblages before making a final print.

A somewhat cartoonish bearded man is centered in the composition, with the figure’s bald head nearly touching the top of the page while his small torso runs off the bottom. The figure’s beard is black and white with scribbly textures while the mustache has a marble like surface. The textures, especially the marble one, are evocative of Dubuffet’s focus on the natural world, which signified an honest rebuilding of society after a devastating war. His wide open, fixed gaze combined with his upturned mustache and half smile connotes not only a perplexed look but a look of one deep in thought. The body and facial features are rendered with the childlike qualities that Dubuffet admired and intentionally implemented. The overall feeling of Dubuffet’s piece is friendly and curious, and although it has a childlike quality, it seems to convey adult emotion.

Paul Klee, "Fright of a Girl," 1922. Watercolor, india ink and oil transfer drawing on paper, Guggenheim Museum.

Paul Klee, “Fright of a Girl,” 1922. Watercolor, india ink and oil transfer drawing on paper, Guggenheim Museum.

Dubuffet’s Barbe des Perplexites is similar in comparison to several portraits done by Paul Klee.  Both Klee and Dubuffet took inspiration from the works of children and “people with no formal training.” Both artists believed art should be created without rules and restrictions; that art should come from natural intuitive instinct.  Paul Klee’s Fright of a Girl from 1922 represents a child’s influence.  The large head with simplified facial features has several similarities to the figure in Barbe des Perplexites including the round eyes and strange body type. Other consistencies between their works appear where paint or ink has been purposely smudged or blotted out. In Fright of a Girl, watercolor or ink has been wiped up or diluted in the background creating an eerie scene.  In Dubuffet’s piece, the lithographic stone has been blotched in the upper left hand corner and around the edge making it appear pasted like collage.  Both Dubuffet and Klee shocked people with their rough, childlike works but inspired them to see something more. Ultimately, the flat, seemingly simple representations carry an essence of deeper truth most adults had been taught to dismiss.


Further reading:

Dubuffet, Jean.  Asphyxiating Culture and Other Writings.   Translated by Carol Volk. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1986.

Dubuffet, Jean. “Crude Art Preferred to Cultural Art.” Edited by Charles Harrison an Paul Wood. ART IN THEORY 1900-2000:  An Anthology of Changing Ideas.  Michigan: Malden, 2013: 605-608.

Fineberg, Jonathan.  The Innocent Eye:  Children’s Art and the Modern Artist.  New Jersey: Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.

McNulty, Kneeland.  Preface. The Lithographs of Jean Dubuffet; November 18th  to January 10th 1964-1965. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1964.

About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
This entry was posted in permanent collection, student research, student writing. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Perplexing Art and Philosophy of Jean Dubuffet: “Barbe des Perplexités,” 1959

  1. grandawn says:

    I love Barbe des Perplexités! I miss seeing it every day in the Art Dept. It always made me smile. But I’m glad so many others will be able to enjoy it at the OSUMA. -Dawn 🙂

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