Chadwick’s book highlights Dubuffet’s artistic vision

Stephanie Chadwick holds her new book, “Jean Dubuffet Bricoleur.” Photo by Andy Coughlan

There are famous artists that everybody knows — Picasso, Matisse, Warhol, even Banksy. These artists are so much part of the culture that even the most art-averse person has an awareness of them. But there are many artists who, despite being respected, fly beneath the radar of the average person. One such artist is Jean Dubuffet. Art historian Stephanie Chadwick has set out to elevate the Frenchman’s profile.

“Jean Dubuffet Bricoleur: Portraits, Pastiche, Performativity” takes a look at the Frenchman’s contribution to the 20th-century art, specifically through his portraits, which rejected the academic style in favor of rough, textured surface where the figure is literally carved into the surface of the paint.

Chadwick, who is interim chair of Lamar University’s art department, said the choice of subject starts with how the artwork looks, and in the case of Dubuffet, the portraits stood out among his wide body of work.

“They are so jarring in they have these glaring gazes, the facial expressions, and the way the eyes stare out at you, and the way the limbs, the hands, bend away that looks like the fingers are broken or something — that just really got my attention,” she said.

The more she delved into Dubuffet’s art and writing, the more she could see how influential he was to artists like Port Arthur-native Robert Rauschenberg, with his use of unconventional materials, or Jean Michel Basquiat’s graffiti style.

Dubuffet, who was born in 1902, ran a successful wine business until he turned 40 and became a full-time artist. His portraits following the end of WWII of his friends, a group of writer-artists, coincided with his interest in “Art Brut,” or what critic Roger Cardinal called “Outsider Art.”

“Dubuffet was looking at children’s art, as so many artists in the early 20th century were, but he started really looking a lot at the art of institutionalized patients,” Chadwick said. “From the psychology perspective, you had doctors trying to determine if they could use it for things like therapy or making diagnosis, or some kind of insights into a person’s emotional state or personality. Dubuffet was interested in that a little, but he was really interested in how it represents a kind of a primal impetus that all human beings have just to create something, no matter how rudimentary that might be.”

The “bricoleur” of the book’s title is a French term which means one who creates using a variety of available materials.

Jean Dubuffet’s “Portrait of Henri Michaux”

“When Dubuffet was looking at the art of mental patients, that’s what they were doing,” Chadwick said. “They were creating art out of things like toilet paper and toothpaste and whatever. They had dirt, whatever happened to be around. So, he became fascinated with that idea of creating art that would be out of these raw materials. I liked that idea of ‘bricoleur,’ because that’s someone who’s just seeing what’s at hand and then making something pretty special out of it.”

Dubuffet was also interested in ethnography, and the postwar period was a time when colonialism and Western authority was being questioned. Non-Western art also influenced his style.

Chadwick said the portraits she focuses on are of writers but writers who also create art, because they had a lot in common with Dubuffet himself.

“I think the writing was intertwined, it wasn’t separate for him,” she said. “Dubuffet would always say, I’m not interested in theory, I don’t write that. But when you look at it, it is his art theory. He’s just breaking it down in a way would be interpreted as more like folksy wisdom, but it is art theory.”

Chadwick said the book has wide appeal for people who are interested not only in art, but also in literature. This was also a period where people were questioning the world and the human condition.

“Some of the artists/writers he was depicting were thinking through issues related to Western institutions, the fact that they seemed bankrupt, especially after two world wars,” she said. There was supposed to be this humanist approach that was leading toward progress, and after the Second World War that just seems to have really not gone the direction people thought. The Western cultural institutions really coming under question and that whole colonialist structure was starting to collapse.”

“Jean Dubuffet Bricoleur: Portraits, Pastiche,Performativity” offers a glimpse into one of the 20th-century’s more underrated and underrepresented artists. Dubuffet as a person is as fascinating as his art and Chadwick does a fine job scratching the dense surface of his life and work to expose the creative process.

“Jean Dubuffet Bricoleur” is published by Bloomsbury Visual Arts and is available through Amazon and other online sources.

This story first ran in the July 8, 2022 Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.

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