Page 19 - Studio International - May 1966
P. 19

Note, too, the pseudo-Lawrentian touch. Documents are
                                                                                     not to be trusted, for we learn with our blood.
                                                                                      In this welter of gore, the shape of Dubuffet's achieve-
                                                                                     ment becomes so clotted that it becomes a mere carica-
                                                                                     ture of the assumptions of his own paintings : that inno-
                                                                                     cence is both possible and desirable. Dubuffet's art speaks
                                                                                     directly to everyone who feels that humanism has failed
                                                                                     him and who wants to abolish the humanist past—that is
                                                                                     to say, that area of art which insists that man is the flower
                                                                                     of the universe and can, by force of intellect, control it.
                                                                                     But is there any difference, in point of originality,  be-
                                                                                     tween adopting the formal system of a Perugino and
                                                                                     using that of a child's drawing? Can Dubuffet be said
                                                                                     to have stripped himself of 'all rules and conventions of
                                                                                     representation' when, in fact, his conventions for repre-
                                                                                    senting objects in space can be seen in any nursery, clinic
                                                                                    or museum of primitive art? There are few pictures
                                                                                    painted in the last thirty years in which the question of
                                                                                    convention is more important than Dubuffet's Grand Jazz
                                                                                    Band (New Orleans),  1944, or that marvellous image he
                                                                                    painted in the same year, Childbirth.  We know how to
                                                                                    `read'  Childbirth  as forms in space: the convention of
                                                                                    human figures seen from the side, while the table top
                                                                                    is rotated through 90 degrees to lie frontally on the picture
                                                                                    plane, is familiar from naive art; so are the scrawled,
                                                                                    doll-like faces, the stiffness, the carefully-crude drawing.
                                                                                    And so is the laconic sexuality of the image—the fact of
                                                                                    birth, irreducibly stated, set down with no fuss or veiling
                                                                                    and none of the sentimental reverence with which our
                                                                                    values tend to cloud it. But this isn't instinctive. It's a
                                                                                    brilliantly-deployed stylistic exercise—to discover how
                                                                                    violent an image a certain kind of convention can carry
                                                                                    within the context of twentieth-century painting. Dubuf-
                                                                                    fet's pictures depend on that context for their effect more
                                                                                    than you might suppose. In a genuinely primitive cul-
                                                                                    ture, they would sink into anonymity.
                                                                                     The more you reduce an image to a sign, the more im-
                                                                                    portant conventions—the assumed rules of how to read
                                                                                    and interpret the sign—become. Dubuffet is well aware
                                                                                    of this. 'Painting is based on accepted conventions of
                                                                                    transcription,' he wrote,
                                                                                      (many painters simply use those established by their fore-
                                                                                      runner; others established new ones for themselves). Many
                                                                                      believe that when they make one forget these conventions
                                                                                     as much as they can—hiding, as they say in the theatre, the
                                                                                      puppet strings—they will obtain a stronger effect of real life.
                                                                                     But I believe, on the contrary, that it is much more effective
                                                                                      to make these conventions constantly apparent, and even
                                                                                      to often change them, and put them constantly in question,
                                                                                     so as to prevent them from being forgotten.
                                                                                     The real revolutionaries, like Giotto, Masaccio, Cara-
                                                                                    vaggio or, in more recent times, Cezanne or the Cubists,
                                                                                    did much to 'invent the conventions for themselves'.
                                                                                    Dubuffet did not. Despite the initial surprise of his work,
                                                                                    despite its humour, alarm, power of imagery and fre-
                                                                                    quently extreme beauty of surface, he has not, except in
                                                                                    a very small degree, expanded our total experience of
                                                                                    forms. He has simply taken over forms from another

                                                                                    L'accouchement (Childbirth) 1944
                                                                                    Oil on canvas 391 x 31k in.
                                                                                    Courtesy Dubuffet Secretariat, Paris
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