France's popular -- and enigmatic -- Jean Dubuffet

Jean Dubuffet's 80th birthday celebration is taking place at the Guggenheim Museum here. This happy event takes the form of a retrospective glance at Dubuffet's career from 1943 to the present, and consists of 50 paintings and sculptures and 75 works on paper -- including prints. All were drawn from the museum's own extensive holdings of Dubuffet's works, and from a distinguished private collection.

It all adds up to a life-crackling and delightful birthday party -- which should come as no surprise, considering the artist, and the fact that choice examples of his various styles have been included in this exhibition.

Jean Dubuffet is France's best known living painter and one of its major cultural figures of the postwar era. He is also one of this period's most enigmatic, most popular (although originally its most reviled), and most widely collected artists. As if that weren't enough, he occupies, together with Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, and Graham Sutherland, a special niche in the history of postwar European art's holding action against abstraction.

Dubuffet, in other words, is an artist of major contemporary consequence -- a figure whose paintings hang in nearly every major museum and private collection devoted to 20th-century art. His sculptures are owned by most of those same museums and collections -- and stand, as well, in numerous outdoor plazas, commercial buildings, and public squares. His prints can be found in almost every print collection.

With all this success, one can only ask: Is he really that good? That important? Or is his fame and popularity largely due to shrewd publicity campaigns, carefully planned museum shows, the fun and charm of his work -- and the absence of anything else of real quality among his contemporaries?

To answer that, we have to remember the cultural atmosphere into which Dubuffet first came to international attention. The late 1940s in Europe were years of transition. Paris, the-home-away-from-home for Picasso, and the place where modernism had been most welcome, still saw itself as the world capital of painting. If it paid any attention at all to what it saw emerging in America, it was only to declare it vulgar, or to adapt some of its external attributes to its own more elegantly painterly point of view.

Painting in France was seen as something delectable, as something sumptuous and delicately prepared, and the painters who produced it were viewed more as brothers-under-the-skin to chefs and master cooks than to the passionately formal or expressive idealists who had given 20th-century modernism its original impetus.

French painting, in other words, was in danger of becoming prettified, of becoming little more than extremely handsome decoration.

Dubuffet strode into this somewhat precious atmosphere with works that immediately stamped him as even more of a vulgarian than such Americans as Pollock and Still. His starkly frontal, brutal, and frankly coarse paintings out-did even the most ethnically "primitive" works of the world in simple, direct crudity, and appeared to resemble nothing so much as the scribblings of the insane, or the hopelessly childish.

He attracted almost immediate attention, but was declared by a considerable portion of the art world to have gone too far, to have taken leave of his senses so completely that what he had produced was truly an insult to art -- and most particularly a slap in the face to man and to his humanistic tradition.

But what he had actually done was to serve as critic of what he perceived as the soft underbelly of decay overtaking European art. In his own words, he saw himself in "protest against this aesthetic, which I find miserable and most depressing. 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 celebration."

The continuing sorry plight of contemporary French painting indicates that his enterprise had little real effect. Undeterred, Dubuffet stuck to his guns and managed, by sheer talent, inventiveness, and great good humor, to establish himself as one of the strongest new painterly voices of postwar France.

As time went by, the art world, changing its mind about its goals almost from year to year, gradually began to see Dubuffet as a kind of old master, even as a kind of moral force. Respect for him grew, especially when it became obvious that he was a totally dedicated and accomplished artist at heart -- and that his "brutal" works that had so shocked the art establishment had actually been works of great wit and style. And when his work shifted a bit now and again, and his paintings became a bit lighter in color and spirit, the art world began to see him as one of the masters of the age -- and began to collect him as they had Miro, Picasso, Leger, etc., in the decades before.

And so -- to answer my earlier questions -- yes, he ism that good and that important (for this portion of the century at least). His fame and popularity arem well earned. A goodly portion of his recent popularity doesm come from the charm and fun to be found in his art, and to a degree his extraordinary reputation ism partially due to the absence of recent first-rate competition in France.

But I would suggest that anyone interested in his art and reputation (and his place in art history), try to visit this Guggenheim Museum show and decide for himself. It is a relatively small exhibition, but it has excellent examples of all periods of Dubuffet's work, including some of his most stark and "brutal" pieces, a few of his highly imaginative and colorful paintings of the very early 1960s, and quite a few of his large, completely patterned paintings and sculptures of the 1970s. To top it off, it also offers a marvelous example of his most recent work, in which formal and thematic elements from all his previous styles and periods are combined to create a large work of wit and daring.

It will remain on view through Sept. 27.

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