Corps de Dame--Château d'Étoupe, 1950
Signed and dated lower left: J. Dubuffet/juin 50
Oil on canvas
45 1/16 x 34 7/16 in. (114.4 x 87.5 cm)
Gift of Joseph and Enid Bissett, 1963
With their roughly encrusted textures, Dubuffet's Corps de Dame paintings represent the female body as a strange, rich topography, at once resistant and yielding to the artist's (and viewer's) reading, mapping, and inscription of surface and shape. The particular forms and overall image are meant to be seen as the direct result of the artist's vigorous, crude attack of the surface with paint, knife, and brush.
Dubuffet was one of the most creative artists of the postwar period, and the most anti-artistic in his address of medium and image. The 1950-51 cycle of paintings titled Corps de Dame (literally "lady's body," rather than "woman's body") includes his best-known works, and is perhaps the most iconoclastic. Their object is the nude female body: not as an emblem of canonic beauty, but as tough, dense matter, highly worked yet impenetrable, flattened down and spread across a canvas that barely contains her. These works share the same blocky contours, small heads (sometimes frontal, sometimes in profile), tiny round breasts, and long, thin arms--either scratched into the body at an angle, or raised above it. The schematic rendering of buttocks and genitals is similar throughout the cycle. Most notable are their varying textures of thick paint, and the painter's innumerable ways of spreading, scraping, and scoring the rich pigment (see Technical Data).
In 1951, shortly after completing the Corps de Dame series, Dubuffet delivered his important lecture, "Anticultural Positions," at The Arts Club of Chicago. 1 The text synthesizes the anticivilized, "raw," or "primitivist" cultural project that Dubuffet had been pursuing in his painting, writing, and collecting since the end of World War II. 2 Without explicit mention of the Corps de Dame series, Dubuffet's lecture, which offered a point by point attack on the assumptions of classic, humanist culture ("a dead tongue that has nothing in common with the language now spoken in the street"), helps illuminate both the imagery and physical character of these paintings.
The separation between man and nature is the first assumption that the artist attacks in the Chicago lecture, 3 while the Corps de Dame paintings' formulation of the female body as a harsh, formidable topography--rather than as a welcoming, domesticated site of nature, as in traditional paintings of the female nude--is perhaps the most distinct characteristic of these works. Dubuffet also attacks the primacy of the elaborated idea over the mind's inchoate materials, and does so with spatial and material metaphors that surely have the physical character of his painting in mind: "[Ideas] strike me as...a kind of outer crust formed by cooling...I try to sieze mental motion at the greatest possible depth of its roots, where I am sure the sap is far richer." 4
The concluding remarks of "Anticultural Positions" argue against the primacy of verbal language, and defend the potency of painting as a means of communication at once direct, spontaneous, and polyvalent in meaning. 5 The dense, corporeal character of the surfaces of the Corps de Dame works, and the variety of markings or "signs" imbedded in the pigment, surely inform these statements.
It was in 1946 that Dubuffet first developed the haute pâte technique--the mortarlike mixture of pigment, paint, sand, and tar (and sometimes pebbles, glass, and string as well) that gives his paintings an immensely tactile, encrusted character. 6 In the Corps de Dame series, the pâte, though thick, has the appearance of a flat, scraped down, or excavated territory: a substrata of graffiti signs and marks of an enigmatic human presence and intent.
The completion of the Corps de Dame series in 1950 and Dubuffet's visit to the United States in 1951-52 coincides with a growing familiarity with the artist's work among American artists and collectors (the Corps de Dame series was not exhibited in the United States until after this visit). The so-called primitivist points of reference of Dubuffet's painting and writing seem similar to those of the Abstract Expressionist paintings in New York during this period, most obviously Willem de Kooning's Women series (begun in 1950 and first exhibited in 1952), although neither artist was then aware of the other's work on the theme of Woman. 7
In 1918, Jean Dubuffet, the son of a prosperous wine merchant, left his home in Le Havre to study art in Paris. He abandoned painting for the life of "the common man" in 1924: he worked in an Argentine factory for a year, then returned to Le Havre and entered his father's business. In 1929, Dubuffet established a wholesale wine business outside of Paris, but within a few years had returned to painting. He was drafted into the French army in 1939, but was discharged the following year, and in 1942, he once more took up painting. In 1945, he went to Switzerland and began to collect examples of Art Brut ("raw art"): powerfully original, unschooled art produced by people working outside the established art world, such as psychiatric patients or prisoners. Throughout his career, Dubuffet sought a similarly instinctual and rawly expressive aesthetic, deprecating traditional artistic materials, methods, and tastes in both his art and his theoretical writings.
While Dubuffet's philosophy and practice overtly challenged conventions of painting and culture, he conducted his practice in a remarkably systematic fashion. He worked deliberately in series, focused on a single thematic and visual premise for a few years, and then presented the results in a well-planned exhibition, often writing the catalogue text himself. The Corps de Dames series of 1950-51 immediately followed a cycle of works called paysages grotesques (grotesque landscapes), whose similarly encrusted and inscribed surfaces and apparently aerial point of view anticipate the imagery, technique, and pictorial format of the Corps de Dame works.
Dubuffet was a significant force in postwar art. During the 1950s, his work became more abstract, with a concomitant emphasis on elaboration of surface texture. In 1962 Dubuffet created the formal idiom he termed "L'Hourloupe," in which black lines frame cells of flat, unmixed paint, predominantly white, red, and blue. From the late ‘60s, the artist experimented in this style with new chemical substances--polystyrene, polyester, epoxy--which produced slick, artificial surfaces in both paintings and sculptures. Dubuffet produced a series of ambitious sculptural and environmental projects, including several important public commissions, during the 1970s. He was prodigiously prolific; his oeuvre numbers more than ten thousand objects in all media.
M. E. Wieseman
Loreau, Max, ed. Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet. 38 vols. Paris and Lausanne, 1964-91.
Dubuffet, Jean. Prospectus' et tous écrits suivants. 2 vols. Paris, 1967.
Franzke, Andreas. Dubuffet. New York, 1981.
Glimcher, Mildred, and Jean Dubuffet. Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality. New York, 1987.
Acquired from the artist by Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York (February 1951)
Collection Joseph and Enid Bissett, New York, by whom given in 1963
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1951. January. Cat. no. 12.
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1959. Jean Dubuffet 1943-1959, Retrospective Exhibition. 10 November-12 December. Cat. no. 34.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1975-76. Extended loan for exhibition with permanent collection. 9 April 1975 - 22 December 1976. No cat.
Jean Dubuffet, Retrospective Exhibition. Exh. cat., Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1959, cat. no. 34.
Loreau, Max. Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet. Vol. 6. Paris, 1965, p. 74, no. 99.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, p. 50, fig. 147.
Spencer, John. "The Bissett Collection." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 26, no. 1 (Fall 1968), p. 4.
Johnson, Ellen H. "American Art of the Twentieth Century." Apollo 103, no. 168 (February 1976), pp. 129-30.
The work was painted on a medium weight, preprimed canvas. The paint's structure is variable; thick on the bottom layer, and thin on top. Impasto is moderate. The artist first applied a granular layer of fairly thick paint, to which he seems to have added sand before application. While this layer was still wet, the artist scratched in the design of the figure. When the paint had dried, he applied thin washes of color. Small patches of canvas covered with thin paint only are visible in the background. The work is unvarnished.
There are numerous old paint losses scattered throughout the surface. While there is evidence of watercolor inpainting, there is no record of treatment by the Intermuseum Conservation Association at Oberlin. The paint surface is sound, despite cracking throughout. There is minor flaking along the edges.
1. The 1951 lecture is reprinted in Mildred Glimcher and Jean Dubuffet, Jean Dubuffet, Towards an Alternative Reality (New York, 1987), pp. 127-32.
2. In 1945, Dubuffet began to systematically collect works created by culturally marginal groups: prisoners, the insane, mediums, and people living in provincial outposts. In 1948, Dubuffet, along with the Surrealist writer André Breton (1896-1966) and others, formed the Compagnie de l'Art Brut (Raw Art), which exhibited these works. This collection of well over five thousand objects was a continual source of reference for Dubuffet throughout his career. "What we mean [by Art Brut]," wrote Dubuffet in 1947, "is anything produced by people unsmirched by artistic culture, works in which mimicry, contrary to what occurs with intellectuals, has little or no part...We thereby witness the pure artistic operation, unrefined, thoroughly reivented, in all its aspects by the maker, who acts entirely on his own impulses." From "Art Brut préféré aux arts culturels" in Mildred Glimcher and Jean Dubuffet, Jean Dubuffet, Towards an Alternative Reality (New York, 1987), p. 104.
3. "Western man despises trees and streams. He hates the very thought of being like them. The 'primitive' however...takes great pleasure in resembling them....These primitive societies...do not see humankind as the lord of other creatures but merely as one of them"; Jean Dubuffet, "Anti-Cultural Positions," reprinted in Mildred Glimcher and Jean Dubuffet, Jean Dubuffet, Towards an Alternative Reality (New York, 1987), p. 127.
4. Jean Dubuffet, "Anti-Cultural Positions," reprinted in Mildred Glimcher and Jean Dubuffet, Jean Dubuffet, Towards an Alternative Reality (New York, 1987), p. 128.
5. "The signs in painting are much closer to the objects themselves. After that, painting manipulates subjects that are in themselves living substances....Finally, painting can evoke things not in isolation but linked with everything surrounding them: a huge quantity of things simultaneously." Jean Dubuffet, "Anti-Cultural Positions," reprinted in Mildred Glimcher and Jean Dubuffet, Jean Dubuffet, Towards an Alternative Reality (New York, 1987), p. 131.
6. See Mildred Glimcher and Jean Dubuffet, Jean Dubuffet, Towards an Alternative Reality (New York, 1987), pp. 8-9.
7. Despite these apparent similarities, Dubuffet and his work were cooly received in the formalist, geographically chauvinistic climate of New York during this period. It was among Chicago artists, such as Leon Golub, that Dubuffet's work had its strongest influence in the United States at this time. See Mildred Glimcher and Jean Dubuffet, Jean Dubuffet, Towards an Alternative Reality (reprint, New York, 1987), p. 27. On the theme of Woman in both artists' work, see: Mildred Glimcher, Willem de Kooning, Jean Dubuffet: The Women (exh. cat., New York, Pace Gallery, 1990).