At the centre of this year’s new display of the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection are works by the successors to Surrealism, with particular focus on Jean Dubuffet.
Born in Le Havre in 1901, Dubuffet first worked as a wine merchant before turning his energies entirely to art in the early 1940s. Almost self-taught, Dubuffet was particularly interested in whatever was not taught in the academies or schools: practices and styles that were dismissed at the time as ‘naïve’ or ‘primitive’, appearing (if at all) at the periphery of cultural life. In this respect, Surrealism provided him with an important precedent, since as early as the 1920s it had shown appreciation for the works of children and the mentally ill as valuable expressions of an art outside the traditional canon, and declared similar enthusiasm for non-European artworks.
While the Surrealists, with their characteristic passion for the irrational, had displayed subtle elegance and irony in their reactions to the First World War, Dubuffet responded two decades later to the horrors of the Second World War with a plea for a ‘raw, uncivilized art’ (‘art brut’). In his quest to discover a new ‘primitiveness’, free of Western refinements, he created and collected works that consciously circumvented prevailing notions of beauty in order to foster a new aesthetic sensibility.
Today Jean Dubuffet ranks among the preeminent figures of French post-war art. Furthermore, a clear picture is emerging of how Dubuffet was not alone among artists of his generation in dealing with similar themes, even when no direct artistic exchange existed between them. Thus visitors to the exhibition will be able to discover fascinating relationships between the bodies of women and animals seen in the works of Dubuffet and the voluminous figures created by the sculptor Henri Laurens, whose earlier work had shown an affinity with Cubism. Similarly, Dubuffet’s interest in all things earthy, muddy, and jagged is equally evident in a work by Alberto Giacometti, or those by Willi Baumeister, Hans Bellmer, Zoltan Kemény, and Antoni Tàpies.
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