The first major exhibition of work by the French artist, Jean Dubuffet in over 50 years has opened at the Barbican.
As an artist, he’s somewhat difficult to describe as he produced such a wide variety of work in his lifetime that an exhibition of his work can almost look like a gallery of a dozen different artists. Whether he was compelled to experiment, or just got bored a lot, is something I leave to other people to argue over.
He’s often been described as an anti-art artist.
The Barbican’s exhibition ranges from his earliest works, mainly portraits and drawings, but often deliberately and provocatively ugly portraits. He argued that a lot of his work was not an attack on the person sitting for him, but the western ideals of beauty.
The exhibition flows through an era where he was more collector than creator, the Art Brut period, which is today more often, if disparagingly called Outsider Art, as if being an artist is something that can only be done by people passing an exam. Probably the period that looks more conventional modern art and accessible though are the later periods when he worked on much larger canvases and larger blocks of colour.
Some of the most interesting, conceptually as well as aesthetically are the large texture works where he experimented with collages of materials or painted onto sheets of stone. Using butterfly wings though, may be accepted at the time, would rightly be less so today.
The largest display was given over to something that’s not a static art, but a period when he put on what can be described as a stage show, with people in costumes among animatronics. Although too fragile to be mobile now, the Barbican has recreated a static scene from the show.
The room is visually impactful though.
As an exhibition, it’s a hard one to quantify, at times appealing and then you move along to another display and can be repelled by what he created. As the artist said: “Art should always make you laugh a little and fear a little. Anything but bore.”
It doesn’t bore as at times it feels that Dubuffet can almost be seen as a one-man collective, and the Barbican has managed to put on a rare chance to see the astonishing variety of his work.