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Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty at the Barbican Review

There are a myriad of adjectives one can use to describe the French post-war artist Jean Dubuffet and his work: playful, comic, fun, naive, experimental, inventful, playful, rebellious, provocative, irreverent, anti-establishment, subversive and clever to name just a few. What ever he be and whatever it is – It is certainly not dull! Dubuffet often preferred art made by children to that of formally-trained artists – in return, we think children will amused and be inspired by him too.

Jean Dubuffet created the notion of Art Brut ('raw art') – defined as art untouched by artistic culture. As an anti-artist he rejected conventional notions of artistic beauty for the mundane and the ugly. He was energized and inspired not only by children but by psychiatric patients, prisoners, tattoists and grafitti and street artists. He also often discarded conventional artistic materials, sometimes using cement, mud, glass, dust and a paste which he literally cut with a knife. And yet don't be mistaken in to thinking this was to hide a lack of ability – far from it, for example he was a skilled master of the notoriously difficult lithograph.

It is completely appropriate that the first major UK exhibition of his work in more than 50 years is in the brutalist, labyrinth that is the Barbican Centre.

'Brutal Beauty' starts upstairs in a series of themed cubicles with different coloured walls that underline how over the decades Dubuffet changed course (both medium and style) on umpteen occasions. From graffiti, to his famous deeroticiszing of the female form, to textured, muddy landscapes, to his knobbly sculpture, to his garden gardens with their pasted-on butterfly wings.

His portraits from the 1940s are as funny and artless as those of a child – except that they brilliantly capture faces with all their peculiarities. ('Funny noses, big mouths, crooked teeth, hairy ears, I'm not against all that')

Downstairs in the bigger spaces you can't help but be wowed by 'L'hourloupe' a body of works from the1960s emerging from doodles Dubuffet made while on the telephone. In his later year he returned to assemblage, layering fragments of paintings into enormous collages –  Vicissitudes which is more that 3.5 metres wide and looks spectacular, was completed when he was aged 75 years old with ‘a good deal of gymnastic exercise on a ladder’!

The Barbican have produced a great activity sheet for children. Collect one before you start (or download it from the website). If anyone is going to inspire unbridled creativity Dubuffet is.

Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty

Barbican Art Gallery 17 May - 22 August 2021 Book tickets here

Under 14s are free

From May 17 to August 22

Anya Waddington 21st May 2021


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