Exhibition – Jean Dubuffet (1901 – 1985) Metamorphoses of Landscape in Basel, Switzerland

Exhibition ‘Jean Dubuffet – Metamorphoses of Landscape’  in Foundation Beveler, Basel (Switzerland) from 31 Jan – 08 May 2016 (click here – accessed 08 May 2016). Flyer click here. [accessed 08 May 2016].

Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985) is one of the artists who re-defined art of the second half of the 20th century. After years of running a wholesale wine business in Paris and self-doubts and struggle he decided at the age of 41 to devote himself entirely to painting.  Over several periods of different painting styles Dubuffet succeeded in liberating himself from traditions and reinventing art. His influence in contemporary art today can be seen via street art and artists as David Hockney, Jean-Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring got inspired by Dubuffet.

This  first large-scale retrospective in Switzerland in this century more than 100 works were on show.

In the earlier works Dubuffet tried to develop new ways of approaching painting outside of cultural and aesthetic norms. He looked at the more narrative style of children drawings and eventually informed by works from mental ill people. He invented 1949 the term Art Brut. Initially considered works worth for artistic recognition Dubuffet refined the concept to are by outsiders, out of social conventions and norms as works created in psychiatric institutions. See also my exhibition visit of Philippe Saxer (Schaffeld, Mar 2016)

A key theme of the exhibition is landscape in its multifaceted perspectives and a interrogative exploration and transformation of a human body into a landscape and vice versa (Metamorphoses). Dubuffet experimented with all kind of materials (sand, butterfly wings, sponge and slag), at times to contradict a perceived superiority of oil paint.

Faces into Landscape

 “I think portraits and landscapes should resemble each other because they are more or less the same thing. I want portraits in which description makes use of the same mechanisms as those used in a landscape—here wrinkles, there ravines or paths; here a nose, there a tree; here a mouth and there a house” (Dubuffet, 1947)

  • Monsieur Plume pièce botanique’, 1946
    Oil and mixed media on wood (108 x 89 cm) Buffalo, NY: Albright Knox Art Gallery. 


=> In this work Dubuffet incorporates e.g. sand with his oil paints and transforms he portrait into a ‘landscaped‘ relief style work. This is a strong on the surface working painting that builds up the form from a ‘botanical background’.

Body Landscapes

Dubuffet continued to interrogate the subject matter of metamorphoses with further abstraction and exploring the human body as a landscape in his series ‘Corps de dames (Female bodies)‘ 1950.

  • Corps de Dame piece de Boucherie (Woman’s Body—Butcher’s Slab)‘, 1950
    Oil and sand on canvas (116 x 89 cm) Basel: Fondation Beyeler

In these female bodies I enjoyed […] abruptly juxtaposing the entirely general with the entirely specific, the entirely subjective with the entirely objective, the metaphysical with the grotesquely commonplace. […] The same impulse prompted the seemingly illogical convergence in these nudes of textures that evoke flesh […] with other textures that have nothing to do with people, but suggest instead earth and all sorts of other things, such as bark, rock, botanical objects, or geographical features.” Jean Dubuffet, 1953

Dubuffet continued with abstraction of landscapes in his series ‘Paysages du mental‘ (Landscapes of the mind). Separated from real landscapes they represent mental landscapes in relief-like mysterious monochrome works. At times thee reminded my of some surrealistic works by Max Ernst.

  • Natura Genitirx‘, 1952
    Oil on hardboard (130 x 162 cm) Collection J. Bolos



Landscape as material
Exploration of paint as a physical substance on new ways, process of deconstruction and re-construction, assemblages and a series of Topographies, Texturologies, and Matériologies are key exploratory areas Dubuffet worked on in the period from 1955 to 1960. In these series Dubuffet addressed the topographical reality of the earth, water and sky, and the stars.

Assemblage as a 2 step approach:

  1. mark making in great freedom and spontaneity
  2. Assembling to meaningful whole picture from cut-outs from the images created in step 1


  • Le Très Riche Sol’ (Extremely Rich Earth), 1956
    Oil on canvas assemblage (156 x 117 cm) Basel: Fondation Beveler



Texturologie (1957 – 58)

Spattering with oil and brush over the support laying on the floor creating illusions of soil and textures by the scattering patterns of drops (a kind of action painting). His intention was to give an ‘impression of teeming matter, alive and sparkling, which I could use to represent soil, but which could also evoke all kinds of indeterminate textures, and even galaxies and nebulae‘.(Tate, 2008)

  • Texturologie V (Charbonneuse)’ Coaly, 1957
    Oil on canvas (129.5 x 162 cm) New York: Acquavella Museum


Topographie (1957 – 59)

= Re assembling cut-out from previous made Texturologies into imaginary maps. The works are at time unsettling.

  • Topographie blonde (Dormition du sol)‘, 1958
    Oil on canvas (89 x 116 cm) Private collection



Matériologie (1959)

= Dubuffet put in this series emphasis on materials to stimulate a mental responses from the viewer. The concern with topical reality is here conveyed not by using natural material but rather artifice material like black, gray, and silver metal foil. He also used paper maché for modelling relief like structures. The resulting evocative effects are presenting an illusion of an accurate depicted nature.

  • L’Ame des sous-sol’, 1959
    Oil on silver foil on hardboard (149.6 x 195 cm) New York: MoMA



Painting […] operates with signs that are not abstract and immaterial, as words are. The signs in painting are much closer to the objects themselves. And then painting deals with materials that are themselves living substances. That is what allows them to go much farther than words ever can in approaching objects and their evocation.” Jean Dubuffet, 1951

Dubuffet challenged with his landscapes the aesthetic attitude of this time through challenging visual perception and preconceived notions what landscapes are supposed to mean.




  • Coucou Bazar‘, 1972/3
    41 moveable stage elements, acrylic and vinyl on Klegecell and polyurethane, with 18 costumes in mixed media, dimensions variable. Paris: Collection Fondation Dubuffet





Through the sequential exploration of landscape, materiality and visual perception and illusion Dubuffet moved further ahead towards his later paintings in abstraction of townscapes and other subject matters. The resulting ‘landscapes’ were purely mental creations.

  • Mèle Moments‘, (Mingle moments) 1976
    Acrylic on paper mounted on canvas (248,9 x 360,7 cm) Glimcher Family Collection


With these aggressively and expressive paintings with an anti cultural and anti-aesthetic attitude were inspirations for following movements ad groups like the COBRA group (Karel Appel Asger Jorn) in Europe and Claes Oldenburg in New York. As Dubuffet these artists sought to contradict and to collapse the terms “high” and “low.”

In the show was also the ‘animated painting‘ a major multimedia work ‘Coucou Bazar‘ that was created for stage performance, a combination of painting, sculpture, theatre, dance and music. As the costumes are not for stage performance any longer – besides two – there is fortunately a youtube video documentation available (Montmartre, 2010)

One of his last works is

  • Le Cours de Choses (MIRE G174, BOLÉRO) (The course of things), 1983
    Acrylic on paper mounted on canvas (268 x 800 cm) Paris: Musée national d’art moderne


=> A large scale work consisting of32 sheet each 67 x 100cm. Dubuffet who barely could stand any longer did paint each sheets one by one. He couldn’t see the overall picture. Only after the all sheets were mounted onto canvas  the image as a whole could be finished. This ‘landscape’ does not show any human presence, no focal points. It resembles closely to Dubuffet’s ‘Coucou Bazar’ as it is an interplay of red and blue lines, a kind of dance.



  • Dubuffet innovated the aesthetic paintings and of especially of what a landscape stands for.
  • His exploration – at times quite methodological – moved more and more from representational towards presentational ‘landscapes of the mind
  • I feel attracted by his constant interrogation with the surface and the materiality of the media, seeking for different visual effects and articulations made a large part of Dubuffet’s work
  • I find it quite intriguing how Dubuffet merges painting with sculpture and performance alongside music and drama to create something new: ‘Animated painting

Lookup Klegecell:  ‘Klegecell R is used in conjunction with high strength facings to produce lightweight, yet exceptionally stiff composite structures. Klegecell is widely used and found in pleasure crafts, tanks, high performance boats, vehicles, and many other high-strength, low-weight applications‘ (from: http://www.matweb.com)


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