Le Métafisyx, by the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901 – 1985), is a classic example of the artist’s oeuvre, typified by Existential figurative painting. Not only is the work executed in his signature Art Brut (raw art) style, but also functions as a visual manifestation of the artist’s worldview that all things in the universe are interconnected. Le Métafisyx, which is part of the Corps de Dames series, visually explicates Dubuffet’s morbid preoccupation with the idea that man and his perceptual world both emanate from and will ultimately be reabsorbed into the in “infinite chaos of undifferentiated matter, as the [female bodily] form dissolves into elemental matter.”[i] In Le Métafisyx’s crude drawing and grated texture, this work was meant to shock and challenge the art world’s conventional notions of beauty and art.
Indeed, Dubuffet’s aesthetic rebellion was spawned by a gloomy political and cultural climate. He began painting in 1942, at the height of Hitler’s occupation in France. Up until this point, however, the artist was not entirely committed to art. Dubuffet, who was born in Le Havre, France, moved to Paris in 1918 to study painting at the Academy Julian; after six months he left the Academy to study independently. In 1924, doubting the value of art, he stopped painting and took over his father's wine business. He took up painting again in the 1930s, but this attempt too was short-lived. However in 1942, once deeply affected by the moral crises of wartime Europe, Dubuffet’s intermittent belief in art was replaced by an overwhelming sense of urgency to return to the rudimentary origins of art, as he believed that the “logic of civilized values had been twisted to a horrific conclusion.” With that, he became the last notable artist of the “irrational” in France.[ii] Dubuffet’s career was focused on finding a way to see beyond the “blinders of civilization, with its limited concepts of beauty and reality.” His attitudes were clearly aligned with the Dada movement, for he too was anti-art and anti-bourgeois. Moreover, just as Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian had, Dubuffet also sought to reveal a higher truth.[iii]
Significant to Dubuffet’s artistic development was his 1940s discovery of Art Brut, the art of the untrained or insane, characterized by graffiti, children’s art, and caricature. Some believe his use of this style was inspired by the art of the Surrealists, however, the Surrealists themselves disagreed. Nevertheless, Dubuffet had similar aspirations as the Surrealists, for he too was interested in unlocking the unconscious. He felt that artists untouched by conventional training were “uninhibited by the superego and were therefore able to express primal urges and desires directly connected to universal forces.”[iv] Dubuffet adopted these direct untutored, unlearned expressive styles in his own art because he believed they represented a universal language that anyone could understand and appreciate. The artist abandoned the notion that art had to be something precious, something that required taste or knowledge, and something that could only be understood by a middle-class audience. Dubuffet’s Art Brut is an uncivilized form, a visual manifestation of a primal urge, and a tool to explicate notions of the existential loneliness of human existence.
Also important to Dubuffet’s worldview is the concept that all things are equally consecrated, as everything is composed of the same matter and energy. In the paintings of 1950 Dubuffet began expanding the figure to fill the whole composition. This is illustrated in Le Métafisyx, an Existential figurative painting, which in its vulgar sexuality and masklike grimace are characteristic of the Corps de Dames series of nudes Dubuffet painted in 1950 and 1951. In such works the definition of the figure becomes marginal as its “interval texture” is pushed out toward the edges of the canvas.[v] As the artist explained these compositions are:
No longer – or almost no longer – descriptive of external sites, but rather… the immaterial world which dwells in the mind of man: disorder of images, of beginnings of images, of fading images, where they cross and mingle, in a turmoil, tatters burrowed from memories of the outside world, and facts purely cerebral and internal – visceral perhaps. The transfer of these mental sites on the same place as that of the real concrete landscapes, and in such a way that an uncomfortable incongruity is the result … the discovery that they are perhaps not so foreign [to one another] as one had believed, attracts me very strongly.[vi]
In Le Métafisyx, the unusual texture takes on a life of its own, freely setting off in directions independent of the obvious subject matter. The chaotic graffiti-like style is so abstract, the figure can be read in unlimited ways; for instance, the scratchy wiry lines could be interpreted as representing a hidden energy that runs through all things universal.[vii] Dubuffet, in his creation of the work, “encountered the chaos of the unconscious mind in the disorder and detail of a concentrated focus on texture.”[viii] The artist has literally etched his woman into a deep bed of crude and rough paint, suggesting earth, ancient plaster walls, and stone. Not only does this “comic-repulsive, soil-encrusted” woman identify with mineral matter, she is also timeless, for she resembles an archeological find excavated from a prehistoric site.[ix]
Le Métafisyx is a true expression of Dubuffet’s artistic goals. In its gestural brutality and in its thick, dirtied surface, the work is the “Other” of painting and demands immediate perception. As the artist intended, the painting’s Art Brut aesthetic has constructed a universal language that can be approached and understood by all. Le Métafisyx is particularly engaging not only due to its aesthetic and expressive content, but also because of its physical condition. With the ground coming through the surface and the apparent unfinished quality, the artist wanted his work to become about decay and time describing itself. The present condition of Le Métafisyx retains the integrity of Dubuffet’s oeuvre. As, he would want his painting to exist naturally in time and space; he would not be opposed to the flaking or cracking incurred from inherent vice or an unstable environment. Not only does Le Métafisyx fit perfectly into Dubuffet’s oeuvre, but it also has art historical significance as a prime example of postwar abstraction in France.
[i] Jonathan Fineberg. Art Since 1940 Strategies of Being. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000. 137.
[ii] Robert Hughes. The Shock of the New. New York: Knopf, 1991. 265.
[iii] H. W Janson and Penelope Davies. Janson's History of Art: the Western Tradition. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. 1045.
[v] Fineberg, 135.
[vi] Peter Selz. The Work of Jean Dubuffet. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1962. 71.
[viii] Fineberg, 135.
[ix] Janson, 1045.
Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940 Strategies of Being. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New. New York: Knopf, 1991.
Janson, H. W. and Penelope Davies. Janson's History of Art: the Western Tradition. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.
Selz, Peter. The Work of Jean Dubuffet. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1962.