Notes for the Well-Lettered – Jean Dubuffet

Departing from the formless

The point of departure is the surface one is to bring alive – canvas or a piece of paper – and the first stroke of colour or ink that one lays on it; the resulting effect, the resulting adventure. It is this stroke, the degree to which one enriches it and gives it direction, that shapes the work. A painting is not built like a house, following architectural specifications; but rather by facing away from the end result; gropings, going backwards! Alchemist, it is not by looking at gold that you will discover how to make it. Go to your retorts, boil urine, look avidly at lead; that’s your job. And you, painter, look to your palettes and rags, strokes of colour, patches and lines, that’s where you’ll find the keys you’re looking for.

Painting Ensnared

‘This is not painting! It’s a line that you have drawn on the ground with your nail – and that? No better! It’s soft fabric like a curtain or a tapestry. As for this, it looks like a railway signal. This looks like house painting! And this other one, which you’ve baked, it’s not painting, it’s pottery or pastry. This one is a piece of interior decor; this one should be a poster; this one’s a book cover. Here’s a piece of kitchenware, there’s a coloured-in drawing. I wouldn’t accept this at the paint counter. You mix everything up. A skin specialist doesn’t treat liver diseases. I need works that are mutually comparable, so I can classify them, give them a relative ranking, in a well-defined category. And then? Well, I fix the prices accordingly. That’s it, it’s all clear.’ Too clear, I say. I’m in favour of confusion. Do not confine art, cut it off from the real world, keep it in a trap. I want painting to be full of life – decorations, swatches of colour, signs and placards, scratches on the ground. These are its native soil.

The Native Soil Forgotten

There is no commerce between so-called artistic painting (which claims the exclusive right to this title) and that which is more moderately called house painting, or interior decorating. They don’t know each other, don’t speak to each other. This is not good. Come on! Do both kinds of people spend their entire working lives with the same colours; thickening them, thinning them, applying them in all sorts of ways, yet not giving each other the slightest bit of advice? Can it be that they just do not meet? I once helped out an artist at the very beginning of his career. He walked straight past a paint merchant’s, where there were large tins and barrels of paint of every sort of pigment, drawers full of the most stunning powders, without so much as a sidelong glance – he quickened his step. At a stationer’s shop, he bought six small tubes of special artists’ colours, smaller than those used for Vaseline or Seccotine. Back home he squeezed a little from each tube, and sat down in front of an apple. Under his window a workman, armed with some cans of paint, was working on a lifesize shop sign of an innkeeper presenting a menu. But he noticed neither the workman nor his work. I met this artist twenty years later. He was still painting apples with his small tubes of paint. I mentioned the picture of the innkeeper on the facade of his house. It never occurred to him to look at it, he told me. I also mentioned the colours of his studio walls but he told me that artists are distracted and quirky people, so profoundly absorbed in their work that they never take note of things like that.

Bargain Hunter

Accidents which happen by chance. Admittedly, a slightly contrived chance, or provoked, or more or less consented to; used by the artist for profit – chances which are, quite rightly, the game that the artist hunts, which he constantly calls out to, watches and traps. Chances like: the slight unevenness, the small gaps resulting from the shaking of the brush (it sometimes happens that a line is more or less coloured than another), all of which cause the underlying tones to become more or less transparent. There are an infinite number of such accidents in a painting. They are very important for the picture’s attractiveness.

The distribution of tones, of light and shade, often results from such accidents. They often cause light to fall on one part of a face, for example; whereas the painter wanted to put the light on a different aspect of the subject. But the accident rules supreme: it occured in that spot and the painter must accomodate it, turn it to advantage. How thrilling is the pursuit and exploitation of these favourable accidents; how full of surprises and lures the painter’s game! It is no longer a matter of using docile colours, whose effects are known in advance, but rather of using their magical properties, those that seem to arise from a will of their own, which have more power than the strongest intentions of the artist! He uses these helpers, whose power is greater than his own, like someone who moulds in lead. It is as if the brushes are enchanted: they work wonders. Take a subject, such as a portrait of a human face, at a certain stage of the picture’s development. I roughly work on a polychromatic background, paintbrush full of an unexpected colour – with black, for example, or green, or whatever; then a miracle is produced, a magic trick! This colour rapidly and sketchily slapped on, happily joins the colours it covers, whilst leaving them imperceptibly transparent in other places, in such a way that it forms gradations and links of tone that are so fine, so subtle, that no deliberate plan could have proposed them, let alone executed them. What does it matter at this point that you have used black or green or pink for this purpose, and that the portrait remains bright or dark as a consequence; you still have this effect of nuanced subtlety in any case. It also does not matter that the path of the paintbrush has left a touch of black which was not dry; this will be a moustache. Instead of a female figure, which the artist originally proposed – though he lacked a detailed plan, and he was not particularly committed to the subject – it can now be a portrait of a man.

Never Work Hard

Let us reject tedious work. It goes against human nature, against the cosmic rhythms, it goes against man himself, to take trouble where none is needed. It is natural for him to apply himself to avoiding such work; to use every instrument that comes to hand, every favourable chance which can help him out, to make his work easier and more pleasant. Tedious work is inhuman and repugnant, every work which shows signs of it is ugly. It is pleasure and ease, without harshness and constraint, which create grace in every human gesture.

Two Dimensions

The purpose of painting is to decorate surfaces, and it therefore effects only two dimensions and excludes depth. The purpose is not to enrich depth, but to alter and adulterate it, to create a relief effect or trompe-Vml by means of light and shade. There is an element of deception about this which is repellent. It offends against reason and taste, and it is clumsy and idle. Put a white dot in the middle of an apple, with shading of planes to suggest distance; close your eyes, and it seems like living sculpture – poor little contrivance! Let us find other ingenious ways to transcribe objects on to flat surfaces; make the surface speak its own surface-language and not a false three-dimensional language which is alien to it. Is a surface to be somehow completed, by filling it with holes and lumps and distances? That is to torture it. I rather favour the necessity of leaving it completely flat. My eyes are gratified when they come to rest on a c ompletely flat surface, especially a rectangular one. The represented objects would be transferred onto it changed into pancakes, ironed flat.

Fanfare for the Common Man

There are no more great men, no more geniuses. We are finally free of these malevolent dummies. Genius was an invention of the Greeks, like the centaurs and the hippogryphs. There are as many geniuses as there are unicorns. We have been so scared of them for three thousand years.

It is not men who are great. It is man who is great. It is not wonderful to be exceptional. It is wonderful to be a man.


Originally published in Dubuffet’s Prospectus, Paris, 1946.

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