Curators’ selection — Hidden Masterpieces

Jean DUBUFFET, Edith Boissonnas with a Scarf at her Neck, 1947, Oil on paper

Jean DUBUFFET, Edith Boissonnas with a Scarf at her Neck, 1947, Oil on paper
©ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2018   C2155
It is impossible to say definitely that this subtly androgynous figure is male or female. The uninhibited brushwork in this portrait evokes a child’s scribblings. The artist who painted this work was Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985). This French artist was born in Le Havre in 1901. In 1918, he moved to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian. Bored by academic lectures, he left the school the following year and began to study and paint independently. In 1923 he was conscripted and employed as a meteorologist in the fort at Saint-Cirq Lapople, but was demobilized the following April. From then until 1933, he detached himself from art. For half a year, he worked as a design engineer for an air conditioner company in Buenos Aires. He then returned to his birthplace, Le Havre, to establish a wine business. In 1940, he returned to painting but it would be two years before he could devote himself exclusively to art, since he was running the family business and then was also remobilized. In 1943, Dubuffet was introduced to the art critic Jean Paulhan. His first solo exhibition was in 1944. Unrestrained by traditional formulas and techniques, Dubuffet rejected the Enlightenment. He seized the opportunity to pursue his own creative direction, producing work praised for a crude vital force like that found in children, people from undeveloped countries, and the mentally disabled. He labeled it art brut.

This work is a clear and compelling example of the experiments to which art brut refers. Psychological elements are totally missing. The figure is grotesque, but the style is amusing. The model’s true character is only thinly indicated. This seemingly artless form of expression sharply criticizes traditional art and aims to display, instead, a creativity unconstrained by earlier concepts. In Dubuffet’s works, the images are concrete but academic theories of form are rejected. The aim is an image with a primitive, direct impact.

The model for this portrait was the Swiss poet and author Edith Boissonnas (1904-1989), who was a close friend of Dubuffet’s. Boissonnas was born in Baden bei Zürich, an ancient city on the banks of the Limmat River, and grew up in Geneva. In 1927 she married the University of Geneva chemistry professor Charles Boissonnas. She later lived in Spain, England, and America, and frequently visited Paris. In 1936 her poetry was published in the revue Yggdrasill. Later, while living in Paris in 1939, she became editor of La Nouvelle revue francaise. Her talent blossomed after she med Jean Paulhan. When Paulhan and Dubuffet visited Switzerland in 1945, they went to see her. Immediately after, in September she moved to Paris, where she became close friends with Debuffet. The correspondence she began with him at that time continued until 1980 and was later collected and published (fig. 1). Debuffet painted this work in 1947. Starting in the summer of the following year he began to paint portraits of his wife and other friends using the same techniques. His portrait of Boissonas could, thus, be said to have been the starting point for the subsequent development of his free, uninhibited style. In October 1947, he displayed this work at his third solo exhibition, at the Galerie René Blouin in Paris, Portraits—More Beautiful Than They Themselves Had Imagined (fig. 2).
“Edith Boissonnas Jean Dubuffet La vie est libre Correspondance et critiques 1945-1980”, 2014
Brochure for the exhibition “Les gens sont bien plus beaux qu'ils croient vive leur vraie figure par Mr. Jean Dubuffet”, 1947