Trinité-Champs-Elysées is one of the most enthralling and enchanting paintings from Dubuffet's most highly esteemed and consequential series, titled Paris Circus. Executed in 1961, it is inspired by the frenetic heartbeat of urban commotion that he witnessed on his return to Paris after several years spent in the countryside in Vence where he had taken a house in 1955.
When Dubuffet left Paris, he abandoned a war-scarred and melancholy city. However when he returned to the French capital in 1961, he found a city completely different to the one he had left. Optimism and cosmopolitan bustle had replaced the gloom and despondency that had formerly prevailed. This new vibrant atmosphere was intoxicating for Dubuffet and had an immediate, explosive effect on his work, culminating in the exuberant Paris Circus pictures. Where formerly - for instance in his Texturologies - nature had been the source of his investigations, now city life itself came to dominate his paintings. Where he had celebrated life on a minute scale, he now celebrated humanity on a grand scale. Inspired by the city's teeming boulevards and animated dwellers, Dubuffet transformed their energetic spirit into the subject of his art. There is something quintessentially Parisian in the crowds of people who populate this broad panorama of city life: the picture hums with movement, with the joie-de-vivre of a burgeoning era of prosperity that has usurped the post-war era of rationing and shortages. Painted in kaleidoscopic reds, blues, greens and yellows, the pedestrians each tell a tale - each is involved in his or her own arcane and hieratic act.
The bustling panoramas of the Paris Circus resemble the views of Paris and the subway pictures that Dubuffet painted in the early 1940s, although the texture, space and deployment of figures have become significantly more complex. Artists throughout history have been captivated by the Parisian cityscape. The Hungarian photographer Brassaї, often referred to as "the eye of Paris", was also entranced by the bustling streets and bourgeois society. In his 1930s night photographs of the city, his camera angle was at a high vantage point to achieve the effect of flattening the perspective. Similarly, in Dubuffet's Trinité-Champs-Elysées, the result of the view point is a jumbled panoramic view of the city in which people, cars and lettering make up a flat pattern of forms perfectly distilling the chaos of the scene. This flattened perspectival plane, compressed distance and unnerving bird's-eye viewpoint which ruthlessly crops the three figures along the bottom edge, are all compositional devices redolent of naïve children's art and most importantly the raw vision of psychotic art that so vitally informed Dubuffet's oeuvre. Categorically opposed to 'cultivated' art taught in schools and museums, Dubuffet denounced the selective character of official culture. First among a group of post-war artists to dismiss repressive convention, Dubuffet nurtured the concept of art informel, a spontaneous art that rejected any effect of harmony or beauty in a bid to break free of tradition.
Firmly believing that styles and schools hamper rather than train our artistic understanding of the world, here Dubuffet tapped into the unrefined vitality that is lost through teaching and discipline. His early, pre-War works tended to be influenced by artists like Suzanne Valadon, but he managed to 'unteach' himself everything that he had learnt and in so doing to rediscover a potent vision of the world. In Trinité-Champs-Elysées, he translated this vision onto canvas. The heads of the individuals appear as bubbles, disproportionate and child-like; each wide open face conversely a closed and concealed world in itself. Dubuffet's interest in sound and music, which he especially developed over the next two years, intrudes into Trinité-Champs-Elysées - the sounds of the traffic and engines are almost palpable.
When examining Dubuffet's career and the Paris Circus pictures specifically, one can draw clear comparisons to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who 20 years later would amply demonstrate his gifts as the 1980s art world's enfant terrible. In Basquiat's paintings we see a similar naïveté in style incorporating emblematic symbols from his personal lexicon of imagery such as the crown, modes of transportation, heroism and the street. For both artists, layers of different meanings and contexts co-exist on the same pictorial plane. A mélange of concerns weaves itself together, each idea or notion informing (and deconstructing) the next. The relationship between word and image can also be addressed as both artists punctuate the painted plane with language. The inscriptions in the present work, drawn from and satirizing the street signs, shop fronts and advertisements of the new economy, consist of plays on words which have associative as well as formal functions. In their relationship to the figures, they recall Dubuffet's interest in early 15th century woodcuts in which pictures and didactic text are combined in a single print, a tradition that continues in popular imagery into the twentieth century with the comic-strip.
The sheer density of life in this work is emphasized by the density of impasto. Where Dubuffet had recently been using such textures to instill a sense of soil and nature, here he has scratched and sculpted his paint to form the figures and details of the Paris streets. Dubuffet has used the impasto layers in part to make the human presence absolutely unambiguous; both the obvious human figures in the composition and also the presence of the artist discernible in the visible traces of his painterly application. When looking at Trinité-Champs-Elysées, the viewer's eyes scatter across the surface, retrieving and attempting to absorb the concoction of images and test our process of memory and seeing. Like a tapestry of urbanity, Dubuffet's figures are woven together sharing no relative size or stylistic consideration, recreating the various scenes along the Champs-Elysées. With no central focus to the composition, we are forced to explore and re-explore once and again the stories.
Oil on canvas
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Jean Dubuffet Rétrospective: peintures, sculptures, dessins, July – October 1985, cat. no. 51, illustrated in color
Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Dubuffet, March - June 1993, cat. no. 83, illustrated in color
Lugano, Museo Cantonale d'Arte, Tra luce impressionista e materia informale: da Pissarro a Dubuffet, February - April 1997
Saarbrücken, Saarland Museum, Jean Dubuffet – Figuren und Köpfe. Auf der Suche nach einer Gegenkultur, September - November 1999, cat. no. 45, illustrated
45¾ x 35 in. 116 x 89 cm.
Max Loreau, ed., Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet: Paris Circus, fascicule XIX, Lausanne, 1965, cat. no. 24, p. 23, illustrated
Andreas Franzke, Dubuffet, Cologne, 1990, pl. no. 27, illustrated in color
Galerie Daniel Cordier, Paris
Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above in 1961)
Sotheby's, New York, May 10, 2006, Lot 14