L’art en guerre. France, 1938–1947: From Picasso to Dubuffet
March 16, 2013 – September 8, 2013
Head of a Hostage no. 8 (Tête d’otage n°8), 1944–45
Oil on paper mounted on canvas
36 x 28 cm
“In art, only the quality of the artist’s sensitivity counts, and art is only the means of externalization, albeit a mad means, without rules or calculation.”  Jean Fautrier
In the middle of the 1940s a group of artists were executing artworks stressing their pursuit of spontaneity, looseness of form, and the irrational to give vent to the subconscious. Their artworks emphasized the texture or tactile quality of the paint rather than the image that was created. In that context the French writer Michel Tapié coined the term Art Informel (from the French informe, meaning unformed or formless) to refer to the anti-geometric, anti-naturalistic, and nonfigurative formal preoccupations of these artists.  The popularity of Art Informel immediately after World War II (1939–45) owed much to the fact that it was perceived as an attempt to shake off tradition (in that it was an expression of artistic freedom) and as a break from the atmosphere of political authoritarianism that had led to the war. 
Jean Fautrier (b. 1898, Paris; d. 1964, Châtenay-Malabry, France) and Jean Dubuffet (b. 1901, Le Havre, France; d. 1985, Paris) were part of the groups of artists working in the Art Informel movement. In 1943 Fautrier was arrested and briefly imprisoned by Hitler’s Gestapo because of his involvement in the French resistance, which fought against the Nazi Germans in occupied France. He subsequently fled to a psychiatric asylum in the Parisian suburb of Châtenay-Malabry, where he painted within earshot of the woods where German forces conducted massacres at night.  It was in that context that he began work on the Hostages (Otages) (1944–45). Using grooves and scratches, Fautrier built up the partially hidden and highly distorted faces of the hostages to the picture’s surface. These paintings’ simplification of form and method of execution characterized all his subsequent production and proved highly influential in the development of Art Informel in the following decade. 
Around 1945, Dubuffet was strongly impressed by a show in Paris of Fautrier's paintings. Dubuffet felt that Fautrier’s artwork expressed directly and purely the depth of a person. As did Fautrier, he started to use thick oil paint, but Dubuffet mixed his paint with sand and gravel, so that he could model the paint as a textured “skin.”  He began creating what he referred to as hautes pâtes, paintings in which a thick paste served as the raised base or relief-like structure; color was used sparingly; and contours were scratched like graffiti. Dubuffet painted raw, childlike images that combined a bold handling of texture with a wry, dark sense of humor. The subjects of his early paintings were his friends, ordinary people performing everyday tasks, and also typical city streets. 
1. Applicat-Prazan Gallery
2. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Collection online, Art Informel
3. Grove Art Online
4. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Collection online, Jean Fautrier
5. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Collection online, Jean Fautrier
6. Opera Gallery
7. Metropolitan Museum, Collection online, Jean Dubuffet
Look closely at the work by Fautrier. What do you see? What colors, forms, and shapes do you notice? What adjectives can be used to discuss these pieces?
To paint Hostages, Fautrier developed a technique of gluing layers of paper to canvas to create an absorbent skin-like surface on which he applied a thick impasto to render a form, much like a relief. Ask your students how they think Fautrier’s painting was made. Which tools do you think he used? Describe how the artist created his artwork in detail. How would it feel to touch? Stand up and recreate the movement that the artist might have used to make the image.
Fautrier painted Hostages within earshot of the woods where German forces conducted massacres at night.  The paintings have been criticized, accusing the artist of associating beauty with the horror of war. In your classroom stage a debate: Can a tragic event be portrayed as a pleasing image? Do you think it is possible to use an awful moment in history to create an aesthetic work of art?
Look at Dubuffet’s painting. What image do you recognize? Who do you think this person is? How would you describe the mood of the character in this painting? What words would you use to describe the feeling the painting communicates?
Dubuffet rejected traditional portraiture, which he regarded as superficial imitation. Instead of showing his sitter's likeness or personality, he focused on certain odd features, which he then exaggerated. What do you think he wanted to tell the viewer about the person depicted?
Dubuffet is considered a part of the Art Informel movement. The name means "art without form." It was a type of abstraction in which form became subservient to the expressive impulses of the artist. Ask students to discuss this term. How could it apply or not apply to this work? What does the artwork resemble as a result of the materials, colors, and process he used?
Compare the Dubuffet and Fautrier paintings. Dubuffet became strongly impressed by a show in Paris of Fautrier's paintings. Do you feel Dubuffet’s work shares some affinity to Fautrier’s work? How do you think Fautrier influenced Dubuffet?
Street Venus (La Vénus du trottoir), 1946
Oil on plaster plate
102 x 82 cm
Musée Cantini, Marseilles, France
Fautrier’s artworks were inspired by tragic events of the war. Ask each student to pick a sad event that concerns them about today’s world. Challenge them to think about how they might express their concern by creating a painting. Display the paintings with the concern chosen side by side. Discuss with the whole class how they felt about the project and what they think about the results.
To create an impasto painting you will need the following supplies:
- Heavy paper or cardboard (at least 12 x 12 cm)
- White glue
- A container for mixing
- Sticks or toothpicks
- Plastic knife or spatula
- Tempera paint
1. First, tell your students to create a quick sketch of an image that they would like to paint. Encourage them to keep the image simple, as they will be focusing on the texture rather than the details of the work. Promote the idea of creating an image based on an emotion—happy, sad, excited, surprised, etc.
2. To prepare the impasto, have students put sand in a container with white glue and then mix it. They may have to experiment with quantities to see how much glue and sand they will need to create a gooey mixture.
3. Let the students apply this impasto to heavy paper. They can cover the whole cardboard or determine which parts will be three-dimensional and which ones will be flat.
4. Let the paintings dry for a couple of hours until the impasto is solid but soft enough so that they can draw with a stick or toothpick.
5. Instruct students to draw with different widths of sticks or toothpicks. Perhaps they will want to add more impasto to finish their piece.
6. Let the pieces dry for one or two days.
7. When dry, the works of art can be painted with tempera paint.
Abstraction: The process of creating art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.
Gestapo: Internal security police of Nazi Germany and German-occupied Europe.
Graffiti: Writing or drawings scratched or sprayed on walls or other surfaces in a public place.
Hautes pâtes: Paintings in which a thick paste serves as the ground; color is used sparingly; and contours are scratched like graffiti.
Impasto: Paint that is thickly applied to a canvas or panel so that it stands in relief and retains the marks of the brush or palette knife.
Resistance: Movements that fought against the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.
Da Costa, Valerie, Fabrice Hergott, and Jean Dubuffet. Jean Dubuffet: Works, Writings, Interviews. Barcelona: Poligrafa, 2006
Guggenheim Bilbao, Jean Dubuffet: Trace of an Adventure
Jean Dubuffet Foundation
Messer, Thomas M. and Margit Rowell. Jean Dubuffet: A Retrospective. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1973
Metropolitan Museum, Collection online, Jean Dubuffet
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Collection online, Jean Fautrier
Museum of Modern Art, New York, Collection online, Jean Fautrier
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Collection online, Art Informel
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Collection online, Jean Dubuffet
Tate Gallery, Collection online, Jean Fautrier