Jean Dubuffet

Le Havre, 1901–Paris, 1985

A towering figure of postwar European art, Jean Dubuffet is also known for gathering a large personal collection of works by artists that he perceived as self-taught or marginalized. He coined the term art brut (raw art) to describe the leading principle of his collecting and exhibiting activities, a notion that he defended and expanded upon in a large corpus of manifestos, theoretical writings, and monographs from the late 1940s onward. Art brut would play an important role in postwar debates on authorship and agency, opening artistic production to work made outside of academic traditions.

Dubuffet studied at the Académie Julian in Paris from 1918 and became involved in Montparnasse art circles in the early 1920s, especially through his friendship with Surrealists Georges Limbour and André Masson. Although he progressively turned away from his artistic career to take over the family wine business, wartime commercial success achieved partly through black-market activities allowed him to dedicate himself fully to artistic pursuits beginning in 1942, under the patronage of writer Jean Paulhan. Several years later, a series of solo exhibitions at Galerie René Drouin from 1944 to 1947 shored up Dubuffet’s position as a leading artist of the postwar years.

Dubuffet gradually laid the foundations for his collection through extensive correspondence and personal travels in France, Switzerland, and Germany. While partly overlapping with historical categories such as “self-taught art,” “mediumistic art,” and art produced in psychiatric institutions (also known as “patient art”), Dubuffet’s definition of art brut was rooted in idiosyncratic visual vocabularies and techniques developed by seemingly isolated or marginalized individuals. Relying on a network of interlocutors across Europe, Dubuffet acquired drawings, paintings, sculptures, and textiles from a variety of sources: buying them directly from artists (as was the case for Emile Ratier’s mobile wooden sculptures), acquiring them from care institutions (such as Marguerite Sirvins’s textile art, which he purchased from the Saint-Alban Psychiatric Hospital in Lozère, France), or assimilating works from preexisting collections (including those of Swiss psychiatrist Charles Ladame and French psychiatrist Auguste Marie) into his own.

The Compagnie de l’Art Brut, an organization he founded in 1948 to publicize and expand the collection, included members such as Surrealists André Breton and Benjamin Péret as well as critic Michel Tapié and collector Charles Ratton. It was dissolved in 1951, when Dubuffet, wanting to expand his activities in the United States, shipped the collection to the private home of painter Alfonso Ossorio in Long Island, New York. Then numbering around twelve hundred artworks by nearly one hundred artists, the collection was privately exhibited in Paris beginning in 1962 and shown in the landmark 1967 presentation L’art brut at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

Dubuffet ultimately decided upon Switzerland to secure his collection’s future, accepting the Lausanne municipal authorities’ offer to permanently preserve and exhibit the collection at the castle of Beaulieu, where it was transferred in 1975. The Collection de l’Art Brut, as it became known, managed by the city, also continued Dubuffet’s ambitious publication program, first envisioned in the late 1940s and reactivated in the 1960s. It consisted of short, illustrated monographs highlighting artists from the collection, such as Aloïse Corbaz, Madge Gill, Miguel Hernandez, Augustin Lesage, and Adolf Wölfli. The collection remains open to this day.

For more information, see:

Beyme, Ingrid von, and Thomas Röske, eds. Dubuffets Liste: Ein Kommentar zur Sammlung Prinzhorn. Heidelberg: Wunderhorn, 2015.

Brun, Baptiste. Jean Dubuffet et la besogne de l’Art Brut: Critique du primitivisme. Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2019.

Krajewski, Michael. Jean Dubuffet: Studien zu seinem Frühwerk und zur Vorgeschichte des Art brut. Osnabrück: Der Andere Verlag, 2004.

Lombardi, Sarah, et al. Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut, the Origins of the Collection. Exh. cat. Paris: Flammarion; Lausanne: Collection de l’art brut, 2016.

How to cite this entry:
Koenig, Raphael, "Jean Dubuffet", The Modern Art Index Project (August 2022), Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.