Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)
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Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)


Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985)
signed with initials and dated 'J.D. 78' (lower left)
acrylic and collage on paper mounted on canvas
82 ¾ x 111 5/8in. (210.2 x 283.4cm.)
Executed on 20 January 1978
Pace Gallery, New York.
Steven Shalom, New York.
Private Collection, Columbus.
Private Collection, Freiburg.
Galerie Beyeler, Basel.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's London, 1 July 2008, lot 40.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
M. Loreau (ed.), Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet. Fascicule XXXII: Théâtres de mémoire, Paris 1982, p. 206, no. 73 (illustrated, p. 77).
Paris, Galerie Claude Bernard, Dubuffet: Théâtres de mémoire, 1978.
New York, The Pace Gallery, Dubuffet - Théâtres de mémoire Scènes champêtres, paintings and drawings, 1979.
New York, PaceWildenstein, Dubuffet / Basquiat: Personal Histories, 2006, pp. 18 and 54 (illustrated, p. 19).
Special notice
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Lot Essay

A joyous cacophony of figures, shapes and spaces, Panorama (1978) is a striking example of Jean Dubuffet’s Théâtres de mémoire (‘Theatres of memory’), the reflective series created in the triumphant final decade of the artist’s life. Truly panoramic in scale – it is over two metres high, and almost three metres wide – the work consists of myriad individually painted paper elements collaged onto a vast canvas ground. Each component, rendered in striking monochrome, conjures the visual language of earlier series in Dubuffet’s career: there are the playful human figures that had populated his work since the 1940s, echoes of the swirling, cellular Hourloupe language he conceived in 1962, and snatches of the scribbled Parachiffres of 1974. The overall composition, like a pile-up of abstracted ‘rooms’ crowded with characters and motion, recalls the teeming urban environments of his early-1960s Paris Circus works. Rather than drawn from the archives of the past, however, each constituent part of the Théâtres de mémoire was made specifically for this series. Using a ladder, magnets and a large sheet of metal, Dubuffet would arrange them into monumental compositions – a great physical effort for a man in his late seventies – before having them carefully transferred to canvas, providing detailed instructions to the technical specialist Pierre-Emile Rostain. More than merely retrospective in spirit, the Théâtres de mémoire are a rich expression of Dubuffet’s conception of memory, capturing the chaotic, altered transcription of the visual world into the mind. A crowning moment at the end of his career, the series evokes the collaged grandeur of Henri Matisse’s late, great ‘cut-outs’. At the same time, these works’ jumbled semiotics, gestural scrawls and graphic immediacy would be a direct inspiration for the young American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was eighteen years old when they were first exhibited in New York in 1979.

Panorama’s ‘all-over’ composition presents no start, finish or narrative. The figures – facing us, in profile, gesticulating, talking, staring – summon a dreamlike whirl of disjunctive conversations, incidents, places and characters. They are framed in discrete windows or chambers of line, like cells cut and shuffled from a film-strip. The swathes of calligraphic pattern might invoke the automatic writing of the subconscious, memories in the fog of recollection, or memories dissolving into formlessness. Memory is pictured not as a clear image, but as a fabric of kaleidoscopic energy. As Gilbert Lascault has written, ‘The Théâtres de mémoire attack habits, attack notions pulled from the dictionary. They insist on confusion, on the richness of our perceptions. They underline the instability of things’ (G. Lascault, ‘Autour des théâtres de mémoire’, 13 June 1978, in M. Loreau (ed.), Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet: Théâtres de mémoire, fascicule XXXII, Paris 1982, p. 189).

The title of the Théâtres de mémoire was inspired by The Art of Memory, a 1962 book by Frances Yates. The book claims that that visual or spatial memory is more vivid than the realm of ideas, and explores the ‘memory palaces’ – imagined buildings in which rooms represent specific ideas or arguments – used by orators and scholars from ancient times through to the Middle Ages. Dubuffet’s works similarly express a ‘spatialised’ vision of remembering, but they do not claim any organisational clarity. Indeed, Dubuffet reported that while he enjoyed Yates’ book, he found it useless for trying to improve his memory. The Théâtres de mémoire collapse the structural order of a ‘memory palace’ into an experience of scintillating chaos, laid flat to the canvas as a continuous, tumultuous surface. As the artist explained, ‘The mind totalises; it recapitulates all fields; it makes them dance together. It shuffles them, exchanges them, everything is astir. It also transforms them, cooks them in its sauces. It favours certain places, abolishes others. There is a great loss in what the eyes have caught when the mind gets hold of things. There is also a great addition; for the mind has quickly transfigured, substituting its own images for the ones it receives, mingling its own secretions with what the eyes send it’ (J. Dubuffet, 1976, quoted in Théâtres de Mémoire, exh. cat. Pace Gallery, New York 2018, p. 9).

For Dubuffet, the visualisation of memory’s pulsating disorder and metamorphoses opened up larger ideas about subjectivity, and how the waking mind relates to the real world at large. That world, he began to think, might be no less of an illusion than the images that dance around our heads. The mind could be a projector or a screen. ‘What are they like, the things our eyes have caught once the mind seizes upon them, making them food for its thought and drawing its quota? But the ultimate question is: do the eyes receive other things than what the mind projects on them; aren’t they really mirrors reflecting the mind’s emissions? Perhaps we live in a world invented by ourselves. Or might it not even be a world invented by others who have insidiously introduced it into our heads, and which we take for real? The mind would then be operating on those specious data, grafting its own figments on them. After all that, one can expect some effect of cacophony’ (J. Dubuffet, ibid.). Panorama, with its gleeful, dissonant jostle of reminiscences, reels a cinematic tapestry from this uncertainty, and shows an artist looking back at his past with a dynamic new sense of his place in the present.

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