Eleanor Nairne © Max Colson


Curator Eleanor Nairne on How Dubuffet Can Be Understood Today

Published Aug 15, 2021

In conjunction with the release of a film chronicling the production of the Pace Live performance Fragments: Coucou Bazar in London, writer Claire Selvin interviewed Eleanor Nairne, curator at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. Nairne, who organized the institution’s ongoing exhibition Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty, spoke about Dubuffet’s wide-ranging impact on contemporary artistic practices, what audiences can glean from the artist’s work today, and more. The interview below has been edited and condensed.

Claire Selvin: What is the focus of the Barbican’s ongoing exhibition Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty and what are some of the highlights in the show?

Eleanor Nairne: There hasn’t been a show of Dubuffet’s work in the UK since 1966, so it’s been a really long time—more than 50 years. That’s a very stark contrast to the situation in the US, particularly, but also in Europe. For me, there are a few things [in the Barbican exhibition] that I really love, which mostly haven’t been able to travel because they’re quite fragile. I’m a big fan of the butterfly collages, which we very, very rarely get to see here, and also the Little Statues of Precarious Life. I have seen a couple of those in other exhibitions, but I’m very aware that they weren’t the kind of Dubuffet that probably most people were familiar with.

It’s easy to forget that so many people don’t have the luxury that many of us in the art world do of being able to view exhibitions internationally. And obviously the pandemic has really brought that feeling home because none of us have been able to see international exhibitions. So, when I’m staging a show like this, I’m often thinking, “If this were to be the only show of Dubuffet’s work that someone is able to see, what will be really special? What would I want to make sure was absolutely in there that they wouldn’t have a chance to see somewhere else?”

CS: Why is Dubuffet’s work an enduring source of fascination for museum-going audiences today?

EN: I think he’s a kind of enduring fascination for lots of people in the cultural world more broadly—those who go to museums and those who engage with culture in other kinds of spaces. My route into wanting to do the show was really being conscious of how relevant he remains to contemporary studio practices. Quite often when I was doing studio visits or having conversations with artists, it was really striking how frequently his name would come up. That was true historically as well. If you search Dubuffet’s name in the Archives of American Art, you’ll find his name being mentioned by everybody from Robert Smithson to Chuck Close. So, artists who ended up having very different kinds of practices themselves often moved through a period when they were very intensely interested in Dubuffet’s work.

I think that was really to do with, in simple terms, his relationship to experimentation and how far he was able to push his experiments. That is often so much of what artists are trying to do in the studio—to continually push things into uncomfortable spaces where something interesting begins to happen. Dubuffet is a late starter, but once he does get going in the early 1940s, he’s really relentless in pursuit of that. He doesn’t allow anything to become sacred, really. Once he begins to settle into a particular form of image-making, he pushes himself into a new direction. So, that makes for a very dynamic practice, and it’s certainly a real gift when you’re staging an exhibition like this because visually there’s so much variety.

That is often so much of what artists are trying to do in the studio—to continually push things into uncomfortable spaces where something interesting begins to happen.

Eleanor Nairne

CS: You’ve spoken with Rashid Johnson about how Dubuffet influenced his practice—which other contemporary artists are deeply engaged with Dubuffet?

EN: I have an ongoing dialogue with Oscar Murillo, for instance. It’s absolutely not that Oscar was looking at Dubuffet’s work and then creating his own. It’s not a direct influence, necessarily. I think it’s more that there are a lot of artists who feel a real synergy between his work and what they are trying to do. So, with Oscar’s Frequencies paintings, for instance, a lot of that mark-making is getting at similar kinds of ideas, particularly to Dubuffet’s late Mire paintings.

There were a couple of other artists who we spoke to as part of the public program who have different kinds of relationships [to Dubuffet]. The musician and artist Adam Green … has a more direct lineage. Dubuffet’s creation of his own world made Adam similarly want to create his own sort of universe. Then you have somebody like Lindsey Mendick, the ceramicist, and she’s much more interested in his philosophy, his approach to Art Brut, and his thinking about some of the other artists he championed. He’s a very expansive figure, and there are lots of different contemporary artists who engage with his practice or his mark-making or his imagery or his legacy in very different kinds of ways.


Jean Dubuffet at the Atelier de la Cartoucherie de Vincennes, attending one of the first rehearsals of Coucou Bazar, 1972, Artworks © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021, Photo © Archives Fondation Dubuffet, Paris, Photo: Kurt Wyss

CS: What can contemporary audiences take away or learn from Dubuffet’s famed living painting, Coucou Bazar?

EN: Dubuffet gets to making that piece as an extension of his Hourloupe series, and the Hourloupe paintings are him trying to create a visual language. He’s interested in the idea that the way we see the world is an invention. We think of our reality around us as being this concrete reality, and that what I see is parallel to what you see. But of course, we don’t know that. This is a very phenomenological set of questions about the world. It’s the idea that, ultimately, we’re all made from the same stuff, yet our brain uniquely determines how we see that stuff. It’s really complex.

The Coucou Bazar was an elaboration of what had essentially been a lifelong experiment [focused on] how to animate matter. It’s also about this idea of dissolving that confident—you could even say arrogant—relationship to reality, to presuming that our reality really is fixed. We call it a performance, but what he really wanted was a drunk painting. He wanted the different elements to move incredibly slowly, so that actually things started to become a little bit unhinged.

We have just all been, in different ways, through this enormous experience of a plague, a global plague. I think all of us, in different ways, have seen our grip on reality loosened a little bit or our sense of fixity or certainty in the world begin to dissolve. We talk of Dubuffet as a postwar artist—he really is a postwar artist. He could only have been working post the experiences of the occupation and the Second World War. For him, that was so important in terms of everything he was striving to do to get away from the polite conventions of easel painting. Today, when we look at a work like that, maybe it speaks to us because we have a clearer sense of what he was trying to get at.

We call it a performance, but what he really wanted was a drunk painting.

Eleanor Nairne

CS: That leads perfectly into my next question: to what extent is Dubuffet’s intention to disrupt our experiences and perceptions of the world around us still valuable today?

EN: I think “disrupt” is a really good word. He’s often talking about the stripping away of our cultural conditioning, which is a similar kind of idea. He uses a lot of language around alchemy as well. So, he’s interested in those ideas about how we transmute from one thing into another, what we give cultural value to, and how arbitrary our way of shaping the world is. And, again, I think those are ideas that feel very relevant now. What I call a “book” might not be what you call a “book.” Just because we have called a “book” a “book” for centuries doesn’t mean we still should. Some of his experiments were very playful, but some of that playfulness has very profound implications about who is worthy of being painted, what that means, and whose perspective we are championing … There is a very important philosophy behind that idea of reclaiming that which has been deemed to be culturally base and breaking away from those sorts of cultural hierarchies. Every time we disturb the world, we disturb the existing hegemony of power.


Neanter (costume worn by a dancer) during the exhibition Coucou Bazar at Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris, 2013, Artworks © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021, Photo © Archives Fondation Dubuffet, Paris, Photo: Erika da Silva  for the Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris

CS: The Barbican’s exhibition features pieces from the Coucou Bazar—can you tell me about how that presentation and Pace’s Fragments: Coucou Bazar performance have reimagined the original work?

EN: In the language around this particular staging [of Fragments: Coucou Bazar in London], Pace described it as a “capsule performance,” and I really liked that. The history of performance art is so complicated in terms of how we recreate a performance. It’s not like a film that we can put on a projector and it’s ready to screen. The Coucou Bazar is a classic example of that because at the heart of Dubuffet’s idea for that performance was having the different elements really closely knit. That’s how you create the sense of visual confusion: everything’s so tightly packed that when a few elements start to slightly move, you lose your sense of it. Because many of those elements are very fragile and precious, in order to be able to do any kind of re-staging, they have to be, well, socially distanced from each other. At which point, the elements are so dispersed that it’s hard to get at that original spirit of what Dubuffet wanted, which was this really concentrated thing. So, my feeling is that the only way to respond to that is to try to understand if there’s a different way to get at the same idea. To have a creative, lateral take on what he was trying to achieve.

My way of doing that in the exhibition was not to have the performance, but to have many of the elements displayed in a really condensed way, true to the original spirit. So, you get that visual sense of cacophony … I think these are just playful ways of engaging with what he was trying to achieve, which aren’t claiming to be reenactments. Neither opportunity to see the Coucou Bazar in London is claiming to be a version of the original, and I think in that gesture there’s a lot of respect to an artist who’s no longer around to oversee it.

  • Essays — Curator Eleanor Nairne on How Dubuffet Can Be Understood Today, Aug 15, 2021