How many men make a professional breakthrough at the age of 74? Lacking the facts and figures to prove otherwise, we’ll hazard a guess: very few. But of course, that’s not the only way in which the vast majority of people differ from the great Mr Jean Dubuffet, a pioneering artist who is best known for his interest in “art brut” – outsider art, made by the institutionalised and untrained – which he paid homage to in his arresting, deliberately naive paintings, sculptures, artist books and writings from the late 1940s until his death in 1985.
Born in 1901, Mr Dubuffet launched his art career proper rather late. Though he trained as a painter from the age of 17, he took a long break from art to build a small wine business in Paris before launching himself anew as an artist in the period after WWII. Though in his later life, he was troubled by physical ailments including osteoporosis, that didn’t stop him spending the period from 1975–1979 (when he was in his 70s) producing some of the largest, and most monumental paintings of his entire career, the Théâtres de Mémoire series. These overwhelming works, created from collages of numerous smaller paintings, slyly referencing eras in the artist’s own oeuvre, were partly inspired by The Art Of Memory, a 1966 work by Ms Frances Yates, detailing the various methods by which, in pre-literary societies, ancient philosophers committed their enormously long orations to memory. Memory itself was a topic that seemed to fascinate Mr Dubuffet, especially the ways in which it causes the mind to reconfigure visual experience, and in his Théâtres de Mémoire canvases, he played with this notion, putting together his compositions by pinning his paintings to his studio wall with magnets, and painstakingly reconfiguring them until he felt they were exactly right.