Saturday 25 September 2021


(First part here)

”Has he thoughts within his head?”

’Iron Man’, on Sabbath’s second album released later in 1970, was another song built around a riff that represented a figure. Famously, on first hearing the riff Osborne commented it sounded “like a big iron bloke walking about”. (And legend has it ’Iron Bloke’ very nearly became the title.) So this time the music comes to convey his ponderous pace, crushing all before him. (“Heavy boots of lead/ Fills his victims full of dread.”) The vocals so closely match the guitar it sounds almost double-tracked. Solitary figures tend to stalk Sabbath songs, but perhaps never more than here. 

Butler was later to explain:

“It was about a guy who had gone into space and had seen the future of the world. He came back to warn everyone about what was going to happen to the world, and he got caught up in a magnetic storm when he was entering the Earth’s atmosphere and got turned into iron – but his brain was still working. he’s trying to warn everyone about the future of the world, but he can’t speak so everyone is taking the mickey out of him all the time.”

…and there’s one thing we can be sure of here. That’s not got anything to do with what ’Iron Man’ is about. The third verse kind of takes a vague stab at it, but it’s still not something you could glean from listening to the song alone. This feels like the foot being changed to fit the shoe, a story made up around the song.

Let’s try a more literary quote. In Mary Shelley’s ’Frankenstein’, the Creature rages:

“I have love in me the like of which you can scarcely imagine. A rage the like of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one I would indulge the other.”

So the mocking misunderstanding words of the humans around him (“has he lost his mind?/ can he see or is he blind?) is the words of parents and teachers magnified. Iron Man’s destructive rage at being shunned by humanity (“Nobody wants him/ He just stares at the world/Planning his vengeance/That will soon unfurl”) equates to the more familiar “then they’ll be sorry.”

After all, rock and roll is rooted in the articulation of adolescence, in the understanding that electricity and amplifiers were invented solely to magnify your strop, when slamming doors no longer seemed enough. You don’t just get what’s in your head out into the world, but the way you feel it - turned up to eleven. Volume is one method to convey that. Grandiose metaphors is another.

So by the same token Hawkwind’s ’Orgone Accumulator’ was a science-fictional, Reichian means of describing the not entirely prepossessing subject of hippies getting stoned. (“It’s no social integrator/ It’s a one-man isolator/ It’s a back-brain stimulator/ It’s a cerebral vibrator.”) Genesis’ ’The Musical Box’ is a surrealist fairy tale about a boy murdered by a girl, whose amorous spirit then resides in a musical box, while ageing rapidly. But at root it’s a boy-loses-girl number.

…which may come across as a belittling of the track, pricking its pomposity. But it’s the opposite. Sometimes hyperbole works just by relabelling itself as metaphor. Art is not about what happened, we have the news for that. Art is about how it felt. And art less often shows us something new, and more often reframes the familiar so it appears to us anew.

”Some people say my love cannot be true…” 

...which makes ’NIB’ a sort of sequel song, even if it was written first. (Time travel, right?) Ostensibly, it might seem about the Devil getting himself another disciple. Well, selective quotation can prove most things. This time let's listen to the guy who wrote it, who said "the song was about the devil falling in love and totally changing.”

And yes, far from being some black mass hymn, this is Sabbath’s one love song. (The next nearest contender, 'Sweet Leaf', is after all sung not to a person but a joint.) In fact, it may be the consummate love song. In the greatest triumph of hippie values possible, Satan himself is redeemed by the overwhelming power of love, and becomes one of the good guys. He’s portrayed as master of creation (“the sun, the moon, the stars/ All bear my seal”) yet until now held outside of it, as if stuck in solitary.

In short its ‘Black Sabbath’ the other way up. She does not become like him, he becomes like her. The payoff line “my name is Lucifer” line is, I suspect, the Devil hanging up his title and reverting to his Christian name. (And while Satan was the Antagonist, Lucifer was a fallen angel so remained at some level redeemable.)

And there is something both glorious and endearing about this reading. Nevertheless, I think it is only the surface reading – it’s not what’s really going on. Instead imagine the crazy Iron Man trampling the whole world underfoot, then spotting one pretty young face in the crowd and pausing…

The Devil can be used to represent the point where the infantile ego runs into more adult drives, where sentences still normally start with “I want…” but no longer necessarily end with a toy being named. And so Satanism can appeal to the young because it seems a philosophical justification for playing your music as loud as you want to. As Rationalwiki have correctly commented “LaVeyan Satanism... is essentially Ayn Rand in a goat mask.”

’NIB’ presupposes this (if mostly likely instinctively), and smartly moves the story on a step. The adolescent boy’s first crush, when everything stops being about his establishing his difference to his parents and becomes about making a connection to someone else, that sudden burst of unfamiliar feelings, at the time it feels monumental. Of course it’s not “what if the devil fell in love?” That sounds more like a theology paper. It’s “what if I fell in love?” That’s what makes it such a classic song.

The line “you are the first to have this love of mine” sounds suspiciously virginal, while “some people say my love cannot be true” conjures up disapproving in-laws more than orthodox Churchmen. But it’s the extended, repeated “I’m going to feel”, throwing that feeling business into the future tense, which really gives the game away. The imagery is about the old world being over, and the bonding of the new world being love. (“Leaving the life you led before we met.”) Now, suddenly, it’s all about the sharing.

Final part of our unholy trinity coming soon...

Saturday 18 September 2021


”Figure In Black Which Points At Me”

Any band’s first task is to sound like themselves. That’s if they want to climb out of the footnotes of music history. Which is not as easy as it sounds, in fact arguably they’ll face no harder task. But it’s like shaking a six. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the game, that’s the point everything actually starts.

And with Black Sabbath we can pin the moment quite precisely. In 1969, then still a heavy blues band called Earth, they wrote a track the decided to call… well, ’Black Sabbath’. Later described by guitarist Tommy Iommi as “the first time I knew we had something different.” Their contemporaries Led Zeppelin continued with the blues covers, which they were able to adapt. Whereas for Sabbath to be Sabbath, they needed to abandon them.

We fans can fixate on lyrics. But bands normally come up with the music first then devise words to fit. Rather than developing some philosophical point, lyrics come to be about evoking and amplifying the music’s mood. Sabbath were no exception, Iommi normally finding a riff on guitar, Ozzy Osborne then scatting lyrics over it which would be later worked up into actual strung-together words by bassist Geezer Butler.

Except this time everything, even the riff itself, seems devoted to the sound, so ominous as to be almost droney. While the words ostensibly describe some malevolent apparition (“what is this which stands before me?”), what the dread figure mostly seems to manifest is the power of the music. There’s an almost brazen lack of context, in which the nightmarish figure just appears in order to evoke the mood which powers the song.

The mood’s set in the opening seconds with the tolling of a bell - doleful, intonatory, resounding. When the guitar breaks in it’s more powerful, but it takes up all those elements. (They’d later play a similar trick by starting ’War Pigs’ with a siren.) Brian Eno was later to compare hard rock to (yes, really) bellringing, pointing out both evoked the feeling of “immersion in solid, thick, dense sound.” In other words, where sound stops being intangible and becomes almost a physical presence, something you feel as much as hear.

Where the song has the line “turn round quick and start to run”, the ominous music has quite the opposite effect. Chords don’t make their point and leave; once struck they hang around ponderously, thickening the air. There’s a terrible stasis to it. The drums do most of the work, but rather than drive the track along they cycle and shuffle. The oppressive, momentum-less sludge of sound adds to the (in about ever sense) heavy notion that time has stopped for you just when you needed it most. It’s reminiscent of the way horror fiction can used stopped clocks as a sign of the supernatural.

The ‘poem’ on the sleeve, mostly an overblown emulation of Edgar Allen Poe, refers to “the silence that surrounds and threatens to engulf all those that would listen”. And that silence seems pretty close to their sound.

Butler has claimed the song came from a dream he had, of a black-hooded figure appearing at the foot of his bed. And the track conveys that fever-dream feeling of immobility, of being in the presence of danger but unable to run from it.

And Osborne’s vocal performance adds to this notion. He was, to use a much-misused term, a natural. He never seemed to be performing the songs so much as living them, and here he sounds a mixture of mesmerised and petrified. Hard rock singers tended to be either Teutonically heroic or sexually frustrated. Ozzy, conversely, is a powerless protagonist. Imagine Robert Plant singing about meeting Satan. He’d either strike a deal or strike ol’ red down. Ozzy emits a high-register wail. (And frankly, so would I.) Typically his voice often works in counterpoint to Iommi’s riff, sitting above it and offering a more melodic line.

The feeling is so funereal it almost becomes liturgical. Is our narrator transfixed, unable to escape the pull of this malevolent power, or does some part of him want to stay where he is?

It epitomises this music’s predilection for Dark Romanticism. It’s a self-styled ‘black’ number whose darkness is strangely ambiguous. The creeping dread, the fear of dark forces is combined with a feeling of sublimation which is almost comforting. Our narrator seems simultaneously marked man and “the chosen one”.

In Dark Romanticism, the supernatural is often a means of conveying the natural, reframing it as an incomprehensible and overwhelming force. Being overcome by the ominous presence is akin to the surrender of being swept up by a raging storm, a sense of rejoining the all just as you’re obliterated.

A subject on which Wikipedia quotes GR Thompson: “Fallen man's inability fully to comprehend haunting reminders of another, supernatural realm that yet seemed not to exist, the constant perplexity of inexplicable and vastly metaphysical phenomena, a propensity for seemingly perverse or evil moral choices that had no firm or fixed measure or rule, and a sense of nameless guilt combined with a suspicion the external world was a delusive projection of the mind - these were major elements in the vision of man the Dark Romantics opposed to the mainstream of Romantic thought.”

Most people know how the track and the quickly renamed band got their name, a phrase which shows up nowhere in the lyrics. It was from a poster they saw for a Mario Bravo film. And horror films rely more on evoking a mood than ostensibly similar genres such as thrillers. They can be cliched or even ludicrous but if they can succeed at tingling your nerve-endings you’ll carry on watching. And they can rely heavily upon music for that effect. For fear is almost the opposite of reason. Unlike words or plot, music can bypass the brain and provide a short-cut to the senses.

Horror worked for Sabbath the way science fiction worked for Hawkwind. It was more than just a gimmick or handy tag, it was a perfect analogy for their sound.

Most people also know that impetus for this sound came largely by accident. Literally so, Iommi injured his fingers and adapted by tuning his strings more loosely. Yet just as importantly there’s something reductive about it, taking a hard rock sound that most had thought simplistic in the first place and condensing it further. And this is precisely where the genius lies. Taking something out can add to the overall picture, just as adding too much starts to take away. And Sabbath were consummately creatively reductive, boiling music down to some primordial essence.

The track also demonstrates how much the band were masters of dynamics, with an unerring instinct for just when to break it up. Each section of a Sabbath song can be in itself bone-crushingly simple, yet as it arrives it takes things into a surprising turn. Their talent lies in putting the pieces together. (It’s only really the singles which follow the straight verse/chorus structure.)

It’s bizarre now to think how derided the band were by the contemporary music press. But this stripping-down, combined with their working class origins, goes a long way to explain it. In the early days of Prog this was proof positive these Brummie oiks were know-nothing numbskulls!

What gets written about is often not what deserves to get written about, but what is easiest to write about. And Sabbath weren’t like a jewelled mechanism composed of a thousand intricate and glistening parts, something which requires an expert to explain to you how it works. They were more a simple implement such as a Neolithic hand axe, something that wasn't altered much over millennia because it couldn't really be improved on. They defy analysis the way Homer Simpson defied brainwashing by the Planetariains, by sheer dumb insolence.

Of course as we all know now it was the critics who were cretins and Sabbath created a whole new style of music. (More than one if we were to count black metal, sludge metal and stoner rock as different things.) But they also had a huge influence outside of all that. In his seminal treatise on post punk ’Rip It Up And Start Again’ Simon Reynolds compares Sabbath to… deep breath… early Pere Ubu, early Joy Division, Wire, Black Flag, Killing Joke and Tubeway Army! And I say, why no Throbbing Gristle while we’re at it?

Alas however, first drafts of history are most commonly messy and that first album caught them too soon, mid-transition. ‘Wicked World’ is the only song to survive from the Earth days, but more than a few plodding blues numbers cleave to that earlier time. It’s a bit like if tracks from Warsaw had made it onto the first Joy Division album. Luckily for us, they went on to do five further albums where none of that would be a problem…

Second part incoming…

Saturday 11 September 2021


Towner Gallery, Eastbourne

The Trudge Of War

Paul Nash the very English Surrealist had a Tate retrospective led to one of my most-read blog posts. (Faint praise, I know.) His younger bother John also became an official War Artist for the First World War. This show recounts an anecdote of how, working in the same studio, they’d keep to their official war work until clocking off at six and reverting to their beloved English landscape. Which suggests that war merely interrupted what was otherwise a smooth career path, and probably with more accuracy for John than for Paul. So let’s look at each war in turn, then get back on that original path.

’Oppy Wood’ (1918, above) is a very large work with just two human figures (down from three in the original sketch), looking out upon a vast No Man’s Land. We see they’re soldiers but they’re entirely passive, effectively audience surrogates. You’re first struck by the eerie silence which is conveyed. They look towards two shell bursts going on to the left, but you feel instinctively they’d be too far away to hear.

To the right there’s a neat comparison between blasted trees and the remains of some building, both coloured silvery grey. They turn into identikit planks of wood, angled downwards. It’s a striking and effective work. But its iconography of a barren nature doesn’t vary much from Paul’s.

’Over The Top, First Artists Rifles at Marceong’ (1918, above), is perhaps more original, with its greater focus on human figures. It details an abortive attack he participated in, when still enlisted, from which he was one of few survivors. In a letter home he said: “We passed a Boche officer dead on the road, frozen over and sparkling… nothing unusual for we were just as crystallised, only living.”

If it details an attack, this is again anything but an action scene. We should perhaps see it as a timeline. The dead figures, lying on the left, resume animation. They clamber wearily from the trench, and trudge forward sunken-shouldered, their weapons not raised but borne heavily. Of the many figures, we see the face only of one. It’s a kind of anti-resurrection, in body only, where even death offers no rest. It’s war as a kind of Sisyphean task, emphasised by the way the advancing figures are cropped so brutally on the right edge.

And this theme is taken up again in ’A French Highway’ (1918, above). The marching figures are not conveyed in landscape format, as you might expect, but portrait. Again this means they're closely cropped, so we’ve no idea how many  there are. This time the emphasis is on the weight of their backpacks, whose straps they clutch. Horsebacked, the officers inhabit a higher layer of the painting than the enlisted men.

Looking Technology In the Face

Like his elder brother his World War Two pictures look unlike those from World War One. But they take quite a different direction. In fact for an artist often happy to dismiss Modernism as a foreign affair, ’French Submarine La Croole in Swansea Dock’ (1940, above) shows a remarkable compositional similarity to Christopher Nevinson’s ‘The Arrival’. Nash’s is typically a naturalist image, while Nevinson’s is Cubo-Futurist. Nevertheless, were we to sweep away Nevinson’s shards of imagery we’d see two compositions dominated by the elegantly sweeping prow of a vessel.

Co-incidence? ’Destroyer In Dry Dock' (1940, above) takes quite a similar composition, even if it eliminates the prow. The colour-scheme also ensures the ship stands out from its surroundings. A preparatory black-and-white sketch shows how vital this is to the work. (Though I remember it being more gun-metal grey in the original work, and consequently the ship looking less like a brightly coloured toy.)

These images induce two contradictory-sounding responses. The vessels present technology like a landing UFO, an intrusion on the landscape which inevitably becomes a centrepiece. But they’re also like peering into a beehive and spying the Queen, everything not just dwarfed by her but arranged around her, an order whose workings cannot really be comprehended. This is an English pastoral artist at his most Futurist, technology as a subject for awe and veneration.

The Country Path 

And that original path? It was a country path. Like his brother, his early inspiration was not Modernism, which would then have seemed the latest thing from the Continent. Instead it was the rolling landscape of his native Southern England. In fact, in the show’s words, he “found much of his subject matter within walking distance of his successive homes.” He wrote in 1914 “I think I shall do farmyards for the rest of my natural… how can nature be dull? What is Cubism or anything else to nature?”

And this is pretty much the South Downs landscape you ride through, when taking the train from Brighton to the Towner. There’s even a local Eastbourne connection, he recuperated there after contracting what they then called Spanish flu. (Less than half a mile from this gallery, we’re proudly told.) It’s a hard thing to capture, at least for those of us who live round here, precisely because it’s so familiar. It falls into a gap in your perceptions, your eyes not treating it as new information while your brain doesn’t assign it to memory.

It’s tempting to conclude that inspiration lies all around us, should we look. Yet life is not so easy. The impetus for an artwork may come from outside, but inspiration is always within. So, to return to Nash’s quote, the problem is not that nature can be dull but that dull artists have ways of rendering it so. In fact the reason we so like to see the English landscape defamiliarised in art is because so many artists have done so much to familiarise it for us, and their damage needs to be undone. And truth to tell, there are works here which look merely twee and provincially English.

We may disagree about precisely which to consign. The show uses ’The Cornfield’ (1918) for its poster image (up top). Which on first sight I described as “genuinely corny” and depicting “a tidy nature”, words 
I stand by. But overall it seems unsure what direction to take, taking a title which refers to his English landscapes (curator Andy Friend having already written a book of that title) but opening with the better-known First World War work. (Laid out so ’Oppy Wood’ is the first thing you see on entering.) But his dullness does seem to increase over time, like there’d been an original inspiration which was slowly leaving him. (While, alas, many of the better earlier works do not seem image-captured to the internet.) 

Nash himself became worried he was creatively spent, just as his elder brother branched out into Surrealism, mysticism and other new directions. Commendably perhaps, the show diligently details all of this. (Most strangely, it quotes a friend pointing out the solution to his impasse lies not out there but in his earlier work, which had a rhythmic energy that later dissipated. Useful advice he doesn’t seem to have acted upon at all.)

One solution was simply to expand his frame of reference, to North Wales, Brittany and (after ’68) Scotland and Provence. ’Afon Creseor, North Wales’ (1951, above) for example does capture something of the brooding majesty of the Welsh mountains. The familiar device of an inviting path leading you into the work, here doubled up, is offset by the sombre colours and the snagging dead trees in the foreground, but mostly in the way they seem to fall to a halt before those mighty peaks.

Nash had thought this an attempt to “step beyond habitual motifs”, and was disappointed by its contemporary reception. True, it may not be as evocative as David Bomberg’s mountain landscapes (once on show in this very gallery), which suggested at remorseless geological forces barely captured by flurries of paint. But it’s effective enough.

But there’s more. Nash’s method had been sketch while the sun was shining, then work things up into paintings over evenings and winter months. So naturally, by stepping outside of this comfort zone he became more genuinely creative.

First we have winter, in works such as the inviting ’Winter Landscape, Wormingford’. 
Though admittedly they may rely upon the milder nature of the Southern English winter, an afternoon stroll through which can seem an appealing thing. Winter in the Scottish Highlands might have been a different matter.

More importantly there’s the crepuscular, often combined with the porous border between land and water, as in ’The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble’ (c. 1923, above). Its elongated dimensions doesn’t capture tree trunks so much as present a lattice of rising and dangling branches, both emphasised and confused by the reflections in the water. There is something not just eerie but bewitching about it. It looks, for want of a better word, ‘cobwebby’, nature not as something neat but an etherial entanglement, ungraspable yet inescapable. To misquote Blake, did he who painted that corny cornfield really paint this? It seems he did.

If ’French Submarine’ was Nevinson’s Cubo-Futurism just without the signs of Cubo-Futurism, this is a kind of sibling to Andre Masson’s ‘The Picardy Road’, with the surrealism less overt. Which was once described, if only by me, as “sprouting sinister growths, tendrils appearing all over… Masson imbues everything with sentience and menace.”

Wikipedia relatively brief entry for Nash picks this work out, suggesting that, “completed a few years after the war, [its] characterised by a sense of bleak desolation that suggests the profound introspection that for many followed the devastation of the war.”

Perhaps so. But then why transfer such a sense into the English landscape? Why not keep painting No Man’s Land, if that was what haunted you? After all, Paul had said of his war experiences: “I have seen things that would last me my lifetime as food for painting and drawing.” And why go on to paint similar works decades later such as ‘The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall' (c. 1958)? Even if it could somehow be proven he wouldn’t have painted these if not for war, isn’t it more the point that there is such a mysteriousness to be found in ‘our own’ countryside? That we don’t know the places we think we do?

Like his brother, Nash rarely placed human figures in his nature scenes. And like his brother he almost but never quite anthropomorphised trees, in works such as ’The Fallen Tree’ (1955, above) or ’Edge of Rendlesham Forest’ (1967), which shows an ancient forest seemingly guarded by two stout-trunked sentries. This enhances the sense of our senses being limited, our never quite sure of what we are seeing.

“This exhibition”, we’re told, “attempts to reposition Nash with the history of Twentieth century art”. If he’s never been seen as on the same creative level as his brother, that isn’t about to change now. Frustratingly, there is a lot of tweely pastoral country scenes to trudge past. And he seems to have been aware himself when that was and wasn’t working, but without knowing how to channel it. But at it’s best his work had its own appeal.

Saturday 4 September 2021


The Barbican, London 

“I have become concerned to represent not the objective world, but what it becomes in our thoughts.”
- Dubuffet

“Picasso was close to the roots of art? He was really reclining in the penthouse while Dubuffet laboured in the basement, scratching obsessively on the walls with a compass end.” 
- Me, the last time I wrote about Dubuffet 

Art Against Culture

Jean Dubuffet is most famous for coining the term ‘Art Brut’. Literally “raw art”, but more commonly Anglicised as Outsider art. He amassed a large collection, of over 1,200 works, which he both drew inspiration from and exhibited in its own right.

As he can’t be uncoupled from this, shows don’t tend to try. The Pallant House exhibition, now nine years ago, arranged a companion show of contemporary Outsider art, Art From the Margins. Here, the Barbican devotes two rooms to works from his collection.

And when you see them together, Dubuffet and his muse, something’s immediately obvious.

They have virtually nothing in common.

Works in the collection are hieratic, often symmetrical utilising compositional devices such as tight, neat hatching. As said of ‘Art From the Margins’ this art is “not wild and exuberant but obsessive… reproduc[ing] the world on a micro-scale, as if making a power object in the hope that will control it, the map-maker seeking to rearrange the territory by delineating it.” Its disordered minds evoking order.

This is taken to the max with Augustine Le Sarge’s ’Symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World’ (1923), a grand vision of hierarchic cosmic order, like a celestial org chart, with no trace of human presence. It evokes order to such a degree its actually pretty frightening. Outsider art was less an influence and more a foreign system to gallery art, German to the galleries’ French.

There’s no more reason to expect this type of art to be homogenous than any other, so all the above might sound like the sort of statement which should be covered in caveats. But it’s striking just how much of what’s on show here fits this description. Perhaps some of the sculpture looks more Dubuffet-like, but that’s all.

Dubuffet, a smart-dressed Parisian from a bourgeois background, found the savage in this because that’s who he was looking for. In a classic case of opposites attracting, he extolled the virtues of an art “foreign to culture” and therefore freely expressive, enthusing “millions of possibilities of expression exist outside the accepted cultural avenues”. I’ve written before how widespread and how hopeless this notion was in Modernism. Dubuffet himself, in later life, conceded he’d been over-idealistic.

Yet, as also said in the same piece, the test of these ideas isn’t in their truth but the effect they have on your art. Whatever works for you works. Duchamp had consistently and cheerfully conceded that his attempts to excise his own presence from his art was an impossibility, but one which made him embrace the exercise all the harder. Dubuffet just did that part at the end, that’s all.

He laced his oils with baser materials such as plaster and sand, sometimes even glass, like the refined oil paint couldn’t be trusted on its own and needed to be set a bad example. Which suggests he wasn’t imagining he could slip the bounds of his own culture but challenging it. As he stirs together irreconcilable ingredients, aesthetically and sometimes literally, he makes a virtue of their collision.

And besides the material influences on his art were slightly different to the tales he told. A fan of Brassai’s photos of Parisian graffiti, he went on to influence the New York graffiti artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. (The latter only recently gracing this gallery.) In those pre-spray-can days many of Brassai’s examples had been incised into the stone of walls, and it’s probably not surprising that the earliest works shown here are lithographs. Dubuffet took art back to its basics of mark-making.

And the other big influence, though barely mentioned in this show, is children’s art. Take ’Monsieur D’Hotel’ (1947, above). Like much child art its subject is the human figure, isolated and painted flatly. (There’s probably a more high-falutin’ art term that should be used there, ‘two-dimensionality’ or similar.) When other elements are depicted they’re often accoutrements of the figure, rather than part of an environment to set it in. Hands and gestures are emphasised, sometimes oversized to assign their importance. And note the child-art proportions, the enlarged head above the shrunken blob of a body, the arms joined to the trunk rather than the shoulders.

And what these two have in common is Georges Bataille’s theory that the essence of art is in its root, in the scribble, the child’s drive to deface and despoil pristine spaces, the mucky thumb print gleefully smeared on the pure while paper. (Think how many times you’ve been told by some small-minded moralist that graffiti is inherently childish.)

Perhaps inevitably, as much as with his materials, the images are a collision of things. Take the devouring figures of the lithograph ’The Bird Eaters’ (1944), which seems determined to compare the bird in the bush to the one on the plate. Those swallowed-whole feathered friends could be imagination or offspring being devoured, it doesn’t matter much. This really sets the tone for Dubuffet to come.

And that tone’s the grotesque. As said another time: “The grotesque is the collision of the horrific with the humorous, each simultaneously lacing and souring the other.” Its frisson is from the feeling these two things shouldn’t really be tied together, yet here they are. Dubuffet himself insisted “art should always make you laugh a little and fear a little.” And the point was to not know how much of each.

More Paintings About Landscapes, Women + Ghosts

Then next comes ’Large Black Landscape’ (1946). As the title might suggest, here landscape dominates. This format, with the thin sliver of sky occupying at most the top fifth of the painting, and with lines incised into the thick encrusted paint, will be used again and again. (Alas, you’ll pick up little of this from an internet thumbnail and will just have to trust me.) Dubuffet’s description of walls, “finding themselves in the open while living off darkness” seems to apply her.

Traditionally, landscape was an ordered backdrop to set the figures against. Even when it was made a subject in it’s own right, it would be divided into ordered zones. Contrast that to a work like ’The Roses of the Earth’ (1952, above). While Dubuffet’s working methods commonly led to an encrusted surface, this is a painting in such relief it would almost work in braille. With its brown hues, its ambiguous whether we’re looking at a stretching surface or subterranean layers, an archaeology of buried, amorphous objects. It could be read Surrealistically, the thin strip of off-white standing for consciousness, the tip that doesn’t know of its own iceberg.

In the show’s words, Dubuffet gave “the impression of a ground teeming with energy and a mind brimming with thought”. Not only are his landscapes clearly doubling as mindscapes, there’s a sense he’s not particularly distinguishing between them and his figures at all. The human body is to him is not a jar which holds our consciousness, where art’s function is to accurately label its contents, but a kind of landscape in itself.

This is demonstrated by ’Clown’s Point’ (1956, above). The figure is outlined, at points double-outlined and then colour-coded against the background. But he looks less a discrete object with integrity of form, and more an accumulation of fractured parts. He has two planted legs but no arms, his eyes are glassy and unfocused, his head could be merely another bump on that horizon line.

This is possibly shown still more clearly by his sculpture. With his series ’Little Statues of Precarious Life’ (begun 1954), the show makes much of their being made from discarded material, including the wreckage of a car. Which makes you picture something akin to Paolozzi. But while ’Coquettish Grin’ (1959 below) was made from papier mache, it looks more as if composed of solid rock.

When looking at Henry Moore’s sculpture, it was noticeable how much it felt autochthonian (or born of the earth). Dubuffet feels similar, and at the same time the very opposite. Moore’s work looked idealised, as if everything came from some ideal pure form out of which it developed particular features. Dubuffet’s look like a rough and incohate set of ingredients, the rough always coming before the smooth.

Dubuffet often worked in series, and two series involve important distinctions to what’s above. While one lacked an official name, as virtually ever work was called ’Lady’s Body’ let’s go with that. Even if our example (below) is ’The Tree of Fluids’ (1950).

Look back at ’Monsieur D’Hotel’ a moment. In a complete reversal, it’s the body which is now bulbously oversized and the head shrunk. Arms are de-emphasised by camouflage, by being placed over the body not the background, while it’s the sex organs which are foregrounded and enlarged. The show describes these works as “female bodies that appear to have collapsed into a visceral landscape of flesh”. And this looks like the flesh has been stretched like a cadaver across a dissecting table. (When Dubuffet uses ‘corps’ in his titles it’s merely the French for body, yet it can’t help but underline this association in our Anglophone minds.)

It’s also the colours which are so different - not ochres but putrid pinks, burgundies, off oranges, curdled luridness. Dubuffet combined oil paint with a putty of zinc oxide precisely because they don’t combine, like oil and water, creating those smeary rivulets of colour streaking through the work. The male body is something sealed, integral. The female body is virtually bursting with fluids and innards.

The question of misogyny came up in Dubuffet’s day. And he was insistent these should not be seen as an assault on women but on the Western art tradition of the Nude. It would be truer to say they burn away all the refinements that make that misogyny more palatable, leaving it bare. But this is not the same thing as challenging that misogyny. What this work exposes, at the same time it exemplifies. You suspect that only a misogynist, at least on some level, could have painted them. (You could compare them to de Kooning’s paintings of women at the American Abstract Expressionism show.)

For another series Dubuffet re-used his method of combining oil with an incompatible medium, this time enamel industrial paint. Figures up to now have been insistently embodied. These look so diffuse they’re like phantoms or spirit forms, inhabited ectoplasm. They look less menacing than forlorn, sometimes reaching up to us, and looking out with some mixture of hope and hopelessness. Of these the show would seem to favour ’The Extravagant One’ (1954), making that their poster image. But I preferred ’Intervention’ from the same year (above).

And there seems something lose-lose about all this, as if your only choices are to be trapped in some fleshy bag of fluids or banished outside of one. And there seems something highly Dubuffet about that. Aesthetically, he offers a promise, that we can cast off the confines of culture to create art that is wild and free. But the art that results is not just pessimistic in tone, it often seems precisely about being entrapped.

Roses of the Earth

After moving to Venice in 1957 Dubuffet embarked on a new series, Texturology. He borrowed a trick from local stonemasons, who he saw shaking paint-dripped branches over plastered walls to soften the colour. The results, as in ’The Exemplary Life of The Soil’ (1958), make an abrupt break with the figure.

Seen in another context, you wouldn’t necessarily parse these as artworks at all. (And this time there’s truly no point in my including a thumbnail. It’d just look like sandpaper.) It’s only because they’re hung in a gallery that we look… in fact study them in a way we normally don’t. Then we realise that many things in our lives - a stone lying in the ground, the ground itself, the night sky - we blithely assume to be featureless, but the more we look the more we find to see.

The elision between ground and sky, between micro and macro-scale, seems entirely deliberate. An exhibition of them was titled ’Celebration of the Soil’, and ‘soil’ or ‘earth’ recur in individual titles. But Dubuffet also said his aim was to evoke the “impression of teeming matter, alive and sparkling, which… could also evoke all kinds of indeterminate textures, and even galaxies and nebulae”.

Yet I couldn’t feel a little as I did with the Academy’s Anselm Kiefer show when he went cosmic scale. I kind of missed the figure, the human context. Luckily for me…

At Home A Stranger 

In 1961 Dubuffet returned to Paris, re-united himself with his Art Brut collection (to which he was soon adding anew) and announced he’d “decided to start all over again from the beginning”. The result was the Paris Circle series. Though he’d been away only four years, and in another city, he seemed to see Paris with a stranger’s eye. Though he’d been living in Venice, perhaps he even saw the city that way in general. The result s were unarguably the highpoint of his career.

If Futurist art insisted new methods had to be devised to capture the marvel of new world we now inhabited, Dubuffet takes precisely the opposite tack. He depicts it in the oldest ways he can come up with. ’Restaurant’ for example, (1961, above), is a familiar thing shown in an unfamiliar way, partly by being on a grand and depersonalised scale. It's an accumulation of elements, structured round a grid, with no centre of attention. Faces either looking straight forward or in full profile. Writing is hand-transcribed, not formulated into logos. (Here visible in the reflected Restaurant and the Toilet sign, more apparent in other works.)

The perspective is, in the show’s words, “deliberately skewed between a frontal and an aerial view”. Some figures, including the chief waiter, seem seen through a distorting lens. (You could probably debate whether that’s a feature of child or of Folk art thing. Perhaps an interesting question in its own right, it doesn’t concern this work much. Despite the elevated perspective, what we have is a child’s eye view.)

Dubuffet commented “I want my streets to be crazy, my broad avenues, shops and buildings to join in a crazy dance.” And this could be the result of a child’s visit to a restaurant, enthralled by the bustle, trying to keep the experience alive in his or her mind by transcribing it.

Whereas ’Paris, Monparnasse’, despite being from the same year, is of quite a different hue. Literally so, with the the darker, muddier colour scheme. Traffic and pedestrians in a street scene, that should if anything offer more of an ordering device than a restaurant. Added to which, we have the central device of the big bus. But instead, what we see is a mad cacophony.

This isn’t the cliches of urban alienation, the trudging overcoated figure alone against the night and so on. But everyone look isolated, in their bubble cars, in ones and twos, even strung along the side of bus. It’s unclear whether figures are lying down, or that’s just an effect of the crazy perspective, an ambiguity which if anything adds to the effect. Everyone is alone together.

If it’s a feverish form of alienation, where the city assaults your senses in an amassed frenzy, it’s a form of alienation still. Dubuffet described this series as “looking at the most banal things to reveal their phantasmagorical side.”

Though hung on facing walls, however distinct these works are, they shouldn’t be seen as opposites but as the two poles of a spectrum. The seed of each is in the other.

… Then Things Go Bazaar

The earlier Pallant House show had focused on Dubuffet’s next series, L’Hourloupe (beginning 1965), so fortunately I was ready for what was up next. Which is his moving straight from his best era to his worst. They’re works which look Sixties in all the wrong ways, gimmicky and attention-grabbing. They initially look vibrant, but turn out to be deathly - empty surface.

However, I had noted how the works looked better when incorporated into poster design. And the same seems true for another break from painting, into… well, I’m not sure whether to call them sculptures, costumes or theatrical models. Dubuffet called them ‘theatrical props’ and from 1971 to 3 he made 175 of them. He staged the performance work ’Coucou Bazaar’ with a mixture of props, mechanised parts and actors in costume. If we only get twenty here, it’s still the absolute highlight of the l’Hourloupe section (below).

As I’ve argued before the Sixties were a troubled time for visual art, and thankfully when they were over the Dubuffet we know returned. In the Eighties, shortly before his death, he embarked on a series of ’Non-Places', works influenced by American Abstract Expressionism. They were painted in acrylic paint, creating colours so solid and vivid that they look like pure colour, in the same way as Matisse’s cut-outs.

So they lend ’Fulfilment’ (1984, above) a 3D effect, with the vibrant yellows floating above the bright blues and scarlets, moving down to the whites and finally the black background. And at the same time it doesn’t look composed but lively and impulsive, art that lives in its mark-making. In a very real sense, it still exemplifies the child’s delight in creating. Perhaps even the very youngest child and their overlaid scribble marks.

Dubuffet’s is one of those careers where it always feels like he held to things consistently, only for that sense to disappear when you look at his work from moment to moment. Yet if you were to glance back through the thumbnails above, they clearly have something in common. He was perhaps a latecomer to Modernism, yet still found ample ground to travel in the perpetual quest to pull art back down to its roots. Perhaps some struggles are perpetual…