An essay on the Art Informel Movement as presented at a Highly Respected Art School (2010)
Existentialist philosophy had considerable influence on artists associated with the Art Informel Movement who resided in Paris during and after the end of World War II. Many of the city’s residents emerged from the Occupation with a tainted feeling of relief. Paris was returned to the citizens who owned it, yet if they had survived the War they were near-poisoned by the emotional aftermath. The philosopher Simone de Beauvoir recalled that “ ‘the war was over; it remained on our hands like a great, unwanted corpse, and there was no place on earth to bury it.’ ” The artistic work created in the Post War years by the artists Jean Dubuffet and Jean Fautrier dually provided a dense, dark, and yet somehow illuminating body, influenced by their personal experiences during the War as well as Existentialism and its authors, one of whom being Jean Paul Sartre. With Dubuffet and Fautrier’s work, the Parisian audience would find that the barriers between themselves and the art they viewed had become ethereal. The War was real for everyone; horror befell everyone. These artists and their philosophical cohorts created a discourse with the “heady notion that pre-existing moral codes had nothing to do with authentic existence.”
Existentialism invited both artists and non-artists alike to contemplate their human experiences and questioned how they shaped their feelings of who they were because of them. Sartre described the first important point of this philosophy as the understanding that “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards…Before that projection of the self, nothing exists, not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be.” In Sartre’s view, a human owned himself as well as his reactions to his experiences and that “we must begin from the subjective.” It wouldn’t do, simply blaming an external force for one’s life. Upon closer inspection it could be said that Existentialism mimicked a law of physics pertaining to energy. Just as energy is neutral until directed, so a human lacked meaning in existence until action was taken, and that action would never come from outside of a person. It would come from within. It might prove difficult to understand this when considering that humans don’t give birth to themselves on the physical plane; one human begets another and so in the words of Sartre is “responsible for everything he does.”
Jean Fautrier, a painter considered part of the Existentialist-influenced Art Informel movement, produced a series of paintings during the Paris Occupation years collectively titled Otages (Hostages). Fautrier found refuge in a mental institution at Vallee-aux-Loups, and it was widely recounted that he witnessed mass executions (audibly or with his own eyes is unclear) of hostages that took place in the adjacent woods. By extension of the artist’s account it was assumed by many that the Otages series was driven by these events. In fact the series was initiated before he arrived at Vallee-aux-Loups and when considering the well-documented events happening in Paris at the time of the series conception (the rounding up and deportation of Jewish Parisians), it could be considered born within a “climate of mounting attacks and privations.” Fautrier was responding to the events in and around him. He may have been expressing his grief, he may have been exploiting the charged emotional atmosphere of his city, or he may have been oblivious to anything except his hands’ desire to mount an image on to canvas using the force of the materials within his reach.
Fautrier had been painting for many years when he created his Otages series, and when it was exhibited he had the opportunity to display his newly developed anti-painting technique to the world. He first glued rag paper to a canvas, before applying primer, then multiple layers of enduit (a material used to repair damaged walls), oil glaze and crushed pastels. He worked the surface of his paintings with a palette knife, producing visceral work that appeared almost sculptural in nature. Fautrier produced work that a viewer could gaze upon and track the path of its creation. His mark making upon his work surfaces functioned as proof of his courage to survive all that he and his fellow citizens had witnessed. He existed. They existed. They had “lost their faith in perpetual peace…they had discovered history in its most terrible form…[Existentialism] had authorized them…to face horror and absurdity while still retaining their human dignity, to preserve their individuality.”
Fautrier’s work provided an “ideological resistance” for many supporters of Existentialism. His painting Tete d’otage, no. 14 (Head of a Hostage No. 14) lacked both formal technique as well as representational qualities, as was characteristic of the Art Informel movement. Yet somehow his work evoked the pain and repulsiveness of the abduction and murders of his fellow citizens, partly through the flesh-like qualities of the enduit, and partly through the skin tone colours he employed. This painting invited the viewer to speak of his or her disgust; it wasn’t meant to be aesthetically pleasing but instead to feed a viewer’s confidence in speaking out about what wasn’t desired in one’s immediate surroundings. This invite to protest was of course entirely absent during the Occupation. However, Fautrier did protest, with his oft-perceived grotesque paintings. He was free to create them. This freedom was articulated by Sartre quite clearly when he wrote: “We were never so free as under the German Occupation…each thought was a conquest; as an all powerful police sought to silence us, each word became as precious as a declaration of principle; as we were pursued, each gesture had the weight of an engagement.”
Jean Dubuffet, another artist of the Art Informel movement, was similar to Fautrier in that his work was highly tactile in appearance and evocative in spirit. His painting technique was described as “[giving] painting a literal body vibrant in associations to earth and flesh.” This illusion of birthing his work on to canvas is supported by Dubuffet’s statement that, while he may not have known exactly what existentialism was, “Nonetheless I feel and declare myself to be warmly existentialist.” However Dubuffet identified himself philosophically, he was a passionate personality and greatly interested in bringing life to his paintings; he wanted them to live independently of his hand . In the political and emotional climate of post-Occupation Paris, Dubuffet was uninterested in following traditional techniques of painting and argued “art should be the product of a competitive interaction between the artist, his tools, and his medium, and that the finished work should retain the marks of that struggle.”
Dubuffet’s painting Volonte de puissance (Will to Power ) is one example of the artist winning the fight he had declared upon painting. The struggle he sought was heightened by his unconventional choice of materials, and the work that he created was garish, compelling, and instinctual. Dubuffet was a person of many interests; he took a twenty-year sojourn from art making to perform military service and work as a wine merchant. He was considered a talented writer on art in spite of the fact that he apparently “scorned written language as an inferior means of communication.” Dubuffet’s work was carefully acknowledge by a creative ally, Michel Tapie, who coined the term ‘Art Informel’ and published a manifesto calling for an art form that rid itself of aesthetic rules. Tapie’s manifesto mirrored existentialist philosophy in terms of language and calling for a rigorous kind of individualistic life, for according to Sartre, “what is at the very heart and centre of existentialism is the absolute character of the free commitment.” Just as existentialism began with the every day, so did Dubuffet with his foray into painting after his long absence.
What surfaces in Fautrier and Dubuffet’s work during and after the Occupation of Paris is provocation: of the artist, the viewer, the traditional art establishment, and the citizens of Paris. These artists seemed not to provoke gratuitously (or voyeuristically, as is suggested in the case of Fautrier) but instead provoked simply because they followed their internal impulses. In a city where citizens were going hungry, they utilized non-traditional materials in a way that would be thought of in the present day as purposefully utilitarian. They were conscious of the extreme hardship their fellow citizens endured ---themselves endured—and rather than accept what was ‘proper’ and formal in artistic terms, sought to create something new that truthfully and adequately represented the world around them, without resorting solely to representation itself. In this way, existentialist philosophy and it’s push for the individual to accept his solitary role in life, was a great aide. Fautrier and Dubuffet led quite different lives during the War (Fautrier in self-imposed hiding; Dubuffet with his business success was able to travel about France) but their work was remarkably conducive to building upon the artwork that collectively would be labeled Art Informel. They were contributors of so-called Outsider Art, or Art Brut, but helped illuminate the feeling that in a city occupied at war, as well as occupied by a foreign invader, everyone was an outsider of sorts. This—one human is all humans—is the heart and soul of existentialist philosophy.
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© Christy Frisken