Beauty and the brute: few shows and venues give as much to one another as Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty, the new exhibition reopening the Barbican Art Gallery next week, and it’s marvellously apt, upbeat and engrossing for the post-lockdown moment.

Dubuffet was a flourishing wine merchant until, already 40 and “surrounded by the noise of boots”, war-torn Paris urged him to do something to build back better. In 1945, he painted scratchy dark walls, pasted with signs (“Wall and Opinions”), frames for outlandish simplified figures (“Dance on the Wall”, “Man and Wall”), backcloths for defilement (“Dogs Pissing on the Wall”). It was a conceptual project: “The wall seems to me like a book, a large book on which one can write.” By the 1970s, Dubuffet was enlarging notebook doodles into loopy, chunky cut-outs in comic, foam and fibreglass vertical “Hourloupe” sculptures. They look like tower blocks on speed.

The Barbican estate is built on a Blitz-razed site, finished in the 1970s when high-rises soared from the rubble, and consecrated as a cultural centre in 1982 — with the inaugural exhibition Aftermath, France 1945-1954, including Dubuffet. His essentially urban art was, and is again, a brilliant choice for a fresh dawn. Like the Barbican itself, Dubuffet’s paintings are filled with coarse, weathered surfaces and labyrinthine interlocking forms: early scraped, incised canvases such as “Large Black Landscape” (1946), later juggling compositions of outlined cellular shapes “Skedaddle” (1964), “Site Inhabited by Objects” (1965).

So the French master of art brut (raw or outsider art) and the English masterpiece of brutalist architecture are a match made in heaven — or at least in postwar Utopia, for both are radiant with the democratic possibilities of revitalisation after ground zero. The first buyer to approach Dubuffet, in 1943, was Le Corbusier. His tract La Ville Radieuse had recently been published and he would soon make its ideas literally concrete in the pioneering modular apartments with their painted balconies, raised on pillars, for Marseilles’ Unité d’habitation — an indispensable influence on the Barbican.

“Caught in the Act” (1961), Dubuffet’s witty multicoloured diagram of a city whose cartoon characters are embedded in their own self-contained rectangles, while others are enclosed in bubble-cars on the road below, call to mind Marseilles or the Barbican. To his maze of melting streets, Dubuffet added signage — “Banque Interdit”, “La Main dans le Sac” — implying roadblocks of capitalist corruption. This piece belongs to a standout cycle called “Paris Circus”: people vibrant and jammed in a smoky bus in “Paris-Montparnasse”, dining in cheerful rows in “Restaurant Rougeot I”. Abbreviated figures yet alluring density of detail, strange perspectives, cross-sections as aerial views, spatially peculiar arrangements of windows, and mirrors make magical these depictions of routine, today much-missed, travails and pleasures.

“It’s the man on the street I’m after,” Dubuffet insisted. This expansive, lucid, chronological retrospective, the UK’s first full survey in 50 years, traces how he caught him. “Messages” (1944), the earliest works displayed, give a sense of the artist chasing that elusive homme du commun through urban detritus: ink and gouache notes — “Emile is gone again”, “Always dedicated to your orders”, “Georges arrives tomorrow morning” — are scribbled on newspaper, ephemeral, fragile. Inspired by graffitied walls, they evoke the Occupation’s clandestine communications, endangered assignations.

Interest in “the very basic . . . scribbles traced on a wall with a knife point” led Dubuffet to lithography, scratching everyday figures “directly plugged into our current life” into stone. “Typist”, frantic at her desk, a shrieking man in “Telephone Torment”, a woman breast-feeding in “Maternity”, and “Coffee Grinder” — Dubuffet’s wife, huge breasts, rosy cheeks, abundant hair, tiny feet, suggestively cranking a grinder between her knees — star in the velvety, fluid “Matter and Memory”, published in late 1944 with a preface by surrealist poet Francis Ponge.

How magnificently these quotidian images are lifted by luxurious, exquisite handling: “We are printing on a paper from the Auvergne with which I am in love: a bed of white bicarbonate foam, which frantically drinks the printing ink and on which the blacks are striking.” That refinement simply, wonderfully, refuses to go away, and for all his wish to rip up École de Paris elegance, Dubuffet remains a late, compelling manifestation of it, touched with surrealist playfulness, despite pushing towards the raw, the earthy, the inchoate.

That tension enchants throughout the 1950s. Shaking a loaded paintbrush, Dubuffet in “Texturologies” — “The Exemplary Life of the Soil”, “Grey-Beige Earth Element” — imitated techniques of Tyrolean stonemasons softening fresh plaster to give “the impression of teeming matter” — speckled ground, but also galaxies. “Lady’s Body” flattened the nude — as if by steamroller, a critic complained — and distorted flesh as slime or paste, as in “Tree of Fluids” (1950). By contrast, the enigmatic silhouettes “The Extravagant One” and “Knight of the Night” shimmer in a lacquered loveliness of industrial paint mixed with oil into pools of marbled colour. “Little Statues of Precarious Life”, from remnants of a burnt-out car (“Character with Rhinestone Eyes”), lava (“Madam I Order”), are charmed, diminutive inventions waging “war on classical sculpture”.

An abstract push-pull animates; Dubuffet was contemporary with Pollock and de Kooning. But his impetus was different: he sought an “outsider” art, and from 1945 collected work by those beyond the gallery system, especially psychiatric patients. Selections are here: highlights include wood carvings by Auguste Forestier, also collected by Picasso, and Jan Krizek’s squat rubble figures echoing pre-Columbian statuary.

In 1951 Dubuffet and his outsider art collection travelled to New York, and the collection stayed at a mansion in the East Hamptons for a decade when Dubuffet went home in 1952. During the 1950s he made his most experimental, emotionally gripping pieces in Paris; in 1961, when his collection returned to him, his work became — coincidentally? — more formulaic as he determined to create his own “phantasmagorical parallel universe”. Built from blue, red and white jigsaw forms in “L’Hourloupe”’s paintings and sculptures, this endeavour established the monumental, instantly recognisable Dubuffet through a family of stylised characters and abstractions: jaunty painted resin figures “Nini La Minaude” and “The Baron”, vast panels such as “Nimble Free Hand to the Rescue”.

Movingly, in his last years, Dubuffet combined methods from these with recollections of his early street figures, in assemblages grouped as his “Theatres of Memory” series, including here Tate’s three-metre loose/controlled frieze “Vicissitudes” (1977). By now the brute was co-opted into a very marketable beauty, but stalking the canvas still are ambiguities, fascinating now, about inclusiveness versus outsider status.

Modern art, from Manet until today, not so much allows but demands attacks from the margins, which it then assimilates into the mainstream. Dubuffet the late starter was the strategist with a heart.

May 17 to August 22, barbican.org.uk’Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty’ by Eleanor Nairne is published by Prestel, prestel.com

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