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The Liberation of painting

A new Material Language

Once the war was over, everything had to be rebuilt and reinvented. In this field, artists had a head start. Amongst them, painter Jean Fautrier was a kind of pioneer. 

Two years before the end of hostilities, he be- gan Les Otages, a series of ghostly heads inspired by corpses piled up in the mass grave dug by the Germans behind his studio. In October 1945, Fautrier exhibited his portraits of these victims for the first time at the Galerie René Drouin in Paris, along with other canvases with evocative titles like Oradour and Massacre. Tackling such timely and controversial topics challenged the artist to represent the unbearable. This obliged him to rid his painting of any references to the past. Starting from scratch, Fautrier stopped painting in oils and introduced new materials and techniques into his paintings that would radically change the course of abstract art. 

When Jean Dubuffet discovered Les Otages, he was fascinated by these shapeless bodies and faces emer- ging from the mass of colour and immediately sought to unravel their mysteries. His Portrait Cambouis, painted in December 1945, is the striking result of his early experimentation with new materials. Oil, sand, gravel and bits of string, smeared with tar, soot or shoe polish, were the ingredients of this “high paste” that covered Dubuffet’s contemporary paintings, providing them with an unprecedented relief. His Savonarole, a sculpture made from clinker and cement attests to this same penchant for poor materials, which until then had been deemed unworthy of a work of art. To manipulate the materials, Dubuffet made use of highly ordinary tools: a trowel, tablespoon, scraper and wire brush. The natural resistance of the materials fired the imagina- tion of the father of Art Brut, leading him to invent a new pictorial language oscillating between figuration and abstraction. 

In the wake of Fautrier and Dubuffet, other artists did not completely reject the representation of reality. This was the case with Henri Michaux whose water- colour presented here shows a human face emerging from the coloured iridescence. The same can be said about the heart-wrenching Crucifixion by Spanish artist Antonio Saura and more suggestively, about the “carnage” painted by Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky. These two works can be said to challenge the meaning of religion in the face of the atrocities committed during the war. The other Matterist works in this chapter bear witness to the vitality of Art Informel, which throughout the 1950s, gave shape to the elusive. 

Tenants et aboutissants, 1959


Tenants et aboutissants, 1959
Huile sur toile
199,8 x 232,3 cm

Inv FGA-BA-ALECH-0001 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : Sandra Pointet
© Adagp, Paris, 2020
Portrait Cambouis, décembre 1945


Portrait Cambouis, décembre 1945
Huile, sable, gravier et ficelle sur panneau de bois
41,3 x 32,5 cm

Inv. FGA-BA-DUBUF-0006 © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève. Photographe : André Morin
© Adagp, Paris, 2020