Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty, Barbican, exhibition review: ‘Art of the people, not the academy’

Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty, installation view. Photograph: Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

“I am pleased to see life in trouble,” pronounced Jean Dubuffet. The postwar French painter was a bundle of contradictions: an erudite proponent of ‘anti-cultural’ art, a cosmopolitan who made antisemitic comments, and a man who worked in the grubbiest of materials yet made art of grace and elegance.

Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty at the Barbican is the first major UK survey in more than 50 years of the founder of l’Art Brut (‘raw art’).

Launched into his creative career on money he made profiteering during the Second World War, the artist was inspired by the drawings of children and psychiatric patients, seeing in them something more vital than the artistic production of the Parisian cultural world in which he moved.

Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty, installation view. Photograph: Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

Dubuffet revelled in physicality and he worked in a wide variety of non-traditional media – graffiti, gravel, and collages made from tar, string, sponges and soil. His vision was ‘brutal’ in more senses than one: a series of works made of butterfly wings required the premature demise of dozens of arachnids.

This is art of the people, not the academy; one might even be tempted to call it populist were it not for its complexity. The L’Hourloupe series, begun in the early 1960s, would not be out of place in a nursery or a comic book, yet it recalls also Matisse and Picasso.

Not surprisingly, Dubuffet’s influence has reverberated throughout the postwar creative world, inspiring both Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Hockney. The vibrant, textured and very urban collection brought together in this show looks familiar to the contemporary eye, as its style has long since gone native in popular culture.

Dubuffet’s anarchic rage against the establishment will touch a chord with many, even as his work slips easily into the artistic canon.

Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty runs until 22 August at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS.