Visiting Jean Dubuffet's Monumental Tour Aux Récits at Smithson Plaza

October 4, 2020

Londoners hunting for outdoor art experiences will delight at the recent installation of the Jean Dubuffet sculpture Tour aux récits in Smithson Plaza — that is, if they can find it.

The small square is surrounded by a trio of commercial high rises near Buckingham Palace. Smithson Plaza was originally built to house the offices of The Economist newspaper. It now houses various real estate and investment concerns. The sculpture is tucked away along the tight, pedestrian walkway that winds through the concrete plaza, where it stands out among the three brutalist towers like a hyper-imaginative stalagmite, its whimsical presence a pleasant foil to whatever tightly regulated and sensible activities are no doubt happening within the surrounding offices.

Tour aux récits belongs to the part of the Dubuffet oeuvre known as his Hourloupe Cycle, the series that marked the moment Dubuffet departed from painting and drawing and expanded into the three-dimensional realm. “Hourloupe” is a nonsense word Dubuffet invented as a catch-all utterance combining his associations with other unsettling French words and phrases, such as “hurler” (to roar), “hululer” (to hoot), “loup” (wolf), “riquet à la houppe” (fairy tale), and “Le Horla,” another made-up word used as the title of a book by the French writer Guy de Maupassant about an alien being.

The works in the Hourloupe Cycle are abstract, but they tend to convey the feeling of chaotic cityscapes teeming with creatures and machines. There is something mysterious, even monstrous about these works. They feel distorted, and always seem to be in the process of metamorphosing into something else. The appearance of a work from the series in this particular place at this time of economic and political uncertainty could not be more appropriate. Dubuffet considered this series his attempt to offer an alternative interpretation of reality. In short, he hoped it would change the world.

Jean Dubuffet - Tour aux récits, Installation View at Smithson Plaza. Photo by Barney Hindle, Courtesy Waddington Custot and Encounter Contemporary

Real and Imaginary Worlds

From the start of his career, Dubuffet always had a tenuous relationship with his role as an artist in society. In his 30s, he walked away from the arts completely having not only lost his faith in the relevance of painting, but in the importance of human culture altogether. When Dubuffet returned to painting in his 40s, he did so with a determination to uncover something deeper than whatever was happening with modern trends.

He sought out the original creative impulse that unites all people across all times. He found inspiration in the works of children, and in artworks created by people in prisons and mental institutions. The term he gave to these artworks was “Art Brut.” He collected examples of Art Brut from around the world, analyzed the works intently, even writing and lecturing about their characteristics. Finally, he embarked on the process of trying to capture their essence, hoping to channel their raw, unfiltered creative impulse into his own work.

During this process of reinventing himself as an artist, Dubuffet struggled with two paradoxical impulses: one compelled him to exaggerate evidence of human intervention, and the other compelled him to try to eliminate it. The Hourloupe Cycle could be seen as the point at which Dubuffet overcame this struggle—the moment when he stopped imitating Art Brut, and began to truly manifest its spirit. The series began as drawings and paintings: energetic, linear compositions that channeled the ambiguous reactions Dubuffet had to the impermanent, illusory world.

These compositions capture the feeling of life without copying its appearance. When Dubuffet extended these drawings into the third dimension, he referred to them as “images in a habitat,” perceiving their sculptural presence as the escape of an art form usually thought of “as a support” into a world of living things.

Jean Dubuffet - Tour aux récits, Installation View at Smithson Plaza. Photo by Barney Hindle, Courtesy Waddington Custot and Encounter Contemporary

The Hourloupe Legacy

Dubuffet worked on the Hourloupe Cycle for twelve years, beginning in 1962. It was his longest running series. Today we can find examples of large-scale Hourloupe sculptures installed in public places all over the world.

Among the most famous examples are Group of Four Trees at Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York City, and Monument with Standing Beast, which stands across the street from City Hall in downtown Chicago. Among the largest pieces in the series are The Tower of Figures, located in Issy-les-Moulineaux commune in Paris, which stands 24 meters high and 12 meters wide, and Jardin d’émail, an interactive, walkable platform specially designed for the sculpture park of the Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands.

The masterpiece of the series (according to Dubuffet) is called Closerie Falbala. It can be found at the Dubuffet Foundation in Périgny, France, and it has become a historic landmark. About this piece, the artist said, “we feel at this site the feeling of no longer being in nature, but in a mental interpretation thereof.”

That sentiment gets to the heart of the intentions Dubuffet had for the Hourloupe Cycle and for Art Brut in general. While developing the idea for the series, he wrote:

The distinction we make between real and imaginary is unfounded. The interpretation for reality that seems true, irrefutable, is only an invention of our mind. 

In the spirit of this idea, most Hourloupe sculptures were not designed to be installed in any one specific site. Rather, Dubuffet hoped they would be installed in many different public spaces, where people from different backgrounds could develop their own idiosyncratic interpretations of their meaning, according to their own culture and time.

Again, the installation of Tour aux récits in Smithson Plaza fits perfectly with this intention. Even if they cannot control the aftermath of Brexit, or the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic, or the various royal tribulations they face, hopefully contemporary Londoners will at least find it possible to embrace the opportunity this work offers them to reimagine their personal relationships with whatever new reality they face.

Written by Phillip Barcio.

Featured image: Jean Dubuffet - Tour aux récits, Installation View at Smithson Plaza. Photo by Barney Hindle, Courtesy Waddington Custot and Encounter Contemporary.

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