Raw art packs a punch, so a trip to La Fabuloserie exhibition in Paris will leave you reeling, intrigued and, for certain artworks, poetically moved. Jean Dubuffet created the term Art Brut in the 1940s. Since then, there has been a movement celebrating this art form, embracing creations and recognising creators often without formal artistic training but with something urgent and powerful to convey.
The most powerful for me was the work of Francis Marshall, depicting a poor village family in Normandy. Their poverty is cruel, with empty plates of cooked rope, a chipped water jug, and a battered table with old, discoloured newspapers forming their tablecloth. Worse, the family are all tied down, trapped. I first thought this was a hint at the rustic shipwrecks not far in the exhibition, but no, it is about a people prisoners of their society’s taboos — the musts and the must-nots, the cannot do and cannot talk about. Yet Francis Marshall’s work shouts at us to look less privileged lives in the eye. This too is France. This too is the world.
The shipwrecks speak of loss with echoes of the Titanic. How many families lost loved ones to the unforgiving seas? We think of the past, but perhaps we should rather think of the present. Week after week, the news talks of boats and dinghies spilling their souls into the dark waters, people desperate for a new life, lost – in the English Channel, in the Mediterranean. How many of these sought to escape poverty depicted by Marshall’s work? There are many parts of the world where the messages of Normandy past as still pertinent today.
Now to the (for me) disturbing, claustrophobic horror pieces of Simone Le Carré-Galimard with the boxed and trapped dolls with staring eyes. As with many first impressions, it is worth challenging them. The collection is part of her “la petite maison d’un autre monde” – the small house of another world. They are Le Careé’s deeply appreciated adopted children, with flowers, fancy cloth, and toys– her treasures to decorate her home. They are also a release from and fight back against her puritanical upbringing where toys were not allowed, only the bible. It is never too late to make up for things lost during childhood and fight against the taboos and restrictions of excessive social rules.
Having read the description, it is clear that these are decorations and personal treasures, but they remain haunting; the pains of loss and limits during childhood shine darkly through the staring creations.
A less troubling and deeply intriguing piece that resonated with me was the man in the coat of pages (not the official title of the artwork) by Danielle-Marie Chanut. The effigy is of a stooped yet youngish man made of aged decaying wood, wrapped in sheet after discoloured and warped sheet of personal history. He carries his past with him, which half hides and certainly hinders him, weighs him down. A drawing of a bird, shells, perhaps a mushroom, beads, a bundle of sticks, feathers are stuck to the plastic, paper, cardboard pages, off-white, paled yellow, weary green. Everything is earthen, worn, travelled. So much life for all to see. An open book, perhaps. Yet there are no words to read, only hints at this man’s journey.
It makes me wonder – if all those travelling the streets we see every day were not clad in sleek raincoats but instead had layer upon exposed layer of their worn memories they cannot lose wrapped about them, leaking personal histories to us. What would we learn? What conversations would start? We are all palimpsests of our experiences, building up layer upon layer. But these are on the inside, hinted at by the lines etched in our faces, the way we talk and walk. What would we look like if all of our history were on the outside?
These are three artists in this magnificent exhibition. There are also: delicate woven houses in white thread; water-colour drawing reminding of a mix of Paul Klee and Breughel; knitted landscapes; statues, dolls and faces in coloured fabrics; tiny ornate wooden houses; giant distorted monsters; strange machines; huge dolls of unfairly treated women; collages seeking to reveal the human soul or at least its concerning condition; and more. It is worth seeing them and stopping to reflect on what story lies behind each work, even when they are harsh and troubling, perhaps especially if so.
La Fabuloserie exhibition is in Les Halles de Saint Pierre at the base of the Montmartre and its iconic Sacré-Coeur (sacred heart) church, with its pristine religious white in contrast to the rough reality of art brut. This is the 40th year of the show, this time presenting the collection of Alain and Caroline Bourbonnais. The exhibition is on until 25 August 2023. If you cannot go, see the Fabuloserie museum in Dicy, Bourgogne. There is beauty waiting to be discovered in the powerful urgency of this raw art.