La main dans le sac

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The painting 'La main dans le sac' by the French painter Jean Dubuffet is a colourful mixture of pieces that fit together in cheerful but rather muted colours. All the elements of a street scene are depicted in levels, one above the other, as though it is a brick wall. At the bottom of the painting, a road with cars has been represented in a primitive, almost cartoon-like way, and the number plates and makes of the cars are legible and the chauffeurs can be clearly seen behind their wheels. Above this there is a pavement populated by armless little men. Further up there are shop windows with signs showing what sort of shops they are.

Dubuffet despised art which is created in accordance with the western norms of beauty. He was not concerned with “combining colours and forms to create a pleasurable unit”, or with creating images intended for a small elite, initiated into the rules of art. He said: “The important thing is to be moved”. He collected “art brut” (raw art), including the pictorial work of children, the mentally ill and people from “primitive” societies. According to Dubuffet, these people work directly from the heart. What he valued in them are concepts such as “instinct, passion, caprice, violence, exuberance”, values which are suppressed in our western society in favour of rationality and logical thinking. He wanted to work directly from life just as naturally as they do. They are much more at one with nature than “civilized” western man who has placed himself above nature.

In this painting Dubuffet shows, particularly in the title and the texts, that he is suspicious of the civilized world. “La main dans le sac” means “caught in the act”. “'Société la fripouille” can be translated as “society, the scoundrel”, “empoche” means “put it in your pocket”, “gredin” is “scoundrel”, “Banque l’interlope”, “the black market bank”. With a sense of humour, Dubuffet revealed the weak sides of humanity and the other side of our civilization. He opted for a childish, primitive style. The subject actually embraces the civilized world, the big city, cars, shopwindows, the business world. But it has been stripped of its lustre: the beautiful exterior has been unmasked. 'La main dans le sac' is part of a series of work on this theme under the heading “Paris-circus”.

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