Desperately Seeking Dubuffet
It’s interesting and strange to me how easy it is to sink into a willful belief that the Internet has everything we might want to know, loaded up by handlers into its magic boxes, if only we knew where to look.
It’s interesting and strange to me how easy it is to sink into a willful belief that the Internet has everything we might want to know, loaded up by handlers into its magic boxes, if only we knew where to look. After all, if in seconds you can find a recipe for Cheeseburger Soup, chapbooks of “human/computer collaborative poetry,” and an obituary for Mr. Green Jeans, it should be easy to find, say, an image of a certain painting by one of the most famous artists of all time.
One of the early inspirations for my novel was a painting by Jean Dubuffet called “Natura Genetrix,” and for a while I wondered if I might ask to use it as a front cover. I found a small photo of it in a book called Creation Myths, published by Thames & Hudson, which I bought when we were abroad a few years ago. The painting is heavily textured, nearly monochromatic, and seems to show a compost heap of organic forms both evolving up and rotting down amid inorganic matter. I suspect it’s among his “Texturology” series. Neither my publisher nor I have the budget to really hope to be able to use it, but over the last few months I’ve become interested in the mystery of being unable to find it in this, our digital, age.
Creation Myths credits the photo to a man I’m assuming was the owner of the painting in the 1950s. When I google him, no hits seem likely. Google Image has no pictures of it, nor do the art databases. I queried a few museums and the Dubuffet Foundation, and someone directed me to an arts representation organization in New York, who directed me to the stock art/photo houses such as Getty. No one knew how to find the painting or its owner.
I mean, doesn’t that bug you?
I finally got smart and asked Thames & Hudson directly where they got the image, but they only sent me to the Artists Rights Society, which represents the estate of Dubuffet here in the States. ARS replied instantly with the exact dollar figures and terms to get (severely limited) rights and added that I’d have to find the painting or a hi-res image of it on my own. When I asked if they knew of a place to start, they said no, ask Art Resource or Corbis or Getty.
I’ve known half-a-dozen people who got Master of Library Science degrees at one of the best programs in the country, and even as they spent much of their time preparing to serve universities and communities with online tools, they admitted there’s a universe of materials sitting on shelves, invisible to online searches because it hasn’t been digitally cataloged or scanned.
Because if Antiques Road Show has taught us nothing else, it’s that priceless art unseen by the public in decades might very well be plastered up in the walls of our homes somewhere, awaiting discovery by those willing to apply themselves. Mrs. Churm is out of town tonight, with a team that's helping a depressed community develop computer resources, so I’ve invited Rory, Dr. Trinkle, and my intern over for a few beers. Bring your sledgehammers, I said. No real reason. Later we’re going to take this place down to the studs to find that painting is all. And when it turns out not to be here after all, my sons and I are hopping a plane to Paris in the morning, on the off chance the thing is sitting in plain view at Les Puces. There must be a solution. Our age has led us to believe in them. On the other hand, we need mysteries, don’t you think?
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