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Bernard Buffet - Reevaluating a Mega-artist

 Bernard Buffet’s life was rich and full of drama. He was one of the most famous and popular, but also one of the most controversial French artists of the 20th century, particularly in his own country. Born in 1928, he spent his later adolescence in a Paris occupied by Nazi Germany, growing up to become a somewhat melancholy and taciturn but handsome young man with a great talent for painting, a bisexual leading a fashionable and extravagant life who often appeared rather arrogant and detached to the public eye. His oeuvre reflects the sad and tragic atmosphere dominating postwar Europe, an old continent brimming with the bitter and disturbing truths of disillusion and existentialism. However, Buffet’s great commercial success allowed him to lead a high life, and he enjoyed being in the spotlight, making no effort to hide his luxurious lifestyle. Partly for that reason, some began to denounce him as a “poser” and to question his artistic merits. Soon he found that while his early and resounding success had made him a wealthy man with the world at his fingertips, it had also made him some powerful enemies. On the one hand, film stars and other celebrities were lining up to buy his paintings for their collections, but many critics, including the then French Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, were very vocal in dismissing his work as “kitsch.” He enjoyed a much better reputation abroad: his religious-themed paintings met with the Vatican’s approval, and a collector in Japan founded a Bernard Buffet Museum dedicated to his art. Generally, he was much more popular with both the jet set and the average punter than with highbrow critics. In his later years he suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and unable to continue working as an artist, he took his own life in 1999. It was a poignant ending to the eventful career of someone who had truly earned the moniker “mega-artist.”

 

Bernard Buffet has been much in the news again of late, garnering more media attention than most other French painters. While a Buffet renaissance may be under way, it doesn’t quite match the furor the artist created in the 1950s, when he had just burst on the scene as a dashing young painter who had begun to collect awards and honors at 18 and was a full-fledged and very well-to-do star painter by the age of 20 something, his fame rising to similar heights as that of established greats such as Picasso and Matisse. At the Venice Biennale, he was hailed as “Picasso’s heir.” Later on, critics described him as the vital link between Picasso and Andy Warhol, a key figure in modern art history symbolizing the shift of the avant-garde from Paris to New York. Both the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Musée de Montmartre et Jardins Renoir have Buffet retrospective exhibitions opening in mid-October this year that will run through 2017, and Sotheby’s Hong Kong held a special exhibition titled “Bernard Buffet: Infinite Jester” in September. In cooperation with French art dealers and artists, and timed to coincide with the Art Stage Singapore event, Singapore’s MAD Museum of Art & Design last January showed 25 of Buffet’s works, generating considerable interest in the international art scene.

 


“Rue et Église”, 1983, oil on canvas, 97 x 130 cm, Estimate: US$108,200 - 159,100

Ravenel Autumn Auction 2016 “SELECT”

 

The first signs of an impending bullish trend in the international art market for Bernard Buffet’s appeared a few years back, when prices for his paintings on the global art market began to rise. Between 2013 and 2015, auction houses in London, New York, Shanghai, and Tokyo all recorded an increased turnover of Buffet paintings and prints. Noticing the growing interest in Buffet on the Asian art market, Ravenel Hong Kong has also been featuring an increasing number of the artist’s works in its “Modern and Contemporary Western Painters” section since 2012. In 2013, one of Buffet’s early oil paintings, titled “Le revolver,” sold for a stunning HK$600,000 (approx. NT$2.31 million, or US$77,320) against a house estimate of HK$340 to 460 thousand.

 

The most impressive example so far of a renewed appreciation of Buffet’s work during 2016 came on June 22, when one of the artist’s major works, “Les Clowns musicians, le saxophoniste”) sold for£1.0225 million (approx. US$1.5 million) at a Christie’s London auction, marking the highest price ever paid for a painting by Buffet, easily besting the previous record of US$1.096 million set at an auction held at Anaf in Lyon 26 years earlier. The new record was all the more remarkable as it was set by one of the artist’s late works (1991) ‒ previously, collectors had very much favored Buffet’s early output, especially works dating from before 1958. Clearly, there is a trend towards a growing interest in Buffet’s later work. In more general terms, a reappraisal of the artist and his oeuvre is currently taking place, supported by international auction houses, art galleries, and major museums. The Western art world is rediscovering one of its long neglected geniuses.

 

In 2015, Vanity Fair contributing editor and GQ UK columnist Nicholas Foulkes wrote a biography titled Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-artist. The book hit the market on January 14, 2016, offering readers fresh insights into the steep rise and deep fall of the artist’s reputation, as well as his bisexuality and complicated public and private life. The work is also part of an ongoing process aiming to reclaim Buffet’s status as an important modern painter, a man who went against the prevailing abstractionist mood of his time and persisted in a mode of figurative painting that many influential critics back then considered passé. Almost 17 years after the artist’s death, Foulkes, familiar with the history of art and fashion, uses his unique perspective to introduce Buffet, a former darling of the rich and famous, to today’s public ‒ an audience largely unaware of the painter and his former eminence.

 


Birth of a High-flying Genius and Jet Set Star

Bernard Buffet was born on July 10, 1928, into a middle-class family in a Paris suburb. It was a time when Europe was gradually beginning to recover from the depression following the First World War, with Paris the “capital of the arts” in the Roaring Twenties, attracting writers, artists, and intellectuals from all over the globe. Surrealism was sweeping across the Old World, opening people’s eyes to brand new possibilities and perspectives. Buffet’s mother loved the arts and would take her son on regular visits to the Louvre, thus sowing the seeds of art in the little boy. But before long, another world war broke out. The Nazis occupied Paris, and the young Buffet thoroughly witnessed all the horror and misery of war, an experience that would later shape and inform his artistic output. After being expelled from middle school, he took evening classes in sketching and, at the astonishingly young age of 15, was accepted into the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris, where he studied painting for two years under Eugène Narbonne (1885-1973), a figurative painter of some renown.

 

In 1946, Buffet produced his first self-portrait (“Self-portrait”), which was displayed at the Salon des Moins de Trente Ans, an event sponsored by the Galerie Beaux-Arts. The painting garnered immediate attention, and in the same year he made the acquaintance of writer and artist Pierre Descargues (1925-2012), who soon became one of Buffet’s biggest and most ardent supporters, publishing many positive reviews and praising his work’s intrinsic value.

 

As a brilliant painter with unusual gifts, Buffet’s star soon began its meteoric rise to fame and fortune, although art circles and critics were a little less quick to recognize his talent. In 1947, when the artist was 19 years old, his painting “L’homme accoudé” was shown at the Salon des Indépendants, and in the December of the same year, the critics Guy Weelen and Michel Brient organized the first solo exhibition of Buffet’s work at the Art Impressions bookstore in Paris. French writer Raymond Cogniat visited this exhibition and bought the oil painting “Nature morte au poulet” for the Musée national d’art moderne, giving another boost to Buffet’s fledgling career.

 

Beginning i n 1949, Buffet held annual exhibitions, becoming an artist of prodigious output. He also met Dr. Maurice Girardin, a heavyweight art collector who would buy 17 of his works from the period between 1948 and 1953. Girardin’s enthusiasm induced Paris art dealer Emmanuel David to also take a close interest in Buffet’s work, and as a result in April 1948 the oil painting “Le Buveur” was shown at the Jeune Peinture exhibition organized by the Galerie Drouant-David, winning an award and finding a buyer in Maurice Girardin. On June 6, 1948, Buffet shared the Prix de la Critique, awarded at the Galerie Saint-Placide, with fellow anti-abstract painter Bernard Lorjou (1908-1986), and in November of the same year Buffet’s work “La ravaudeuse de filet” was shown at the Salon d’Automne – another piece that was bought by Girardin for his collection, which at his death he bequeathed in its entirety to the Musée du Petit Palais. Later, this collection came into the possession of the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, the most important Buffet collection currently held by any French museum which will also be the focus of the museum’s retrospective exhibition kicking off on October 14 this year and running until February 26, 2017.

 

A Tumultuous Life, an Expressionist of Sexual Desire

In 1950, Buffet met Pierre Bergé, then a young man from Oléron who had arrived in Paris only a couple of years before and was still just beginning to make his way. Dreaming of becoming a writer, Bergé quickly befriended Buffet and did much to help facilitate the young artist’s success. For eight years, the gay “golden couple” epitomized the perfect partnership: the ambitious man from the province and the art scene’s whiz kid cum jet set darling only parted ways when Bergé found a new lover in fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. Bergé was a man of refined tastes and many talents: an articulate writer, but also blessed with exceptional social skills, quite at ease in all kinds of settings and with a special knack for business and networking. He was particularly well connected in Paris fashion and cultural circles. Emmanuel David was one of his acquaintances, and very fond of the glamorous lovers that Bergé and Buffet then were ‒ so much so that he even introduced them to another up-and-coming young art dealer, Maurice Garnier (1920-2014). David encouraged Garnier to open up his own gallery and become an agent for Buffet’s work. This was a crucial turn in Buffet’s life and career, because Garnier went on to become his most important agent, as well as a major authority on his work. The two remained friends and partners for almost half a century, right up to Buffet’s death in 1999.

 

According to Nicholas Foulkes’ biography, Bernard Buffet was more than “just” a famous artist during the jet set 50s: together with novelist and playwright Françoise Segan, director and screenwriter Roger Vadim, actress Brigitte Bardot, and fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, he made up the “Fabulous Five,” and was by many considered to be the most prominent member of that illustrious group. For a while, Buffet with his photogenic good looks and artistic reputation was the most iconic figure of postwar France, a darling of the media and a veritable superstar.

 

In creative terms, the heyday of Buffet’s career were the years he spent with Pierre Bergé. Even though his works from that period were mostly melancholy and gray, both in terms of palette and subject matter, those years also marked the height of his popularity on the art market, prior to the recent resurge of interest in his oeuvre. Under Bergé’s loving and expert patronage, Buffet advanced to the highest circles of society, and his works sold so well that in addition to being a celebrity he quickly became a very rich man who could afford to buy several castles. He also owned a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, was always smartly dressed and always moving among the rich and famous. In 1958, Bergé published a biography of the artist at Editions Pierre Cailler, titled “Bernard Buffet,” and the Galerie Charpentier, which frequently exhibited works by École de Paris artists, held the first retrospective of Buffet’s work. In a sense, that year marked the pinnacle of his life and career. But it was also in this year that he and Bergé began to go separate ways, at a time when Buffet was only 30 years old.

 

Shortly after the breakup, he made the acquaintance, via some artist friends, of writer and chanteuse Annabel Schwob, and the two married before the year 1958 was out. They would stay together for the rest of their lives, and Buffet painted a large number of portraits of his beautiful wife, as well as erotic paintings of Annabel, showing her completely or partly nude. During this phase, his palette became more bright, varied, and daring, and his compositions started to convey a greater range of emotional depth. His lines and brushstrokes, however, were as sharp and expressive as ever, as well suited to his new, more optimistic and ornamentally enhanced visual narratives as they had been to his earlier miserabilist subject matter. Encouraged by his friend and agent Maurice Garnier, in 1961 Buffet painted a series of paintings depicting the life of Christ, as well as portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. Today, Buffet is probably best known for his laconic paintings of clowns and matadors, often considered to epitomize the artist’s earlier succinct style and strongly individualist brand of expressionism. It is in these most iconic works that the artist first established the basic vocabulary of his own artistic language, and his style has influenced a considerable number of painters, including for example Taiwan’s Shiy De-jinn.

 

In 1958, President de Gaulle appointed André Malraux (1901-1976) as Minister of Cultural Affairs, a writer who had previously won the prestigious Prix Concourt and had even been considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Malraux had a decided preference for abstract art, and frequently derided figurative painting as “tacky,” considering it outdated kitsch that only people with little or no taste would enjoy. In his mind, the intellectual elite should favor the abstract movement, which he was determined to use as a vehicle for reestablishing the reputation of Paris as the center of the art world. Consequently, during his tenure as Minister of Cultural Affairs, galleries and museums felt a strong pressure to focus on abstract artists at the expense of painters who preferred a more figurative style. Suddenly, Buffet found his work relentlessly ridiculed by numerous critics and fellow painters, including even Picasso, and he decided to look for recognition abroad. He had always enjoyed particular popularity in Japan, where many were attracted to the “calligraphic” appeal of his forceful black brushstrokes and striking contours. Wealthy banker Kiichiro Okano (1917-1995) collected more than a thousand paintings by the artist, and in 1973 founded the Musée Bernard Buffet in Shizuoka Prefecture’s Suntō District. Okano, who revered Buffet as the “Pope of French Art,” made it into US visual arts magazine ARTnews’ list of “Top 200 Collectors” in 1990 and 1991, a distinction that was entirely based on his extensive collection of works by Bernard Buffet.

 

The series of paintings of the life of Christ from 1961 had originally been made for the Chapelle de Chateau l’Arc near the artist’s home in southern France, but ten years after its completion the series was requested for the collection of the Galeries d’Art moderne du Vatican by Monseigneur Pasquale Macci, secretary to Pope Paul VI. Today, they remain on permanent exhibition at the Vatican Museum. In 1962, his daughter Virginie was born, and one year later his daughter Danielle. A son followed after another ten years, in 1973, and was named Nicolas. Those were years of family bliss and a comfortable existence, yet Buffet continued to paint as long as he could: it was his one true passion in life.

 

Late Recognition at Home

Having once been hailed as “Picasso’s heir,” critical opinion began to turn against Buffet when André Malraux and much of the establishment all but ostracized the artist during the 60s, and cut off his opportunities for further development in his native country. However, he had always been a much admired artist in other countries, where critics and the general public continued to take a much more favorable view of his work. Back in France, when Picasso died in 1973, Malraux wrote a gushing biography praising the exceptional achievement of one of the 20th century’s best known artists. But with many of the old guard on their way out, the tide already began to turn again, albeit haltingly, this time in Buffet’s favor. The same year Picasso passed away, Buffet was named “Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur,” a distinction reserved for the highest military or civil merits. One year later, in 1974, the artist, still only 46 years old, was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts – the youngest man at the time to be granted this lifetime honor. The number of members at the Académie is strictly limited, and a new appointment can only be made, usually at the recommendation of academic luminaries and experts, when an existing member has died. This partly explains why Chinese-born painters Chu Teh-chun and Zao Wou-ki were only elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts at the advanced age of 77 and 81, respectively.

 

In 1978, at the request of the French Postal Administration, Buffet designed a new 3 franc stamp showing L’Institut et le Pont des Arts. At the same time, the Musée de la Poste held a retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work. In 1991, Buffet designed the motif for another stamp, this time the 25.7 franc one, which was issued a year later. During the 1990s, the last years of his life, Buffet accepted numerous invitations to appear at retrospectives of his work being held at museums and galleries around the world, including in Japan, Russia, Germany, and Taiwan (Kaohsiung). A taciturn and occasionally morose man, Buffet was a truly prolific artist who created more than 8,000 paintings. Virtually “addicted to painting,” he soon lost interest in life when Parkinson’s disease began to take hold in his 60s, making it impossible to continue working as an artist. Who knows how many more works he might have produced had he lived another 20 or 30 years? As it was, Buffet committed suicide on October 4, 1999, suffocating himself with a plastic bag–a tragic end to a full and dazzling life.

 

 

Bernard Buffet’s name may not roll as easily off the tongue as that of other, better known artists, but we should remember that in the 1950s and 60s he was a household name, nay, a genuine wunderkind and jet set star whose lightning success saw him ranked first among the top ten postwar artists by 1955. By 1956, a medium-sized oil painting by Buffet would sell for as much as £5,000 – at the time, that was enough money to buy you a couple of houses. In Japan, many found Buffet’s work with its “calligraphic” brushstrokes and forcefully intersecting lines to be reminiscent of traditional Eastern art, not least because of the comparatively sparing use of color in much of his work. Unsurprisingly then, when art dealers began to import his work to Japan, they found his paintings to be a big seller. To this day, the late Kiichiro Okano is remembered as one of the most avid collectors of Buffet’s art anywhere. Prices for Buffet’s work in Japan reached a peak around 1990, when the country’s postwar economic miracle was nearing its end. Since the “lost decade” of the 90s, however, prices have taken a bit of a hit. Buffet’s suicide in 1999 triggered a renewed interest in the artist and his life, which had been glamorous and successful as well as poignant and sad.

 

The two Buffet solo exhibitions held by the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, one in 2012, the other this year’s special retrospective, as well the retrospective exhibition at the Musée de Montmartre et Jardins Renoir, offer a new generation of art aficionados an opportunity to reevaluate this long neglected artist’s work. The sharp rise in prices for Buffet’s works at international auctions in recent years also shows that the time seems ripe for a thorough reappraisal. In the past, Buffet has not always been taken seriously by the critics, especially in his native France. It is only fair that this modern-day master of figurative painting should receive the more levelheaded and unbiased assessment he certainly deserves. Abstractionism ruled much of the art world for several decades, but we should remember that the new type of figurative painting spearheaded by artists like Buffet also played a very important role in the development of postwar contemporary art. Buffet’s contributions are finally being fully recognized, and it is up to us to give him his proper place in the history of art.


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