Bernard Buffet – Picasso’s Nemesis?
On the 10th of July 1928, French artist Bernard Buffet was born in Paris. Buffet belonged to a group – “L’Homme Témoin (The Witness)” – along with Bernard Lorjout and André Minaux, considered as a new school of figurative painting. Going against the emerging trend of abstraction in modern painting, Buffet remained an Expressionist through and through: during his last visit to Musée Bernard Buffet in May 1996, he is recorded to have said, “I want you to have a dialogue with my paintings by pure affection. Painting is not something to talk about or to analyse; it is something just to feel. A hundredth of a second is enough to judge a painting.” (Musée Bernard Buffet).
In 1948, when Buffet first became popular to the public, the gloom, pessimism, and horror of his work appeared to be related to recent history and the end of the war, but also with his own appearance: his slight frame and haunted eyes, his rumoured extenuating artistic nighttime labors, sometimes allegedly executed on a piece torn from a worn sheet rather than on canvas. While his life brought him incredible success and wealth, it also had many pitfalls. Unrelated to previous struggles, in 1999, Buffet killed himself by asphyxiation due to feeling incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease to continue painting.
At the height of his career, the ‘common people’ loved his work, yet the art world shunned him bitterly. The reasons for this varied. Everybody, including Picasso’s own children saw Buffet as a “young, handsome, awkward man who was – joint equally with their father – the most celebrated painter of the post-war world, a modern master who had made a colossal fortune from his work by the age of 30. After a meteoric rise to stardom, Buffet fell victim in the 1960s to a campaign of denigration in his home country, led, among others, by Picasso.” (‘Bernard Buffet: Return of the ‘poser’, The Independent, Monday 16 March 2009). The critics swiftly turned against him. From a 1957 article we learn that, “Someone must have used the term “dehydrated art” to describe the work of Bernard Buffet. For a whole decade critics of this eminently successful young painter have sought out the most violent of adjectives and nouns in order to convey the emaciation and distortion of the human frame, the shriveling of the lemon and turnip, the desperate indigence and vacancy of the background, the dinginess of colour, and the hopelessness of atmosphere in his pictures.” (Kenneth Cornell, ‘The Buffet Enigma’, Yale French Studies, No. 19/20, Contemporary Art, 1957).
“In 1955, he was chosen by 100 critics as the most impressive young painter in the world. In 1956, he was given a spread in Paris Match in which he was presented as the “young millionaire painter”(…) Buffet remained successful for half a century; up to a point. (…) In the 1970s, no middle-class sitting-room in Britain was complete unless it had a stiff-backed orange couch, a television on splayed legs and a print of a spiky clown’s face painted by Buffet. (…) In France, Buffet’s reputation as a serious artist imploded in the late 1950s. Up to, and after, his suicide 10 years ago, he was treated by the French cultural elite as an object of mockery and contempt. His voluminous work – sometimes harsh, sometimes sentimental, using garish colours and bold lines reminiscent of comic books and cartoons – was “not true art”. Buffet, it was whispered, was a purveyor of kitsch, a mere faiseur (poser).” (‘Bernard Buffet: Return of the ‘poser’, The Independent, Monday 16 March 2009).
One of the main reasons was that Malraux, possibly the most influential critic at the time, was determined to re-establish the reputation of Paris as the art centre of the world and Buffet did not integrate into his vision at all. His success and his reputation as a clearly figurative painter threatened the prospect. By giving up a notorious gay relationship Buffet also attracted the enmity of several powerful gay figures in the art world because he switched his sexual orientation, so when their support stopped, it had a direct impact on his popularity. The Independent quoted Henry Périer, art critic, historian and curator of an important Buffet exhibition in Marseilles in 2009, saying that : “Picasso has benefited from a Buffet effect in reverse. Sometimes, I stand in front of a Picasso and I really cannot decide whether this is truly a good painting or whether I’ve just been conditioned to believe it is a good painting. With Buffet, generations in France have been conditioned to say that he is ridiculous. Now, at last, younger generations are beginning to judge for themselves.” And so we are. It is fascinating to see how an artist’s reputation and legacy can rise and fall. Had the circumstances been different for Buffet, would we have ever been aware of an artist called Picasso?