LONDON – Earlier this year my book, Bernard Buffet, The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist was published. If nothing else it has proved to me, how, 17 years after he killed himself, Buffet continues to divide opinion. Buffet was post-war Paris’s artistic phenomenon. His depictions of bleakness and misery perfectly captured the era of shortages and hardship and coincided with the modish moodiness of Existentialism.
PORTRAIT OF THE FRENCH PAINTER BERNARD BUFFET. PHOTO BY KEYSTONE-FRANCE/GAMMA-KEYSTONE
VIA GETTY IMAGES.
Propelled to national fame at the beginning of his 20s by winning a competition with an uncompromising picture of two male nudes in a bare room; his career took off as rapidly as any contemporary star of our own times. His idiosyncratic unmistakable spiky signature was as famous as any brand logo. He was talked of as the rival to Picasso, exhibited at the Biennale in Venice, polled as the leading artist of his generation and was accorded a major retrospective that attracted, according to one report, 8000 visitors on the opening night. He was not yet 30.
BERNARD BUFFET, LA CORRIDA, TORERO. ESTIMATE £80,000–120,000.
He was one of France’s ‘Fabulous Young Five’ (the others were Sagan, Vadim, Saint-Laurent and that other BB – Brigitte Bardot). High society was at his feet, and a glittering future seemed ahead. But it was a future that did not materialize.
BERNARD BUFFET, ENVIRONS DE LANNION, LES RUINES DE LA CHAPELLE DE ST AUGUSTIN. ESTIMATE £70,000–100,000.
He had also become rich through his painting – by the standards of the day very rich – and he loved spending his money, buying a castle, an island, a boat and a Rolls Royce, all while still in his twenties. It was an extravagant way of life in contrast to the world depicted in his work. Moreover, some of his early supporters expressed concern at his increasingly high profile social life and so began the Icarus-like fall of his reputation. He shunned abstraction, remaining resolutely figurative and extremely industrious, his output rivalling that of Picasso: he was accused of over production, fell from fashion and the art critics who had once hailed a genius viewed him as an embarrassment.
BERNARD BUFFET, NATURE MORTE AUX TROIS AS. ESTIMATE £40,000–60,000.
He continued to paint and later in life he found new popularity in Japan, nevertheless his reputation in Europe continued to languish, but in recent years a revival has begun and now that he has been accorded a retrospective in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris opening in October 2016 it will be interesting to see what happens to his prices and his reputation. One thing is for sure, the controversy that surrounded him in life shows little sign of abating.
Nicholas Foulkes is author of Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist (Preface, £25).