"A still-life by Buffet is only half still and ready to bite. In his hands of a thin executioner dressed in red, domestic utensils become instruments of torture capable of making their victims talk, whatever the cost of silence, should it take the appearance of a tablecloth, a chair, a comb, a ray fish or a 'tête de veau'."
Jean Cocteau, Poésie Critique, 1959.
Bernard Buffet produced his first still-lifes during his time at the National School of Fine Arts, inspired by the realist style of Gustave Courbet and of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin whose paintings he studied at the Louvre as soon as it reopened in 1946. Nature morte à la raie, painted by Bernard Buffet in 1956, echoes the different versions of the same subject by Chardin and by Soutine. Bernard Buffet appropriated these works and rebuilt them whilst maintaining a dialogue with the artists he considered to be his principal masters. The monstrous ray fish with its repulsive smile was one of Buffet's favorite fishes already present in his work for over ten years when he painted this picture.
Early in his career, the artist did indeed keep a rotting ray fish in his apartment, which recalls Soutine and his beef carcass, before doing without the model. "The object is disgusting, but it is the fish's flesh, it is its skin, it is its blood; the very aspect of the thing would not affect us any differently" wrote Diderot on Chardin's La Raie in his Salon of 1763.
With Bernard Buffet's spatial construction, Nature morte à la raie becomes a large diamond-shaped rhombus. The artist's use of geometric lines and graphic structure divide the composition into a succession of rectangular planes. The unbroken black contour becomes increasingly thicker, enveloping and imprisoning form. As with most of the other still-lifes, the rectangular surface of the table is parallel to the edge of the painting. Bernard Buffet thus rejects all movement that could displace the lines. Objects on the table are rare, as is the custom in his paintings of this subject. The artist sought a pure space: the table bears only a tablecloth, a glass, a bottle, a knife and an immaculately white dish. The oval shape of the dish cuts into the diagonal line of the cloth, in almost perfect symmetry. Form predominates. The triangles of the table and the cloth, the circles of the dish, the rhombus of the ray fish and the two cylinders of the bottle and glass slot into the square tiles of the wall. The knife with its handle on the table, pointing into the plate, punctuates the geometric space.
The hollow, milky dish, placed in the lower middle of the canvas is in perfect symmetry with the ray hovering above it, giving the impression of a well from which the fish has sprung, its head pointing upwards, its rectilinear tail leaving the plate. The very format of the painting accentuates this ascension.
Chardin's bruised and bloody, viscous and translucent victim ray fish is no longer present. Buffet's ray fish is powerful, milk-white and hard. Its threatening grin defies our gaze. The red and pink tones highlight its anger. A still-life that is still alive. But the glass, bottle and knife bring us back to the reality of the carcass, in perfect balance.
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