The anonymous portrait of two human beings, as naked as they are stereotypically vulgar, (in the Latin sense of the term), Couple nu assis is a major work. Enshrouded in intense silence by the evident lack of communication between the man and the woman facing each other, this painting is a manifesto of modernity in itself alone.
Although comparable in size to an altarpiece (Bernard Buffet exhibited the Passion of Christ in 1951) or an historical painting, Couple nu assis is devoid of all religiosity and all narrative. This absence of pretext endows the work with an absolute quality. Bernard Buffet was very familiar with Primitive Dutch painting, and in particular Grünewald’s exaggerated realism, as well as Cranach. The designation of values or names (Adam and Eve) to the protagonists of a scene more or less deprived of action, (the man’s gesture is in vain) would have brought some context; although the confrontation should take place in a garden rather than on a wooden floor. The background adds to the lack of décor. The wall is neither hot nor cold. It is desperately naked. The spectator must look elsewhere or invent another myth in order to understand what is going on. At the same time, Giacometti and Balthus were creating closed spaces from converging lines. The primordial or primitive aspect of Bernard Buffet’s man and woman recall Richier who, almost at the same time, painted L’Ouragane (1947-1948) and L’Orage (1948-1949). In Couple nu assis, the man’s outstretched arm, positioned in line with the artist’s demiurge signature, and the woman’s arm folded against her chest, both annihilate through their contradictory movements, all attempt at explanation. There is no narrative, no dialogue.
The reversal of traditional representations of the body in art means that a work as solemn and disconcerting as Couple nu assis establishes the modernity of a painting without discourse, without dialogue. It lies far from the canons and equilibrium of the antique figure, from the grace and golden numbers of the Renaissance. The body is depicted without any idealization, in such a crude state as to deny its humanity. The woman has no sensuality; the man lacks any muscle structure. The style is mannerist in its asceticism (Bernard Buffet must have looked at Greco). They are both in uncomfortable positions, sitting on stiff chairs whose rudimentary aspect recalls Van Gogh’s chair (Bernard Buffet assiduously read Van Gogh’s correspondence with Théo). This total, unreserved nudity can be found in the over realistic flesh of Lucien Freud’s painted figures. But if Freud’s bodies provoke both revulsion and sometimes attraction, Bernard Buffet’s bodies provoke unease. Freud confirmed this moreover: "My conception of the portrait comes from my deception in front of the portraits that resembled people, but which were not like them […]. For me, the painting is the person". Yet with Bernard Buffet, (whose mastery of portraiture was shown the same year as Couple nu assis in the group exhibition at the Palais Galliera La Réhabilitation du portrait in 1956), the person disappears behind the painting itself. The mixing of genres, as far as the transgression of sexes, adds an almost totalitarian aspect to the work, at least to its autonomy. Here the ambiguity increases the power.
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