Bernard Buffet: A Rebel’s Masterpiece
French Expressionist painter Bernard Buffet is among most controversial artists of the twentieth century. His early paintings caught the eye of collectors and dealers, and the resulting popularity of his work vaulted him to fame and fortune at a young age. As changing times ushered in the rise of abstract and conceptual art, Buffet remained committed to figurative painting, which critics regarded as outdated. They began to dismiss his works, and as a result, the former toast of Paris salons quickly fell out of favor. After a half a century of dormancy, Buffet’s art has begun to attract renewed attention and reappraisal. In particular, his style of “tragic realism” gave expression to the anger, anxiety and helplessness experienced by the younger generation in the post-World War II era.
Buffet was a prolific painter who created many series with recurring characters, images, and themes. Among the most iconic include “Clown,” presented in last season, and this season’s Torero (Lot 1011). Dressed in grand and entertaining costumes, these characters from Buffet’s imagination seem to echo the dramatic life of the artist himself. During the earlier days of his career in 1958, Buffet dominated and dazzled the French art scene. At just 30 years of age, he became the youngest artist to hold a solo retrospective at Galerie Charpentier. The New York Times hailed Buffet as the leading artist of The Fabulous Five, whose members included Yves Saint Laurent and Roger Vadim. In the same year, he painted “Torero”. In the style of a classical portrait, the bullfighter is shown in a delicate, luxurious and colourfully-embellished golden costume, and his imposing mien reflects the painter’s own sense of determination. Through this longstanding Spanish tradition, Buffet shows his reverence for the torero—a figure who is steadfast and true to himself. And in this portrait, the painter attempts to revive that spirit in modern life.
The tradition of bullfighting persists because (and not in spite) of its brutality, as the romance of such life-and-death struggle has inspired writers and artists throughout time. American writer Ernest Hemingway famously developed a passion for bullfighting, which featured prominently in his works as a metaphor for power and survival. Through images rather than words, Buffet used the figure of the torero on an unadorned background that shows no signs of spectacle or violence from the bullring. The hero is clad in a gold-embellished costume and black montera, a hat reserved for aristocrats. Yet, this proud figure appears not triumphant, as one would expect, but is shown with furrowed brows. His penetrating, dark eyes are rendered with sharp, black, angular lines, and his facial expression remains dark and inscrutable. The inherent uncertainties of the bullring are subtly recreated by Buffet, stirring the viewer to further reflection.
It is easy to recognize common threads in Buffet’s art. Particularly in his portraits, the painter favored certain kinds of entertainers with distinctive appearance—for example, “clown” and “torero” from early periods, or “sumo” in his later work. In the biography Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist, the art historian Nicholas Foulke writes: “It was a similarly religious level of ceremony, tradition, flamboyant colour and sombre gravity that had attracted him to the corrida, and inspired him to produce his remarkable series of paintings, and to return again and again during the 1960s to the subject of the torero. ” As photography became more popular, Buffet’s commitment to portrait paintings might have seemed outmoded if his intention had been exact representation. However, the painter was interested in reshaping these characters, using subjectivity and emphasizing disparities between the surface and inner emotions. These layers invite the viewer to consider each person’s real identity and role in society.
Within Buffet’s oeuvre, the paintings that tend to fetch the highest prices are those from the 1950s and 1960s, decades mark the peak of his career, before his work was perceived as overly commercial. Paintings from this period were valued and acquired by collectors, and had seldom been made available in the market. This marks the first time Torero (1958) has appeared on the market in over 60 years, presenting a rare opportunity for collectors to acquire a painting of distinctive style and brilliant subject matter.
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