"I went to Nanse the day before yesterday. […]. Winter had lit the thinned woods with ruthless clarity. […] Near the walls of the empty farm, I was still able to pick a bunch of those tall thistles that you so often associate with oil lamps, litres of red wine, upside down glasses, in the shelter of the almond tree, near the door, a surprised rosebud showed a bit of colour in the darkness."
Bernard Buffet set up his studio and table in the sheep barn at Nanse, not far from Manosque and his friend Giono. This is no abundant meal, but a frugal repast. A few objects left over from long ago – a candle, a thistle, a jug, a few scattered fruits, a fish and a piece of bread – are laid out on a wooden surface. And yet with such majesty. The table displays its objects like a sacrifice, offered up before the nativity. Formed by classical culture, Bernard Buffet was less familiar with the Dutch-Flemish tradition of still-life where the generosity of the objects vies with the exuberance of the scene. Nature morte à la sole, could not be further from the opulence and vigor of Franz Snyders’ works where the animal bellies quiver haphazardly between the fruit and the fleshy flowers. The work lies closer to the concision and austerity of the Spanish masters of bodegones such as Juan Sánchez Cotán who announced Zurbarán.
In Bernard Buffet’s still-lifes in general, in those painted at Nanse up to 1955 in particular, the starkness is voluntary, the evidence of silence and the necessary absence of movement, suddenly deprived from things, have a sacred aspect. In 1952 precisely, the year of Nature morte à la sole, Bernard Buffet showed his paintings of The Passion of Christ: "Looking at his Flagellation, his Crucifixion, his Resurrection […] we are surprised to see so clearly everything that places Buffet in the French tradition, not that of gay, animated landscapes, but of dramatic ones with suffering Christs, Roman country churches, from Enguerrand Quarton to Georges de la Tour, and through which continues that sense of immobile tragedy characteristic of our country." (Pierre Descargues, Les Lettres françaises, February 7 1952). This "sense of immobile tragedy" is palpable here.
This immobility is heightened by the fact that no concession is made to anecdote. From a structural point of view, the negation of perspective and volume take part in the absolute autonomy of the painting. Cezanne and Cubism passed this way. The matt and abstract background recalls medieval paintings. The almost heuristic relation between things on the surface of the large table means they acquire an astonishing sense of reality. A little like "the chance meeting on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella." Bernard Buffet was very familiar with Les Chants de Maldoror as well. Beyond references and influences, this corporality of things which is also strongly evocative of Morandi’s magic, is depicted in an entirely new style.
Despite the apparent starkness, Bernard Buffet is able to impose the aristocracy of a genre which was long thought of as minor, despite the modernity of its beginnings. In Nature morte à la sole its hieratic nature creates a sense of magnificence.
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