Seen in every lounge in 1960: Buffet’s Head of a Clown

Bernard Buffet (1928-1999), the French painter popular in the 1950s but dismissed by critics, has two exhibitions in Paris, one a large retrospective in the Museum of Modern Art (MAM). As I shared the common disdain for his work and as he had been out of my consciousness for fifty years, I was curious to see him presented seriously as an artist.

The MAM show is large. Buffet was a workaholic and when he died he left 8,000 canvasses. His career began in about 1946, so that’s about three a week. This is no mean feat because he often worked on a large scale, even as a young man. Whatever you think about his paintings, you have to respect the fact that he took himself seriously and worked hard at his profession. He painted until his death at the age of 71, committing suicide because Parkinson’s disease was preventing him from work.

Buffet was popular but controversial. “He painted a lot,” was a typical judgement. “He’s a St Germain-des-Prés artist.” “He’s a commercial painter.” “He always paints the same way.”

Buffet was a prodigy. He entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts at 14. By 1946, at 18 he was winning major awards and was an instant success. In the years after the Second World War he painted in sombre colours, partly because he could not afford bright colours, and his earnest themes were taken as a comment on life in post-war France. He was co-signatory to the Manifesto of Human Witness (Manifeste de l’Homme témoin) declaring that, in this environment, representation, not abstraction, was called for from artists.

“Bernard Buffet- An Existentialist?” His Self-Portrait (1949), aged 21

His signature style was established before he was twenty: a shallow picture space with almost no perspective, hard black outlines, lack of modelling or detail and flat areas of paint cross-hatched in black. It was effective in his self-portraits – one in which he stands behind his canvas, thin and with bared teeth, is striking. Not surprisingly, the magazines could ask of this young painter of grim scenes, “Bernard Buffet – An Existentialist?”

Although his treatment didn’t change much in fifty years, his subjects were varied: portraits, still lifes, landscapes, historical and religious canvasses, genre, fantasy, literary illustration – there was nothing he didn’t try at some time or other. Although the wider public knew him for the vast number of reproductions of his kitsch still lifes, clown portraits and bullfighters, he also wanted to shock. There is nothing very pleasing about his Birds or Skinned Heads.

Red Bird

He was a smash hit because of his youth, his reliability and his reflection of the post-war world. By 1955, he was awarded the first prize by the magazine Connaissance des arts, based on a poll naming the world’s best artists. But his highbrow reputation was damaged by a Paris Match feature in the same year that showed him with his Rolls Royce, his castle and his servants. At 27, the emaciated young Existentialist was getting plump.

Young millionaire, 1955

Buffet continued to provide a new collection for his dealer every February. He never abandoned the popular Buffet style but every year he adapted it to a new theme to keep his public interested. His large signature, often at the centre of the picture, was part of the Buffet brand. There may have been financial calculation in his choice of subject, but his passion for his work protected him from cynicism.

Pont Alexandre III

Should Buffet be judged harshly? Although he never developed much, his spiky style was well suited to some subjects, particularly his Paris scenes of the early ‘fifties. He developed a recognisable character out of good but limited drawing – but so did Henri Matisse and Paul Klee. He made a lot of money – but so did Picasso and so did Rembrandt for a while. (Picasso, by the way, had an envious hatred of Buffet.)

Dante’s Inferno

In 1977, a public familiar with his landscapes were surprised by his return to grand themes, with a suite of large canvasses of Dante’s Inferno. Buffet’s success kept him in demand. He was commissioned to do a series of paintings illustrating Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It wasn’t necessary, but he also did these pictures on a large scale. There were the familiar black outlines, the flat perspective, the simplified faces. Reduced to book size they make tremendous representations of the story. He would have been a great book illustrator, but book illustration doesn’t make a good living, doesn’t give you a dealer and doesn’t give much outlet for a huge joie de peindre. So here is Bernard Buffet: a combination of book illustrator and painter on the grand scale, clever businessman and serious artist.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

People will think me pretentious, but look at these canvases – “It takes some doing,” as the saying goes.

Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris
11 Avenue du Président Wilson
75116 Paris
Tel. 01 53 67 40 00

Open until 5 March 2017

Tuesday to Sunday 10.00 to 18.00
Thursday evening until 22.00

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