Bernard Buffet — A Revelation


“We must not confuse painting and politeness…” Bernard Buffet

A retrospective of Bernard Buffet, if you dare! He is an artist who has been forgotten in art history…yet entering the Musée d’art Moderne de la ville de Paris today, his work appears to me as evidence of his creative existence.

Bernard Buffet has been buried in our cultural memory, like a family secret we won’t dare reveal…

“Horreur de la guerre, L’Ange de la guerre” 1954
coll. fonds de dotation Bernard Buffet

Upon entering, we submerge into Buffet’s artistic style, as we are greeted by an immense painting of a bullfight, in which the animal is marked by Buffet’s initials in red paint. The tone of the exhibition is set, and I understand the metaphor Buffet proposes, of being alone in an arena facing all the people who have hurt him. Thus, I am present in a colourful spectacle of life and death. Standing before his work, we cannot remain unaffected. For me, Bernard Buffet’s work is viewed as his portrait of a clown placed behind the curtains of a gallery or a few posters seen here and there.

He attended the Carnot School but was bored as a student, preferring the natural sciences when he could draw dragonflies and butterflies. At 15 years old, he entered Beaux-Arts where for some time, he was a star. Each exhibit stirred a scene, he would even sign his autograph on metro tickets. In the movie, “How to Marry a Millionaire,” the apartment of Lauren Bacall features one of Buffet’s Clowns. We could say he was equal to Picasso.

Dominique Gagneux

He participates in consecutive exhibits with Kees Van Dongen, Utrillo, Rouault, Villon… Jean Cocteau dedicates a poem to him that shows “the human voice” of the poet.

I wasn’t prepared for such a presence. The beginning of the exhibit is traced with a chilling quality, marking the creation of Buffet’s style. I am amazed that at 19, he paints “Ravaudeuse de filets,” and a little later “Horror of the War” (1955). I am both baffled by the icy tone of his work and enchanted by one of his still lifes.

Even this young, Buffet is able to create his own style. In his self-portrait, he emits a chilling presence, which haunts us beyond first glance. His portraits of his inner circle, in comparison, appear less harsh. That of his art dealer Maurice Garnier, or of Pierre Bergé (who he meets when he is 21) are beautiful paintings, void of shadows, and highly regarded. But there is still a feeling of solitude that proposes a paradox in his creative world, and I don’t fully grasp it as the spectator, but I accept it…

Bernard Buffet

I asked myself the question that journalists often face: Is it terribly beautiful or magnificently frightening? Another question also came to mind: Abstraction or realism? And I could say the same thing for a number of the other pieces.
The large size, the masterly style, and the very personal quality of the paintings contributed (at least, according to an American art critic), to the Buffet’s popularity as an illustrator of “lavish poverty,” easily absorbed by the public. However, his work spread quickly enough, and with it misunderstanding, surprise, and sometimes rejection – which is inevitable when people don’t understand something. One such example was the reaction of the respectable fur-coat-wearing visitors of the David and Garnier gallery, which displayed the suggestive scenes of Buffet’s “Birds” in February of 1960. It’s tempting to analyze what critics and journalists reported in an interrogative manner: “Do you find it terribly beautiful or magnificently frightening?” –Dominique Gagneux, excerpt from the museum’s catalog.
Dominique Gagneux, who has curated some of the Modern Art Museum’s greatest exhibits – Baselitz, Poliakoff, and now Bernard Buffet – gave me a brief lesson in painting. She showed me a wide variety of Piet Mondrian’s painterly inspirations: geometric shapes, the stripes in the still lives of Chardin, not to mention painters Courbet, Rembrandt, and Baron Gros. He drew directly from history painting – in fact, one medieval painting that was heavily haunted by death made me think of a small church in Greece that’s entirely covered in murals that take hell as their main subject. I also thought of the Enguerrand Quarton’s Pietà of Villeneuve-les-Avignon, which depicts a tearful Virgin Mary carrying an emaciated Christ in her arms, covered in marks from his crucifixion.

Expo Bernard Buffet MAMVP

It’s also important to remember that Bernard Buffet lived under Nazi occupation, and that in 1945, when he was still a child, his mother died after three months of suffering from a malignant tumor. There’s no doubt that these events greatly influenced his work.
Buffet’s reduced palette is the quality of his oeuvre most often discussed – even yesterday, one of my friends recalled a drawing professor declaring that Bernard Buffet never evolved. In fact, this postulate is completely false – the colors, shapes, subjects, and lines change with each piece – he constantly surprises viewers, and I couldn’t help but become completely absorbed in the intricate movement of the two gymnasts in his “Acrobats” painting.

“Les écorchés – tête d’écorché ” 1964
coll. fonds de dotation Bernard Buffet

was delighted to see, attached to a little owl drawing marked with a prominent “M,” which Matthieu Chedid used as inspiration for his hair – a topic he discussed with Catherine Ceylac during a 20-minute TV segment called “Tea or Coffee” that ran in October of 2015. His grandmother worked in Maurice Garnier’s gallery, and his family held onto this owl engraving – during the same segmet, he talked about a “Butterfly” sketch that also belonged to his family and served as further inspiration for him:

When I was born, my maternal grandmother, who worked at Maurice Garnier’s gallery, offered me a Bernard Buffet lithography of an owl, as well as a drawing where two little butterflies with open wings formed an M. I realized much later on that the owl had heavily influenced my hairstyle…my disk is full of mysteries, puzzles, and scavenger hunts that are centered around the owl. Not to mention other elements…
-Mathieu Chedid M., Le Monde, What Matthieu Likes in Ten Words – Interview by Gilles Médioni, published September 5th, 2009.


Bernard Buffet

Bernard Buffet was often denounced for having associations with artistic institutions: When he was honored by the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1974 and awarded the title of an “official artist,” which he had never been before then, Combat journalist Pierre Cabanne wrote an article called “State Funeral,” which completely lambasted Buffet’s work – it was more of an obituary than any sort of praise, claiming that the painter had been “ossified” in a certain sense. But Cabanne’s “J’accuse,” which would be hurled at Buffet over and over again, never explained what made his painting so cold, what had transformed it into “mushy gruel.”
In a 1985 interview, Andy Warhol identified Buffet as “the last famous painter.” This retrospective will finally pave the way for a turnaround in the art world’s preconceived ideas about Bernard Buffet, and hopefully, the public’s curiosity about the artist will finally be satisfied.
However, I would like to say that this exhibit represents a revisiting of sorts, an artist who is sharing his work with us and whom we are more than pleased to re-meet. It was the bold idea of a museum director, carried out by a remarkable curator, that set the stage for Bernard Buffet and exposed his life and work.

Florence Briat Soulie

Translated by Danielle Cohen and Tess Holland, Wesleyan University, Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris Fall 2016.

Jean Cocteau – La voix humaine.

Bernard Buffet – Retrospective

From 14 October 2016 to 26 February 2017


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