Gallery News

Happy Birthday, Bernard Buffet

10 July 2024

Born on 10 July, 1928, the late French painter Bernard Buffet would have turned 96 this year. To mark the 25th anniversary of Buffet’s death, we explore how the artist was shaped by his French identity–from Paris to Côte d’Azur–and revisit the narratives his work contains about society, status and the place of the artist — both during his lifetime and today.


Pierre Descargues, an art historian, critic and friend of Buffet’s once commented that, for him, “painting and living were not unconnected activities but complementary.” His life and work were inextricably entangled.


When Buffet entered his studio, he didn’t close himself off from the visual and emotional content of his daily existence, he tuned into it. Using his own idiosyncratic visual language, a straight-lined, sharp-edged, sober and flattened hand, he painted scenes from his homes in Paris, Provence and Saint Tropez, where he would often spend summers painting the boats that bobbed on the harbour. He also painted portraits of friends and acquaintances including Jean Cocteau and Charles de Gaulle and images of himself in the studio. He also painted subjects that might be read as more allegorical: the clowns and bullfighters whose unsmiling visages earned his work the designation of a new artistic genre: miserablism. 


But was Buffet really a miserable character? The many photographs that exist of him rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of French society in Paris or gallivanting around the French Riviera, always immaculately dressed and often with a cigarette in hand, tell a different story. But his deserted street scenes and self-portraits — face gaunt and hand clutched across his chest — betray a sense of melancholy that followed the artist through his life.


Perhaps he was both. Buffet felt the full force of the shifting tides of popular opinion, finding his work and increasingly public persona subject to multiple reappraisals within his own lifetime.


Born to a middle-class French family in the Parisian Batignolles neighbourhood, his vocation was clear from a young age. “Young Bernard is gifted in no subject whatever … except perhaps drawing,” read a note from his school headmaster to his mother. As an adult, his talent allowed him to find a place in French high society — both as participant and documenter. Accounts of the artist’s life are replete with tales of material excess: by his 30th birthday, he was the owner of a castle on the Côte d’Azur and a Rolls Royce that he, lacking a licence, was unable to drive. 


However, as economic growth in France slowed in the 1970s, Buffet — the unofficial artist of Les Trente Glorieuses — fell out of favour. Some have argued that the disconnect between his lavish lifestyle and austere paintings made them feel disingenuous. Certainly, he found himself answerable to a public whose conception of the “starving artist” he simply didn’t line up with.


In his biography of the artist, Nicholas Foulkes suggests that an argument might be made that Buffet was the art-historical conduit linking Picasso and Warhol. By the time the latter rose to prominence, the world was ready for an artist who made no bones about enjoying the trappings of wealth. Buffet was afforded no such luxury, and spent the final years of his life working in isolation.


Today, his work sitting in the collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Tate in London, with recent solo exhibitions at institutions including Musée d’Art Moderne, Kunstmuseum Basel and Kunstmuseum Den Haag, it would be easy to assume that Buffet’s trajectory was the same as that of any other 20th century master. The truth is that it has been in the years since his death that the body of work he left behind has found its correct place in art history. Now, his oeuvre now understood as a complex and multifaceted document of the luxury and ennui of an upwardly mobile life rendered with great facility, the late artist receives a warm reception from critics and from the art market.