What are we to make of French artist Bernard Buffet (1928-1999), whose paintings have for decades been greeted with snorts of derision by most of the serious art world?
While working as an art market journalist during the 1990s, we used to gather around each others’ desks whenever a Buffet appeared in an auction catalogue. They invariably drew gales of laughter from the entire office. It wasn't just the tacky subject matter: anorexic nudes, gloomy clown masks, clunky still lifes; it was the technique too: the black cloisonné outlines, the bilious palette, the daubed, scratchy backgrounds. Buffet’s work seemed to encapsulate the worst aspects of post-war French painting. There is a word for a fear of clowns — coulrophobia. If you’re not familiar with it, just take a look at Buffet’s paintings. They’re hilariously bad.
But wait, is he due a revival? If we are to believe Nicholas Foulkes’s excellent biography, Buffet’s grim existentialist vision is poised to enjoy a market renaissance. The problem is — and it’s now a familiar one — the motor behind the Buffet industry is not being driven by the art historical or art critical community, but from, yes, you guessed it, bankers and other opportunistic investors.
Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist (Arrow Books, 2016) is no slim volume. At 450 pages, Foulkes has rolled his sleeves up, notched up some air miles and consulted many of those closest to the artist, some of whom were instrumental in promoting Buffet from a Gallic James Dean-lookalike to château-owning millionaire in a matter of just a few years. Most prominent of his sources was the soigné French socialite Pierre Bergé, later to become the lover and business partner of Yves St.Laurent. Bergé was Buffet’s first great romance and by most accounts the architect of the young artist’s transformation from a moody, poverty-stricken outsider to art world vedette during the 1950s. Bergé’s subsequent efforts to undermine his former lover’s career following their break-up — something Bergé adamantly denies — is one of the book’s more intriguing subtexts.
Although a man of few words (“oui, non, peut-être” seems to have been the limit of his vocabulary), the youthful Buffet was blessed with the etiolated good looks of the half-starved Left Bank drop-out. He also had a chip on his shoulder the size of the Gorge du Tarn and a gargantuan appetite for booze and fags. But he also had what Foulkes repeatedly refers to as a Stakhanovite appetite for work. Had he been a better painter that productivity might have been a good thing (Picasso was no layabout) but so prodigious was his output that it inevitably led to accusations of robotic repetitiveness. You might say there were always too many Buffets for the world to digest, but in his heyday so popular was he among an undiscerning public (including the Japanese) that his fame and wealth grew and grew.
At the beginning of Buffet’s career, Pierre Bergé, the dealer Maurice Garnier, and the rest of the artist's coterie of well-connected admirers never doubted his “genius” and deployed all the familiar art market techniques to launch him to stardom. It’s clear that Foulkes also subscribes to the “genius” tag and even digs up a couple of quotes from none other than Andy Warhol in support of this dubious assessment, conveniently overlooking the fact that Warhol was the cynical contrarian par excellence. “Art is what you can get away with,” he once said, and it was clear that Buffet was getting away with it to spectacular effect.
Today, the international art market is notable for its art historical ignorance and lack of aesthetic criticality. Instead we’re witnessing an increasingly obsessive reliance on econometric analysis and investment-based data-mining designed to feed the appetites of billionaire plutocrats, Wall Street speculators, wealth managers and family offices. This amounts to another form of groupthink, a kind of anamorphic distortion in which art historical and aesthetic concerns are fuzzed up by the moiré of price data. Perhaps unsurprisingly given these recent trends, Foulkes’s book closes with contributions from the new breed of Buffet-dealers and Buffet admirers, or rather, investors. “If I had £100,000, I’d invest in a painting by French expressionist painter Bernard Buffet,” gushes Jean-David Malat, super-salesman for the Bond Street corporate mega-gallery, Opera. If he’s wrong, it could be the death of Malat.
Other Buffet speculators include the jet-setting financier Stephan Wrobel who is busy deploying strategies more usually associated with the stock market in order to increase his Buffet position. Wrobel counts Buffet as one of the towering figures of twentieth-century painting, listing him alongside the likes of Giacometti, Bacon, and Freud. To juxtapose Buffet with Giacometti, Bacon and Freud would until recently have been enough to exclude Wrobel from the high table of critical sophistication, but criticality is no longer the issue; it’s now about primitive accumulation. In another quote, Wrobel refers to Buffet being “in dialogue” with Dürer, Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya, Courbet, Delacroix, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Morandi, et al. If he is, they aren’t listening.
The mention of Morandi is noteworthy, for earlier in the book, Foulkes, working up a head of defensive steam to condemn Buffet’s exclusion from a big Pompidou Centre survey show, has this to say about the painter’s seeming victimisation by the critics:
“To omit him altogether (while including his Biennale colleague Giacometti and the one-trick bottle-painter Morandi) is a compelling piece of evidence for a conspiracy, pogrom, or campaign of intellectual terrorism.”
I’d give anything to overhear the dialogue between the one-trick bottle-painter and the one-trick clown-painter. For me, Morandi wins hands down.
While Foulkes does well to garner testimonies from a host of confidants and cheerleaders, including Buffet’s former lover Pierre Bergé; the painter’s life-long dealer and business manager Maurice Garnier; Buffet’s adopted son Nicolas, and the iconic chanteuse Juliette Greco, what is really missing are the voices of scholarly critics, prominent curators and respected art historians.
Such is the determination of those invested in the Buffet industry to recover his stock that, if necessary, art history must be rewritten. Benjamin Buchloh is one of the few academically established names to make a brief appearance. While interviewing Warhol, he realises after a few minutes that Andy is not referring in glowing terms to Jean Dubuffet, as Buchloh assumed, but to Bernard Buffet. At that point the German art historian’s interest fizzles out like a damp Gauloise. Given the close homophone, it’s an easy mistake to make…until you survey the two artists’ oeuvres and their respective contributions to the history of art.
One can’t help admiring Foulkes’s strenuous attempt to make the case for Buffet’s “genius,” but unlike the speculators queuing up to secure examples of his work, I don’t buy it.
This is a hugely entertaining biography, beautifully written and rich in colourful, anecdotal detail. The Francophile Foulkes is clearly in his element writing about the snobbish gratin, the cultured upper crust of post-war Paris, through which a young, Ricard-soaked Buffet drifted in a haze of Gitânes smoke. It’s also a poignant tale. After a lifetime spent in his various châteaux, relentlessly churning out his lugubrious Dante-inspired grands machines, grimacing clowns, sinister cathedrals, minatory birds and giant insects, with only his loyal, once beautiful, whisky-soaked wife Annabel for company, the ageing, reclusive, alcoholic Buffet, now running to embonpoint and still at odds with the world, puts a plastic bag over his head, ties it round his neck and finally bids the world, “Au revoir”.