Bernard Buffet: The invention of the modern mega-artist
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NICHOLAS FOULKES has written a sympathetic book about an artist who was once acclaimed as the next Picasso, and whose later life became one of endless disappointments, until he took his own life in October 1999. Buffet was lionised by the press and the public alike for largely indifferent work, but seems not to have been a very nice man.
It is to Foulkes’s credit, in what is the first book to appear in English about the artist, that he holds our interest for the world in which he lived. Born in Paris in 1928 in the ninth arrondissement, Buffet moved with his family to the 17th, to the Rue des Batignolles, from whose end Manet painted his well-known view of the Gare Saint-Lazare. School was overshadowed by living in wartime Paris, but in his spidery, obsessive paintings he had a sort of creative quirk that won him attention and a gallery.
Aged 20, he married a fellow student, divorcing her the following year before evicting her. More stability came with a château in the countryside and a Rolls-Royce. He took a live-in lover, Pierre Bergé, who went off with Yves St Laurent when he in his turn was abandoned for a socially advantageous if disastrous marriage to an actress (1958). Three years before, Buffet had been named one of the ten most important post-war artists.
Buffet never seems to have been a happy paterfamilias. Rather, he was a man of his own milieu, as he became the first of the so-called Fabulous Five: Françoise Sagan, Roger Vadim, Brigitte Bardot, and YSL himself. Little in the book, which is more biography than a real attempt to address Buffet’s art critically, suggests that he ever regretted anything.
Fuelling his lifestyle, Buffet turned out much work — apparently some 8000 works can be verified — of variable quality. The 1976 Dante series betray something of the artist’s inner turmoil, but it is hard to find him ever a convincing practitioner.
Nowadays, there is scarcely a single Modern and Contemporary auction on either side of the Atlantic which does not include one or two of his repetitive works. He is still highly regarded in Japan, where an obsessive businessman opened a museum in his sole honour in 1973.
In 1955, a work of his sold for £5000, more than twice the price of a modest pre-war suburban villa in one of the less desirable parts of London. Foulkes tells us that in 2015 a gallery in Cannes reputedly refused an offer of €900,000 for a 1988 piece, suggesting that there is still an audience for his work.
The Revd Dr Cranfield is Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, south London.