A prolific painter, Bernard Buffet lived a life which makes for a phenomenal story of changing times and fortune. Born in Paris in 1928, Bernard Buffet grew up as a taciturn young boy whose formative teenage years were marked by the gloom of World War II and an unstable household where his father was mostly absent. His academic performance at school was also not up-to the mark, and the only thing that piqued his interest was drawing. As a young boy he attended drawing classes at Place des Vosges, and his visits to the Louvre museum with his mother also harnessed his artistic pursuit. Bernard Buffet was only 15 years old when he gained admission at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. This was a defining period in the rapid development of Bernard Buffet’s art, during which he experimented with different styles, including townscapes, still-lifes, and portraits bearing exaggerated and concerted facial features.
The death of his mother in 1945 had a devastating impact on the artist. As a seventeen-year-old standing at the threshold of adulthood, he drifted through life with this profound melancholy, reflecting on his canvases. Bernard Buffet’s austere visual narrative rendered in a sombre colour scheme of dark shades was also seen as a metaphor for existential dread in post-war Paris. Featuring dark scenes of the crucifixion, war, misery, and violence, his dark compositions were executed with a total lack of depth which heightened the impact of the imagery and bestowed a brooding sense of misery, even evident in his still-life works.
The first solo exhibition of Bernard Buffet’s work was held at a Parisian bookshop in 1947. The following year he found representation at Jeune Peinture and Galerie Drouant-David. During this time, he also met people like Maurice Girardin, Maurice Garnier, and Roger Dutilleul, who would become devoted collectors of his works. By the mid-1950s, Bernard Buffet had been accepted as a prodigious artist. His unstoppable popularity was further fueled by his extravagant lifestyle, which attracted several critics and detractors who considered the glaring contrast between Bernard's melancholic paintings and his flamboyant lifestyle a sign of artistic inauthenticity. His infamous interview in the Paris Magazine in 1956 with a picture of him in his Rolls Royce outside his mansion raised many eyebrows and only added to his fame.
“Buffet has become one of the glories of France. Hardly a day passes without the papers speaking of him. His opinion is sought on every subject,” wrote novelist Jean Dutourd in a profile of the artist for Atlantic Magazine in 1958. The same year, the artist had his first retrospective at the Galerie Charpentier and was also ranked by the New York Times Magazine among ‘France's Fabulous Young Five,’ an honour he shared with contemporaries like Yves Saint-Laurent. However, in the next two decades, Bernard’s Buffet fame and career rapidly declined, partially due to the abstractionist style of painting finding favour in France.
Asking the same question in his seminal book, Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-artist, author Nicholas Foulkes says,” How could a man who was hailed a genius at the age of twenty, the saviour of French painting and the designated successor to Picasso, has become a national embarrassment by the time when he was in his thirties?” By the eighties, the artist had fallen into complete oblivion. The 21st century has seen a surprising revival of interest and reverence towards Bernard Buffet’s oeuvre. The first major retrospective of his works in France was held at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Today his works are housed at some of the most prestigious museums in the world, including the Tate Modern, in London, and the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. The artist passed away in 1999. ;