Bernard Buffet (1928-1999)


Born in 1928 in Paris, Bernard Buffet had a meteoric career. It is at the age of ten that he developed a profound interest in painting. Five years later he entered the École des Beaux-Arts. He spent two years in the studio of painter Eugène Narbonne, where he developed his unique style. The elongated characteristics of the subjects of his paintings and their emaciated and sometimes skeletal bodies personify the trauma of the war. He exhibited for the first time in 1946 at the Librairie des Impressions d’art and presented his self-portrait at the Salon des moins de trente ans, and thereafter saw tremendous success.
In 1948 he won the critic’s Prize for Deux hommes dans une chambre, organised by Galerie Saint-Placide. He was just twenty years old but his already established expressionist style was in contrast with the birth of abstraction. His critical success was followed by public approval. Buffet was elected in 1955 ‘best post-war painter’ by the Connaissance des arts review readers. ‘Paintings are not to be talked about or analysed. They are to be felt’, said Buffet about his oeuvre.  Many subjects inspired him: war, still lifes, clowns, the faces of his family. ‘Great painting is always sad,’ he has said in response to those who reproach the disturbance of his figures.
In 1948 he signed an exclusive contract with the dealer Emmanuel David. The contract was shortly thereafter shared with Maurice Garnier, who exhibited Buffet’s work every year until the end of his life. ‘He was a great creator’, recalled Maurice Garnier. ‘His oeuvre was truly different from all the other artists; it was stronger, and more distinctive.’ Many collectors were attracted by Buffet’s paintings, including Maurice Giardin who bought seventeen of his works between 1948 and 1953. He also inspired the curiosity of Japanese collectors. In Japan, there are two museums dedicated to his work.
From the 1950s Buffet integrated more colour into his canvases. In 1958, Galerie Charpentier, Paris organised his first retrospective featuring about 100 works, which was met with tremendous success. Highly publicised, the artist became a real star. Despite this attention, his work was met with criticism; he was reproached for tirelessly repeating the same themes. The criticism however never prevented him from working even more intensely. In 1974, he was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts as the Paul Jouve Chair.
Buffet painted until the end of his life, continuously exhibiting in his gallery. After suffering from Parkinson’s disease he died October 4, 1999 in his studio in Domaine de la Baume. He left behind an immense oeuvre of more than 8,000 canvases. ‘Buffet and his work are a powerful testimony to the disarray of our time,’ wrote Pierre Descarges. ‘In representing inactive figures and their absurd lives Buffet expresses an evil of which we are each the victim; with violence, giving himself entirely to this oeuvre of vengeance, that is to say, by intimately combining love and hatred.’

(Pauline Le Gall)

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