Bernard Buffet was born in Paris in 1928, spending most of his life working in France. He is known for his expressionist paintings above all, but he was also a deft producer of lithography, engraving, sculpture, book illustration, and set design. Buffet's body of work exceeds 8,000 paintings and prints. His work is held in many prestigious collections worldwide from the Vatican to Paris's Museum of Modern Art and Pompidou, New York's Museum of Modern Art, and the Tate in London. Buffet's work depicts the sheer brutality and existentialist mindset of post-war Europe. His figures are often angular and emotionless. The melancholic expressionist tone of his work has often been likened to painters Francis Gruber and Georges Rouault.
Buffet reflected the modern Parisian cultural imagination; his distinctive style and subject matter illustrate a generation trying to cope with the horrors of the world wars. His paintings are melancholy and solitary, yet they seem to communicate a unity in human emotional suffering. Although frequently viewed as heavy and foreboding, there is also a level of delicacy in Buffet's work. His style is defined by dry, angular lines that reveal buildings and bodies, which are often elongated and emaciated. Buffet regularly depicted the city of Paris itself—traditionally portrayed as lively and colorful—in a hard and lifeless manner. He was also one of the first artists to depict Paris itself in a cubist style, but eventually he became a member of the realist art group l'Homme-Témoin in pursuit of his social realist aesthetic. It is possible the sheer expense of paints was the reason for his sparing use of paint on the canvas and his emphasis on drawing; and he used very little color, working primarily in gray, black, and green. While predecessors like Renoir and Caillebotte used rain and stippled light to bring each Parisian world they depicted to life, Buffet relied on the economy of drawing versus the impressionist's colourful paint daub. Even as he progressed in his career, this austere style remained the same.
Buffet was an artist of humble beginnings who shot to fame in later twentieth century thanks to his artistic talent. His childhood was spent in Nazi occupied France, and his school years were turbulent. After studying at l’École des Jésuites, he entered the Lycée Carnot in Paris in 1939. But he was expelled for not taking his studies seriously, so he started taking night classes in fine art. In 1943, at age 15, his artistic talent gained him a place at l’École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Here, he studied under the painter Eugène Narbonne and alongside his classmates Maurice Boitel and Louis Vuillermoz. This was to be a turning point in his life, and his ascent to fame was quick; by 1946 he had a work accepted and displayed at the Salon des Moins de Trente Ans at the Galerie Beaux-Arts. And by 1947, he had become a member of both the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d'Automne. In December of that same year, his first solo exhibition took place at the Art Impressions book shop in Paris. It was organized by Guy Weelan and his dealer Michel Brient. It was at this exhibition that Raymond Cogniat bought the painting Nature morte au poulet for the Paris National Museum of Modern Art collection. The catalogue for the show was written by Pierre Descargues, who became one of Buffet's greatest supporters and went on to feature him in the Presses Littérairesde France in 1949.
The year 1948 was another turning point for Buffet. The painting Le Buveur assis was included in the Jeune Peinture and Galerie Drouant-David. Also in 1948, the gallerist Emmanuel David offered Buffet a contract for representation, shared with art dealer Maurice Garnier. Buffet continued to garner international recognition from deals such as these. In the same year—at the age of just 20—he was awarded the prestigious Prix de la critique at the Galerie Saint-Placide in Paris, an honor shared with his older contemporary, Bernard Lorjou. He later showed work at the Galerie Saint-Palcide in July. In November Femme au filet was exhibited in the Salon d'Automne. Both this painting and Le Buveur were bought by Doctor Girardin and left to the Paris Museum of Modern Art at the time of his death.
From 1949, Buffet held annual exhibitions. First in February at the Galerie Drouant-David, and then after 1957 at the Galerie David and Garnier, and finally at Galerie Maurice Garnier. In the midst of these exhibitions, he started showing in New York in 1950. It was also in 1952, as his fame continued burgeoning, that Buffet illustrated Jean Cocteau's book, La Voix humaine, as well as Les Chants de Maldoror written by Comte de Lautré amont.
Typical of his themed exhibitions was Horreur de la guerre, a series of watercolours and oil paintings created in 1954. The series depicts the helpless and emaciated bodies involved in needless massacre. The colours remain muted and dull. Representative of his style are the angular, dark outlines of bodies victim to brutality.
In 1955, the magazine Connaissance des arts named the ten best post-war artists, listing Buffet as number one. It was at this time that Buffet moved from his small rented property in Manosque to a larger one in Nanse in 1951, and later bought property in Domont, near Paris. In 1954 he relocated to the Château l'Arc near Aix-en-Provence the following year, residing there until 1964. In 1958, at the age of 30, his first retrospective was shown at the Galerie Charpentier. That year, the New York Times magazine ranked him in the"France's Fabulous Young Five" article alongside such contemporaries as Yves Saint-Laurent. Interestingly, it is rumored that Buffet's lover Pierre Berge left him for Saint-Laurent in 1958. In the same year, he wed the French writer and actress Annabel Schwob. They had two daughters: Virginie and Danielle, in 1962 and 1963 respectively, and son Nicolas, in 1971. In 1964, the Buffets purchased la Vallée in Saint-Cast in Brittany, where Buffet worked until 1970.
In 1961 Buffet produced a series of religious works, scenes from the life of Christ. His Déposition de la croix, originally done for the Chapelle de Château l'Arc near his home, was requested by the Vatican and is now a permanent part of the Pinacoteca. His stark figures worked well in a deeply moralizing context and echoed the grievances of World War II, specifically those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In November 1973, Kiitchiro Okano founded the Bernard Buffet Museum in Surugadaira, Japan. In March of 1974, Bernard Buffet was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts and held the office of the Legion of Honours. And in 1978, at the request of the French postal administration, he designed a stamp depicting l'Institut et le Ponte des Artes, which led to the Post Museum arranging a retrospective of his work.
In 1980, Buffet bought a manor in Normandy, from which he moved in 1986 to live at the Domaine de la Baume, near Tourtour in the Haut-Var, southern France. It was here that he spent his remaining years. The new environment produced a change in colour palette and attitude toward subject matter, yet Buffet's landscapes remained as cold and severe as in his work from 30 years earlier. Late in life, Buffet was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which eventually robbed him of his ability to work. On October 4, 1999, at age 71, he took his own life by placing a plastic bag over his head and taping it shut around his neck.
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