Picasso's envy

Picasso's envy
On October 5, 1999, Bernard Buffet put his head in a plastic bag and fastened it tightly around his neck with tape. A sad end for the 71-year-old French painter whose artistic achievements in the 1950s had made even the likes of Pablo Picasso turn green with envy.

In his heydays, Buffet was the undisputed star of the Parisian art scene. The prolific painter who became a millionaire by the age of 20 held at least one major exhibition every year through the 1950s and 60s. So popular was he that in 1955, as many as 100 critics chose him as the most impressive young painter in the world. In a 1958 article titled ‘France’s Fabulous Young Five’, The New York Times magazine featured him along with Yves Saint Laurent, Brigitte Bardot, Roger Vadim and Francoise Sagan. The very next year, he was profiled in a lengthy article by The New Yorker.

Unparalleled fame
“The kind of popularity that burst upon Buffet as a young painter in the 1950s is quite unparalleled in the 20th-century visual arts in terms of both its intensity and its broad social reach,” observes historian Alexander Roob. “The art of Modernism and post-Modernism has known only one real pop star, and he was not called Picasso, Dalí, or even Warhol, but went by the name of Bernard Buffet. The image of an entire decade was inseparably linked to the miserable faces his figures wore and the jagged lines of his signature.”

Going against the emerging trend of abstraction in modern painting, Buffet stuck to creating figurative imagery which he stripped bare of any pretence. Characterised by strong, angular black outlines, and flat colours, his often monochromatic works reflected the existential alienation and spiritual isolation of post-war Paris. His barren landscapes; brutal still lifes; ravaged circus clowns; war-torn bodies; Christ bedecked by thorns and nails; and graphically detailed nudes stood out as anguished symbols for the disillusioned French population seeking to overcome a distressed national identity.

Buffet’s art was eagerly collected; and commercial success led him to acquire an extremely lavish lifestyle that included owning two Rolls-Royces and a 300-year-old chateau in Provence. At the same time, he faced considerable criticism from the cultural elite and snobbish reviewers who treated his art as an object of mockery, and called it ‘miserabilism’.

Among the many detractors was Picasso, who reportedly would enter Paris galleries and stare at Buffet’s canvases for hours, “sometimes in silent hatred, sometimes telling visitors how much he hated what he saw before him.” The Spanish master openly detested Buffet for rivalling his fame. Buffet had become a cult hero even to his (Picasso’s) own children; Picasso never forgave Buffet for that.

After a meteoric rise to stardom, Buffet’s stock started falling swiftly, thanks to a sustained campaign to denigrate him by fellow artists including (and perhaps led by) Picasso. His paintings were thrown out of the exhibition rooms of museums and consigned to the cellars. Slowly the once handsome chap became a pale, reclusive and stout figure, and a dysfunctional artist.

An important aspect which supposedly affected Buffet’s life was his sexual orientation. In the 1950s, as a homosexual, he was the lover of French industrialist Pierre Bergé, who also contributed significantly to raising Buffet’s profile in art circles. After a heady eight-year affair, the two split rather brutally when Bergé unceremoniously dumped Buffet and turned his affections towards fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. Buffet then married Annabel, a black-haired and bohemian model. The split with Bergé and subsequent marriage with Annabel is said to have angered several powerful gay figures in the art world, who too hastened Buffet’s downfall.

In his hard times, Buffet was lucky to find a friend and benefactor in picture-dealer Maurice Garnier who not only bought paintings from him but also looked after his finances, gave him steady income and a home to reside in. “Buffet was a great creator, a genius,” reminisced Garnier in a later interview. “I consecrated my life to him... Buffet was my life, my family, my children.” With his newfound freedom, Buffet obsessively worked and produced hundreds of paintings, lithographs and engravings, even as he battled with alcoholism and depression. The final straw was, however, the Parkinson’s disease that started affecting his ability to paint.

Buffet’s art embraced many bleak, miserable, brute and enraged themes. He believed that paintings were not to be spoken about, or analysed, but something to be just felt. “A hundredth of a second is enough to judge a painting... I want you to have a dialogue with my paintings by pure affection.”

Among his most enduring protagonists was the clown who was portrayed as a tragicomic figure in flamboyant costumes and exaggerated make-up. The unsmiling anti-hero with melancholic, forlorn expression became an iconic symbol of Buffet’s representation of post-war vacuity, anxiety, angst and suffering.

Celebrated in museums
Although named ‘Chevalier of the Legion of Honor’ (1973), Buffet was ignored by the French art administration; for instance, France’s most prestigious repository of modern art, the Georges Pompidou Center, never bought any of Buffet’s work. In fact, Buffet’s memory is sustained not in France but outside. In 1991, Buffet became the first living artist to have a retrospective at the Hermitage and Pushkin museums in Russia.

In Rome, the Vatican Museum has a permanent collection of his religious paintings. But the country which boasts of the largest collection of Buffet’s works is Japan. The Bernard Buffet Museum was inaugurated in Surugadaira, Japan, in November 1973. “Buffet’s paintings showed me a light and a new road,” extolled the museum’s founder Kiichiro Okano (1917-1995). “His paintings only could do that as I had no religion. That is how my ardent admiration for Buffet started.”

The museum reportedly has more than 2,000 oil paintings, watercolours, drawings, engravings, illustrated books and posters. Buffet loved the museum and visited it seven times in his lifetime. The last visit was in May 1996, three-and-a-half years before he decided to end his life.

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