Comprised of thirteen paintings from exceptional moments in Buffet’s career, the show will be on view from April 5th through May 27th, 2017.
This exhibition, organized in collaboration with the Estate of Bernard Buffet, marks the first major solo presentation of Buffet’s work in New York in nearly three decades.
While Bernard Buffet (b. 1928, Paris, France; d. 1999, Tourtour, France) was once hailed as the next Picasso in France and internationally, the artist’s work has weathered dizzying cycles of acclaim and rejection. Immensely popular – and always commercially successful – at numerous points in his career, Buffet suffered long spells of vicious critical repudiation, when his work was considered the ultimate embodiment of poor taste. But curatorial attention has returned to his oeuvre in the years since his death, culminating in a major retrospective of his work at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2016, organized by the museum’s director, Fabrice Hergott. At this moment of renewed relevance, Bernard Buffet: Paintings from 1956 to 1999 reintroduces the artist’s oeuvre to a new generation of American viewers, charting a history of the artist’s development through a tightly focused selection of highlights from Buffet’s career.
Buffet’s signature approach to representational painting emerged while he was a student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Marked by bold outlines, gaunt figures, and heavy impasto, his ominous depictions of bleak scenarios were championed for the way they channeled a demoralized France, working to rebuild from the privation of the German Occupation and the destruction of World War II. His work was shown to great acclaim in the Parisian salons of the late 1940s and early 1950s; in 1947, Buffet became the youngest artist ever to have work acquired by the French Republic, catapulting him onto the national stage as a young art star. Along with his partner, Pierre Bergé, Buffet became part of the moins de trente ans, an international jet set including Brigitte Bardot, Françoise Hardy, and Roger Vadim. Buffet’s fame never impacted his production, and in 1952, with the help of dealers Emmanuel David and Maurice Garnier, the artist mounted the first in a lifelong series of annual solo exhibitions in Paris, which he always organized around a single theme. Buffet’s appetites were catholic, and although his exhibitions approached subjects as disparate as Jean d’Arc and casual beach scenes, his paintings consistently evinced a dark politic, as well as a deep reverence for art history, specifically the legacies of French history painters Eugène Delacroix and Antoine-Jean Gros.
By the time he turned thirty in 1958, Bernard Buffet was the most famous painter in France. His work was the subject of an unprecedented retrospective at the Galerie Charpentier, and with profits from his paintings, he indulged himself with a castle and a chauffeured Rolls-Royce. Buffet’s popularity was undercut in the eyes of the left-leaning literati, however, when he was photographed in front of his Rolls-Royce for Paris Match: he unabashedly presented himself enjoying the spoils of his success, refusing to square with the image of a bohemian artist that French critics had come to expect. As a result, nearly all institutional support fell away from his work, and when President Charles de Gaulle appointed André Malraux, a staunch supporter of abstraction, Minister of Culture in 1959, state support for Buffet’s work vanished. It never returned during his lifetime.
In 1958, Pierre Bergé joined his future business partner, Yves Saint Laurent, and Buffet took up with the striking vedette Annabel Schwob; they married the same year, and she remained Buffet’s muse until the end of his life. Buffet’s work from this period was focused on French landscapes or depictions of Annabel, with a notable exception for his series Les écorchés, which offers violently flayed bodies in a possible response to his critics. Despite nearly universal critical rejection, Buffet remained steadfast in his dedication to figurative painting. Sequestered in a series of castles, he made enormous paintings depicting scenes from the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. His work became enormously popular in Japan and, in 1973, the Japanese industrialist Kiichiro Okano opened a museum in Shizuoka dedicated exclusively to his work.
Buffet’s technique loosened to great effect later in his life, and he worked on unexpected themes for his annual exhibitions, ranging from the seven deadly sins to exotic primates. In the late 1990s, Buffet was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, making painting difficult, but with a determined hand he completed his final series, La mort. Unable to paint, Buffet committed suicide in 1999, and this final series of paintings – two of which are included in this exhibition – was shown in Paris in 2000.
Since his death, Buffet’s work has been included in several critically acclaimed and highly publicized exhibitions in New York, including Alison Gingeras’s “Pretty Ugly” at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Maccarone in 2008, and Venus Over Manhattan’s inaugural exhibition, “À Rebours,” in 2012. In 2009, the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt mounted “Bernard Buffet: Maler, Painter, Peintre,” a major exhibition of Buffet’s work, curated by the highly respected state museum director, Udo Kittelmann. Nicholas Foulkes of Vanity Fair penned a monumental biography of the artist in 2016, entitled Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist, which he published just before Buffet’s retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.