Whatever your opinion of the work of the prolific French expressionist Bernard Buffet, it’s not hard to be seduced by the premise of Nick Foulkes’ new biography, Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist. Foulkes suggests that Buffet, who died in 1999, blazed a trail as one of the first modern media artists. Yet although Buffet was happy to be feted by the media, associated with celebrities and garlanded with praise and money, his celebrity status turned sour. Despite – or perhaps because of – the global appeal of his work in prints and posters – the artist’s reputation dipped precipitously in his own lifetime until he was practically persona non grata in the French scene.
Whereas his arch-rival Picasso could effortlessly segue between high and low art, with volume prints and highly sought-after originals, Buffet’s work was somehow denigrated by its transposition from gallery wall to suburban living room. The subject matter didn’t help either – mournful clowns and spiky still lives, or familiar cityscapes and faintly twee animals, all rendered in his trademark spidery black line with flat colour and minimal stylistic evolution. His prolific output – around 8,000 paintings – was another dagger in the heart of authenticity, and Buffet’s status as one of France’s ‘fabulous five’, alongside director Roger Vadim, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, author Françoise Sagan and actress Brigitte Bardot, further served to detach him from the critics.
As a result, works hailed as bold and daring at the start of his career were soon dismissed by critics as trite and sentimental. Buffet even described himself, stoically and stubbornly, as a ‘little detached suburban villa in the middle of modern painting’.
He became a lonely figure, doggedly ploughing his furrow and eventually taking his life when, struggling with disease, he could no longer paint. Inevitably, Buffet’s work is being reappraised by today’s market, as a new generation of collectors emerge, hungry for work with a provenance and a signature style. Foulkes explores Buffet’s changing milieu as an artist at the cradle of the media age, and offers a cautionary tale for artists who find themselves swept and up then discarded by a fickle media.