Bernard Buffet: Return of the 'poser'

For 50 years, French artist Bernard Buffet was reviled but rich, a victim of Picasso's jealousy and his country's snobbery. John Lichfield tracks a surprise revival

On a sunny afternoon in the 1950s, Pablo Picasso was sitting with his children on the terrace of a café in the south of France. Another artist arrived. "Look, there is Bernard Buffet," said Picasso's children. They jumped up and asked for the autograph of the young, handsome, awkward man who was – joint equally with their father – the most celebrated painter of the post-war world, a modern master who had made a colossal fortune from his work by the age of 30.

After a meteoric rise to stardom, Buffet fell victim in the 1960s to a campaign of denigration in his home country, led, among others, by Picasso. The Spanish genius detested Buffet for rivalling his fame and certainly never forgave him for becoming a cult hero to his children.

Picasso's mythical status, and commercial success, continues to grow long after his death. Buffet remained successful for half a century; up to a point. He was for many years a great favourite with non-academic lovers of art, otherwise known as "ordinary people". In the 1970s, no middle-class sitting-room in Britain was complete unless it had a stiff-backed orange couch, a television on splayed legs and a print of a spiky clown's face painted by Buffet.

He has also been consistently admired by art critics in other countries, especially Japan and the US. In France, Buffet's reputation as a serious artist imploded in the late 1950s. Up to, and after, his suicide 10 years ago, he was treated by the French cultural elite as an object of mockery and contempt. His voluminous work – sometimes harsh, sometimes sentimental, using garish colours and bold lines reminiscent of comic books and cartoons – was "not true art". Buffet, it was whispered, was a purveyor of kitsch, a mere faiseur (poser).

But he remained commercially successful and wealthy, and killed himself only because he had Parkinson's disease and could no longer paint. Was Buffet a genius or a charlatan? The debate, closed decades ago in his favour in the rest of the world, may finally be about to reopen in his home country.

The first large retrospective of Buffet paintings in France for more than 40 years began at the weekend and will last until June. Sixty canvasses, including many never shown publicly, have been gathered by the Musée de la Vielle Charité in Marseilles. The town of Carpentras, north of Marseille, also announced last week that it planned to create a museum dedicated to Buffet's work.

According to official French taste – and there is still such a thing as official taste in France – Buffet remains an artistic outcast; art school courses refuse all mention of him. But, even in Paris, there are signs that the half-century of mockery may finally be coming to an end. The national museum of modern art, on the upper floors of the Georges Pompidou centre, has a large collection of Buffet paintings. For decades, the museum had kept them locked away but, three months ago, five Buffet canvasses were finally hung on the Pompidou centre's walls, alongside masters such as Matisse, Braque and Leger.

"The wind is finally changing," said Henry Périer, art critic and historian and curator of the Buffet exhibition in Marseilles. "A younger generation of French art critics and art lovers has looked at Bernard Buffet without the old prejudices and snobberies and has been startled at what it has found. Most people in the French cultural establishment have dismissed Buffet from the 1960s onwards without looking at his work, certainly not his later work."

Opinions may, reasonably, differ on Buffet. He may not be to be everyone's taste. What is extraordinary, something with no parallel in the history of modern French art, is that a painter should have been once so admired, and remain admired abroad, but fall so utterly from critical grace in his homeland.

In 1955, he was chosen by 100 critics as the most impressive young painter in the world. In 1956, he was given a spread in Paris Match in which he was presented as the "young millionaire painter".

Maurice Garnier is a Paris gallery owner and a friend of Buffet until the artist died in 1999. He still has exclusive rights to trade in Buffet paintings. M. Garnier believes it was Buffet's lightning success and riches, just after the Second World War, which helped to turn the art establishment against him.

"He sold too well," M. Garnier said. "He made a lot of money. He lived in an ostentatious way. The powers that be hated him for all that." Buffet incurred, above all, the enmity of two of the great cultural figures of post-war France. The first was Picasso; the second was André Malraux, the writer who became President Charles de Gaulle's minister for culture in 1959. Picasso would enter Paris galleries and stare at Buffet canvasses for hours, sometimes glaring in silent hatred, sometimes telling visitors how much he hated what he saw before him. Malraux also detested Buffet. M. Perier believes Picasso influenced Malraux, who knew little about art, but he says the culture minister's motives for bad-mouthing Buffet were also partly political or art-political.

"Malraux was determined to re-establish the reputation of Paris as the art centre of the world," M. Périer said. "He decided that the 'abstract' movement of the 1950s was the vehicle which would achieve that aim. Buffet was anything but an abstract painter. His success and his reputation threatened to muddle the argument that the future of art was abstract."

Buffet also made another powerful enemy, or at least alienated someone who might have protected, and boosted, his career and reputation. In the 1950s, Buffet, then a homosexual, was the lover of Pierre Bergé, the man who later became the lover and business partner of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. In 1958, Buffet had a spat with Bergé over his new friendship with the then debutant Yves Saint Laurent. Buffet took up instead with a young woman. Perier believes Berge would have reconciled the art establishment with Buffet if the young lovers had not fallen out. M. Garnier goes further and says Buffet attracted the enmity of several powerful gay figures in the art world because he switched his sexual orientation.

Sexual politics and artistic politics apart, is Buffet's art any good? Does he deserve once again to be compared with Picasso?

M. Perier is cautious. "There is no doubt in my mind that Buffet is a great artist. Should he be placed on the same level as Picasso, as people did in the 1950s? Possibly not, but Picasso has benefited from a Buffet effect in reverse. Sometimes, I stand in front of a Picasso and I really cannot decide whether this is truly a good painting or whether I've just been conditioned to believe it is a good painting. "With Buffet, generations in France have been conditioned to say that he is ridiculous. Now, at last, younger generations are beginning to judge for themselves."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn