Adored by collectors but often derided by critics and contemporaries, French painter and illustrator Bernard Buffet courted controversy from the moment he burst on to the Paris scene in the years following the Second World War. His body of work — a parade of gaunt expressionist figures, tortured depictions of Christ, and bleak still lifes — saw him hailed as the pin-up of the Left Bank. Yet, by the time he took his own life at 71 after a career cut short by Parkinson’s disease, his reputation was chequered with accusations of popularism and conventionality.
Born in Paris in 1928, Buffet came of age under the Nazi occupation. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, and by the age of 19 had had his first solo show. Buffet’s was an austere vision of the world that chimed perfectly with the atmosphere of post-war alienation championed by the fashionable existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. It earned him immediate popular acclaim and in 1948, at the age of 20, he was awarded the prestigious Prix de la Critique. Ten years later, now a highly renowned artist, he was hailed by The New York Times Magazine as one of ‘France’s Fabulous Young Five’, together with Françoise Sagan, Yves Saint Laurent, Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot.
Buffet’s style changed little between his early work in series such as ‘The Horrors of War’ (1955) and later paintings such as Sumo Rikishi (1980-1). By the 1950s success had transformed this archetype of the Left Bank existentialist into a world-famous artist-celebrity who travelled by Rolls-Royce and holidayed at his chateau in Provence. Innovations in contemporary art were leaving Buffet behind. During the 1950s and 1960s, as Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism purged representation from the canvas, Buffet’s continued repertoire of expressionist clowns, bullfighters, cityscapes and flagellated Christs were left open to accusations of quaintness, even kitsch. Nevertheless, in Japan, where two museums are dedicated to his work, he remained a giant, and his work is in the collections of both the Tate and the Pompidou Centre.
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