Bernard Buffet – Terrain Vague – Dangerous terrain

“Bernard Buffet, 34, painter of the “misérables”, owner of a Rolls-Royce, whose figures with their elongated proportions are no longer being rewarded by French art dealers in line with the bestseller lists, has painted a 20 sq. m. cinema poster for the ballad of the wide boys, “Terrain Vague”, by that old master among directors, Marcel Carné. The eye-catcher on the façade shows someone wearing blue jeans who resembles the young Bernard Buffet in a stylized downtrodden district of town.”
(Der Spiegel, Nov. 30, 1960)

The kind of popularity that burst upon Bernard 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. Buffet’s art was, as the author Maurice Druon wrote as late as the mid-1960s, “on the street”. (1) It was to be found on the covers of magazines and LPs, on postcards, postage stamps, wall plates, giftwrap and plastic bags. Posters designed by him for events had to be protected by barriers from fans who sought to appropriate them, and visitors pushed their way into his exhibition, a contemporary art critic wrote in 1957, “as if it were a world title boxing match or they were trying to catch a glimpse of the Queen of England.” 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.

The remarkable and sad fact is that such an influential and high-profile position has been almost completely elided from writing on art history on and during the 20th-century, and along with it any memory of his œuvre, something for which we have to thank an entire generation of critics, fellow artists and curators. His paintings were banished from the exhibition rooms of museums and consigned to the cellars, and although the consensus on this has gradually started to crumble, by and large the question, “What museum today wished to be reminded of its Buffets?” still stands. (2)

No less remarkable was the robust resistance put up by the Buffet operating system, which consisted of an exclusive and durable team comprising the artist and his gallery representative Maurice Garnier. When Buffet died in October 1999 and for the first time in decades his name was bandied about in the media, many rubbed their eyes in surprise that an artist whom they had thought long since dead had even managed to survive so long under the avalanche of collective trashing and scorn.

That astonishment grows when one starts to grasp the immense scope of the œuvre that the tabooed artist painted and etched each night during his decades spent as a recluse. Nothing less than the entire world was embraced as a theme in the wide-cast network of the lines he created. The incessantly reiterated verdict that Buffet’s painting showed “poor quality” and was merely routine kitsch does not stand up to scrutiny in the light of his works. Even the more incidental examples of his huge output possess a physical presence whose intensity immediately seizes hold of the viewer. And they continue to have an impact today, perhaps in fact strengthened by their decades-long exclusion from the art world: they are more exciting and topical than many a specimen of classical Modernism invoked to deride them. It is not easy to explain to a generation of art viewers that has grown up without the trained knee-jerk response to Buffet how this fierce response to the artist’s œuvre – quite unprecedented in its persistence – came about.

What, in the second half of the 1950s, led to Buffet’s fall from his zenith straight to his nadir, and why was his œuvre not even noticed in the 1980s in the course of the revival of expressive-figurative painting, let alone rehabilitated? What were the taboos he had broken and between what stools had he fallen to become the pariah of 20th-century art?

La Misère

At the time of his international breakthrough Buffet was only 21. The case of the young painter who became a millionaire overnight was considered both fascinating and a provocation in the overly moral postwar years. The phenomenon of his meteoric rise paralyzed the critics and to this day it lies like a dark shadow over the reception of his works. There was hardly any other visual artist who so captured the spirit of his day in paintings, who so represented the phenomenon of time in an extremely condensed and frightening form. And yet, if one considers the broad issues addressed in his œuvre as a whole, he himself ran diametrically counter to the times, as someone who had either started far too early or arrived far too late. The tension innate in his œuvre and the provocation it constituted resulted not least from this asynchronicity.

If one attempts to gain an overview of the state of German postwar painting by, for example, group catalogs from the Great Munich and Free Berlin exhibitions, then it strikes the eye that in the early 1950s, quite abruptly, a modern, jazzy tone started to enter the dull and somber Late Expressionist and Post-Surrealist staging of figurative positions. Buffet’s penetrative influence was like a shot of fresh blood for the sector of painting, which was dominated mainly by Max Beckmann, Karl Hofer, Marc Zimmermann and Franz Radziwill – all of them artists who were on average half a century older than Buffet.

When in the early 1950s Buffet began, with a sure hand, to create the icons of an entire era, the art of his contemporaries such as Andy Warhol, Yves Klein, Claes Oldenburg and Erró was still in its infancy. Ten years later, with Pop Art and Nouveau Réalisme in the ascendant, Buffet’s star was already in free fall. No one noticed the common ground shared by his art and the intentions of the new avant-gardes, for his name was by then inseparably linked to a culture of painting that people were desperately seeking to abandon. Nothing seemed better to symbolize the decline of this faded tradition – as whose last crown prince Buffet was regarded by his fans –, than the sad fact that Paris was no longer the birthplace of the avant-garde and of modern pop culture.(3)  At the beginning of the 1950s, Montmartre had finally declined to the status of a cheap tourist attraction and in the 1960s it was, above all for Parisian intellectuals, synonymous with the home of evil per se; for the very mention of it was inseparably linked to the painful loss of cultural hegemony to New York, something it tried to make up for with completely new artistic concepts. And the street painters in Montmartre had long since ceased simply to serve up tasteless copies of Impressionist paintings à la Maurice Utrillo for the tourists, but were also increasingly opting for postcard motifs in Buffet’s style.

During the breakthrough of Pop Art, marked in 1964 by the award of the Grand Prix of the Biennale di Venezia to Robert Rauschenberg, an event presented as the definitive victory of US art, Buffet’s popular art was increasingly regarded as the counter-example, attesting to the French defeat. “Miserabilism” was the buzzword critics had used to describe his work, and it seemed predestined to describe the tears shed at the loss of dominance.

Originally, the term had actually referred to a figurative approach within a world of painting dominated by abstract work, an approach that had concentrated on depicting the misery of the early postwar years. With the rocket-like ascent of its most striking representative, the term was swiftly given a pejorative touch, denoting a kind of fashionable and stereotyped caricature of an existentialist mood, easy-to-digest art designed as a “comfort blanket”. (4)

In truth, Buffet’s painting was anything but easy to digest when in 1947 it came crashing into an art world characterized by introspection and resignation. Its underlying stridency and confrontational quality was felt to be “cruel”, “brutal” and “violent”. (5) This response to Buffet’s pictures was completely in line with his aesthetic outlook: the sparse comments he made concluded by indicating that his ideal of art involved shocking and unsettling viewers. (6) The carefully measured aggression his works expressed, even in the tamed and routine phases, was a key characteristic that was completely foreign to the art of his day. It is hard to imagine a greater difference than that which exists, for example, between the harsh prose of Buffet’s Homme au cabinet (1947) and the mystic lyricism of Giacometti’s “standing and striding figures” made the same year. The purely formal concurrence in the Gothically rising figuration can be explained by the fact that both artists had the same point of reference, namely Francis Gruber, the painter who died so young

Alberto Giacometti, Grande figure, 1947

Bernard Buffet, Homme au cabinet, 1947

With his art, which oscillated between Late Surrealism, Socialist realism and early Existentialist figuration, Gruber occupied a special position in the canon of French postwar painting that it is hard to pinpoint exactly. He was a close friend of Giacometti’s following the latter’s exclusion from the Surrealist group in 1935 until the Swiss sculptor fled from occupied Paris in 1942. Born in Lorraine, Gruber cited Grünewald’s Isenheim altar as the key influence on the development of his expansive, spindly human images, which left their mark on Giacometti. And with Giacometti he also shared a special love of the prints made by Jacques Callot, the grandfather of grotesque line drawings, in whose bizarre pictorial world, infused with misery and the horrors of war, Giacometti discerned “an unlimited self-destructive drive” at work, as well as an “immense gaping emptiness in which people try to function”. (7)

Francis Gruber, Nu au tricot rouge, 1944

Bernard Buffet,  Homme nu dans chambre, 1948

As a neologism, “miserabilism” was originally coined by critics to characterize Francis Gruber’s paintings. It is not unimportant for an understanding of Buffet’s art to remember that the label that stuck to him throughout his life as an insult thus drew on a tradition which consisted of a specifically French combination of presentations of misery and the grotesque, from social realism and caricature. Artists such as Théodore Géricault, Paul Gavarni, Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, and not least Giacometti himself can be located in this line of descent which starts with Callot.

Unlike the historical “miserabilism”, the new “miserabilism” of the postwar years referred less to representations of economic and social misery. The silent melancholy of the tragic white clown who plays the lead role in Marcel Carné’s film Les enfants du paradis was someone with whom the Parisian population one year after Liberation could identify collectively. As they could with the depression depicted in Gruber’s painting of Job – in 1945 it was the major public attraction at the first Salon exhibition of the postwar years.

For younger artists active in the figurative world, one of the key role models was Gruber, who was among the few Parisian artists to have painted Resistance motifs during the Occupation and who had thus exposed himself to tangible danger. Gruber died as early as 1948 of tuberculosis (the year of Buffet’s first successful exhibition), by which time he was surrounded by an almost mythical nimbus. Buffet’s painting was without doubt indebted to the model set by Gruber, 14 years his senior, above all in the skeleton-like structures of the compositions and the nervous tension in the images. The solitary position that Buffet’s art repeatedly occupied in the world of French painting and its affinities to German variants of Expressionism were at an early date associated with a specific proximity to Gruber’s painting and, as was concluded, where “essentially alien to the Romance painting talent”.  The identification with the deceased actually went so far that the emaciated young artist was convinced, as were those close to him, that he too would fall prey to TB and would soon follow Gruber to the grave.

Yet Buffet’s very first exhibited pictures already evidenced a quite fundamental difference from Gruber’s art, which is far more introverted, and far less extensive in its tension. Unlike the subjectivist approach of Gruber’s paintings, and the work of his friend Giacometti, Buffet’s pictorial concept is not intended to draw the viewer in, and thus also not geared to a phenomenological essentialization of phenomena. The “search for the absolute”(9) that Sartre discerned at work in Giacometti’s œuvre was never Buffet’s project. His art was basically anti-existentialist in its egalitarian treatment of the pictorial space of the surface. The world of things stands in a row in his pictures like a chain of equal links. In this dry approach, he is far closer to the nascent stock-taking of the Nouveau Roman and Neo-Realist films than to the hybrid seekers of meaning who were at home in the Quartier Latin.

Concrete Blocks

Gruber, and it was to him that contemporary critics chiefly related Buffet’s paintings, was far more of an influence on the surface of Buffet’s works, on his choice of themes. Buffet’s œuvre was seismographically linked to the currents and sensitivities of the present, but during an age that in art hankered after the utopia of zero, the absolute new beginning, it also carried, like a gigantic storage medium, the pictorial memory of French art in the 18th and 19th centuries. The central figure in this reservoir was an artist whose rural and berserker-like being must have been completely alien to Buffet, yet whose painting he nevertheless “idolized”, namely Gustave Courbet. Buffet’s understanding of painting and his view of himself as an artist were substantially shaped by Courbet. As Buffet himself wrote in 1993, Courbet was “the painter for me”.(10)  It is insightful to bear in mind just how strongly the œuvre of the former Commune member featured in the postwar discourse on painting, what a key role he played precisely at the time when Buffet started to formulate his position in art.

1947, the year of Buffet’s first exhibition, was a time when domestic tension reached boiling point in France. The exclusion of the Communist Party from the French government meant that for the first time the doctrines of Socialist Realism collided head-on with formalism, which was held to be individualist. Both primarily cited Courbet’s example in their favor. It was Courbet whose expansive opening up of the pictorial space had paved the way for Cubists to reach abstraction via Cézanne, and it was Courbet in whose painting Louis Aragon, the aesthetic front man of the Communist Party and renegade from avant-garde libertinage, identified the prototypes of a socially responsible art. His book L’Exemple de Courbet, published in 1952, was translated into German in 1956 and played its part in stabilizing Socialist Realism in East Germany. (11)

Aragon’s aesthetic conservatism was initially able to appreciate Buffet’s landscape motifs as being in the tradition of Courbet (12), as something that Buffet had in fact himself derived from the example of Courbet, but as the propagandist of doctrinal realism he could not in the long run accept Buffet, any more than could the representatives of abstract art. For Buffet primarily viewed Courbet as an anarchic, vulgar artist, who challenged his critics with a kind of tactile, superficial art that was indifferent to being defined in terms of a specific theme and was thus rejected by them brusquely as cheap “sign painting”.(13)  The coarseness of this kind of painting, with its use of a broad palette knife, was in line with the image of the artist as proletarian “master painter” that Courbet had developed and which he deployed like an explosive in the art of the 19th-century, determined as it was by academic hierarchies and pretentious rules.

Buffet followed his role model, Courbet, with a radical thrust that was quite unprecedented, not just as regards this down-to-earth and rebellious notion of the artist, but also in terms of will power and his instinctive feel for contemporary popular icons. The roaring stags and sea vistas of Courbet’s democratic art, that seared their way into popular memory in the forms now available as factory-made department store pictures, were replaced in the 1950s as a mass phenomenon by Buffet’s sad clowns and miserable Eiffel towers.

The representatives of the formalist side to the heritage, above all Pablo Picasso, were less amused by this highly attractive popular interpretation of Courbet’s painting. In conversation with Jean Cocteau in December 1957 he tried his utmost to convince his poet friend, who was a self-confessed Buffet fan, that the artist was possibly a nice guy, but his painting was “zero”.(14)  This verdict is noteworthy for its apodictic trenchancy. What is the explanation for this ferocity?

Picasso had, as it were, experienced for himself the star cult surrounding Buffet and the attraction his work had above all for the younger generation, for his two children sought to obtain autographs from his young rival, and in his presence at that.(15)  And no doubt he did not find it hard to identify distorted versions of his own art in countless of his rival’s popular themes. After all, he had made his debut with miserabilist depictions of the world of the circus and the Bohemian art scene in Montmartre.

What must have been more irritating than these experiences was of course the fact that his successor – and the press was already treating Buffet as such – refused to take part in the battle of painters to conquer new pictorial worlds, a battle that had been opened by Courbet and in which the old Spaniard had emerged unscathed as champion in the European painting arena after a whole series of progressive new approaches, one topping another. Buffet’s pictorial concept must have appeared to him as a kind of regression to the pre-Cubist state of the flat domain of fin-de-siècle poster art, which had been Picasso’s own starting point. While graphisms likewise played a central role in Picasso’s œuvre, the decisive difference is that for him an image was the product of dynamic vitalism, while the art of his young rival entailed precisely the absence of any such heroic painterly gesture, and thus in Picasso’s eyes was simply bereft of any artistic quintessence. Buffet “never engages in that awful battle the way Picasso does”, Cocteau noted in his diary in 1957, “for he mainly presents the duel with himself.” (16)

What Cocteau describes as the artist’s struggle with himself is manifested in pictorial terms in a kind of freezing effect. Whereas the Cubists opened up Courbet’s masonry, Buffet closed it down again and cemented it over. It was now covered with scratches as well as shocking flashes of phenomena. As regards the graffiti-like themes, one can hardly conceive of a sharper contrast than that between the archaizing Romanticism and fiery cult of virility that permeates Picasso’s œuvre and the operetta-like charades and androgynous misanthropy of Buffet’s world, in its cold rigidity.

The 1950s, with their euphoric belief in progress, responded with increasing suspicion and eventually with strong dislike to the Medusa’s head that Buffet’s art held up to the public.


The cover story that Spiegel magazine ran on Bernard Buffet on July 11, 1956 (it was the very first dedicated to a living artist) was to determine the reception of his work in Germany, Austria and Switzerland for decades to come. The massive rebuke to Buffet that it contained can be boiled down to two main claims: 1) that Buffet’s art was thoroughly “unhealthy” and 2) that it was utterly dubious, as it was based on a lie.

Cover, Der Spiegel, July 11th 1956

The very headline suggested a basic toxic trait to his work: “The man with the golden arm” alluded to Otto Preminger’s neurotic drama about a jazz musician who was a heroin addict (it had had its German premiere shortly beforehand), while also referring to the painter’s profitable output, as was emphasized by the sub-title “2,000 pictures in ten years”, intimating that this spelled a very unhealthy excess productivity. This would, or so a dealer is quoted as saying, probably lead to the artist’s market value collapsing. The impression of unhealthiness was reinforced by the choice of cover image, showing a self-portrait of the artist in a state of extreme disgust, as well as by numerous observations, scattered throughout the article, on the painter’s psychophysical constitution. The talk there is of his “sick sensibility”, his “nervous movements”, his “long fingernails yellow with nicotine”, the “poisonous aquarium in his room”, a “face slightly bloated by prosperity”, and the “nascent obesity”.

In the mid-1950s, a kind of witch-hunt of fashionable “pseudo-Existentialists” had started. Sartre initiated it. The philosopher, who had himself triggered the emergence of an existentialist lifestyle movement by founding a night club and writing chanson lyrics, increasingly expressed his annoyance that the purity of his doctrine had fallen victim to “snobbery”. Buffet the painter with his “perfumed friends” (17) was the first target of the campaign, and the writer Françoise Sagan, who in her books addressed the emotional sensitivities of the rich, was next in line. The “real witch-hunt” against the wealthy artists that Buffet’s friend Georges Simenon believed was set in motion by an article in Paris Match on Feb. 4, 1956.(18)  In terms of the judgments it passed it was far less tendentious than the Spiegel article, but provided many of the details: it offered extensive descriptions of the life of luxury that the dandy-like “painter of misery” led, with his “comfortable mansion”, manager, chauffeur and Rolls-Royce.

Bernard Buffet, La Rolls, 1956

The indifference to themes that the living painting machine Buffet allowed himself in his choice of subjects was simply unfathomable for art critics of the day. Was this “naivety, cynicism, aggression, or spleen?” asked the puzzled headline of a contemporary review, struggling with the fact that Buffet’s misanthropic starving figures wandered about in the mid-1950s on the beach at St. Tropez and peopled psychedelic images of war and of the Passion. Futurist jetset and postwar misery steeped in memory, pret-à-porter and Golgotha, Sartre and St. Tropez: Buffet brought the antipodes of the 1950s to one and the same table and combined them in a single image-

Bernard Buffet, La plage, 1956

At any rate, the press stressed the fundamental contradiction it discerned between the misery and desolation represented in his art and his life of luxury, mocking his shamelessly ostentatious parading of the latter. The Spiegel concluded that such art could not be authentic and was therefore bereft of any substance: “This Buffet” is “a safe for cash” and when you open it all you get is “nothingness”.

The portrait of his Rolls-Royce that Buffet had painted the year the campaign against him got off the ground was welcome news to the press, as it seemed to provide a perfect, iconic image of the dandyish rottenness of this “pseudo-Existentialist” and the superficiality of his art. The artist had bought the luxury limo, with which he “undertook well-padded dreamy drives through the barrenness of the Haute-Provence”, because, so the magazine claimed, “the severe lines of the car accorded with his sense of style”. (19)  The painting La Rolls became the frequently reproduced Icarus icon for the crash-landing of the arrogant young artist who aspired to live with the gods – namely Sartre and Picasso.

It is a striking coincidence: in the very year that brought the first expressions, in esoteric circles, of a new current in art that was committed to the reality of the new consumer world,(20) the media savaged a painting that had had the audacity to take a commodity fetish and use it plainly as the subject for a picture.
It was a two-way street that was traveled in the mid-1950s with the closer links emerging between Buffet’s art and the world of advertising and fashion design: Buffet increasingly addressed such themes, and the designers repeatedly looked to his rapid strokes for their inspiration. Any historicization of the Pop Art of the 1950s and 1960s that ignores this early phenomenon of a popular merging of painting and lifestyle design is bound to be fallacious.

Bernard Buffet, Mao Tsé-Toung,  1964

Der Spiegel, 1963                                                 Time, 1958

The beginnings of Pop Art took place during an era when for the first time after the two world wars the conflict between the generations, which had long been latent, rose to the surface. The attacks on a fashionable existentialism in the youth culture of Saint-Germain were part of the conflict in which the patronizing moralism of the early postwar years came up against a hunger for life that sought space and desired to consume. This revolt in the mid-1950s was dynamic in terms of the material, but implosive as regards the psychology. The pent-up aggression that had shaped Buffet’s painting from the outset suddenly had a face and a point of projection – in the form of the recalcitrant behavior of idols such as Marlon Brando and James Dean.

In East and West Germany alike, the cultural climate was defined by a more or less complete closing of ranks in the media against the so-called “trash and pulp literature that is poisoning young people’s minds”, and this was deployed as a weapon against the wave of protest among the younger generation that had broken out post-1956. In terms of thrust, the media attacks on Buffet had their place in this icy campaign against the negative images in youth culture, and the suspicion that his art might be indebted to US lowbrow culture was essentially disastrous. It was suggested, for example, by the remark that the artist – who, as the Spiegel article made a point of mentioning, had not attended college – read “detective stories in moments of relaxation” or leafed “through comic strips with a childish dreamy smile”.

In East Germany’s Communist state, not yet shielded by a Wall from lucid foreign influences, far more explicit warnings were voiced against the possible negative influence exerted on young people by the “dangerous fascination” of Buffet and his art. The author of a 1958 essay on “miserabilism” in the Dresden cultural journal Bildende Kunst felt that the “infection” of Buffet’s art, which so “despised the world and mankind”, was already spreading in the brother nation of Poland and even in East Berlin, and was certain that “hidden little Buffets are to be found in the German Democratic Republic and elsewhere, but I do not believe they will blossom and thrive, as our climate does not favor them!” (21)

So here it was already at work, the hallucinogenic flower of evil, the morbid pandemonic spirit of Lautréamont,(22) which a young artist who had fled East Germany was later to hunt for in the West, albeit not in the transparent packaging of Art Brut but in the unsettling décor of Fifties design.

Bernard Buffet, Le Chants de Maldoror, Drawing, 1952 (MePri-Collection)

Bernard Buffet, Le Chants de Maldoror, Drypoint, 1952



In 1961, when the expulsion of the rich painter of misery from the pantheon of French culture was in full swing, Buffet once again added grist to his critics’ mill by providing pictorial proof that the editors of Spiegel were not so wrong in suspecting that he made use of comics. In the illustrations which he created for Pierre Daninos’ Un certain Monsieur Blot, a satirical view of French joie de vivre, he let there be no doubt that he himself had no problem with his art being placed in the lower echelons of everyday culture. He prepared a series of drawings in which he rehashed his much-criticized “lifestyle” subjects, including the famous La Rolls, in a kind of self-parodying comic remix.

Bernard Buffet, Illustrations for Pierre Daninos, Un certain Monsieur Blot, Paris 1961

This step in his œuvre was once again perfectly in sync with a comparable moment in the development of the Pop avant-gardes that had just started to emerge as clearly recognizable formations. At the very same time and independently of each other, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were making their first artistic attempts to appropriate the pictorial world of comics.

The alignment of Buffet’s style with comic form in the “Monsieur Blot” drawings functioned in an astonishingly convincing manner, and this achievement can be attributed to the fact that his own reliance on line and the tradition of the “bandes dessinées” both drew on very similar combinations within the wide-ranging 19th-century pictorial reservoir. Moreover, he seems actually to have been the first renowned postwar artist fully to appreciate the developments taking place in contemporary commercial prints. (23)

In her discussion of French postwar art, Sarah Wilson identifies an “epistemological rupture” in the mid-1950s, prompted by a nascent coincidence of “high” and “low”.(24)  In fact, the first influential blending of the two occurred many years earlier in the œuvre of the young Buffet, embedded like a futuristic succubus in the body of Existentialist art.

His spider-web-like linear style of the early postwar years first appeared in 1946 at the same time as the emergence of the so-called “ligne claire” in the Belgian school of comics, as championed by Hergé and André Franquin. That same year saw the publication of Saul Steinberg’s All in Line, which was pioneering for 1950s cartooning that relied on geometrical shapes. The development of Buffet’s eclectic graffito style occurred simultaneously, with him absorbing stimuli from printed illustrations and in turn influencing these.

The strength of Buffet’s concept of the line is that it is not genuinely a matter of drawing but arises from work with the material construct of the image. An element of tension and injury plays a role here. The hypnotic effect that his art exerted at the time, above all on youthful viewers, no doubt resulted not least from its potential cathartic function – like a vent for excess steam – and like bebop and rock ’n’ roll it could thus become an integral part of a youth movement. Buffet was an ecstatic proponent of the line. In his lines, the calligraphic Orientalism of French modernism (which at that time had reached a climax in the abstract action graffiti of a Georges Mathieu) is combined with the hieratic Expressionism of a Rouault or Manessier and the “ligne claire” of contemporary printed illustrations.

Bernard Buffet, Siemes-Report, Offset 1968



While the concerted press campaign in the mid-1950s had almost completely ruined Buffet’s reputation, it was André Malraux, a dyed-in-the-wool Existentialist from the very beginning and a close friend of Picasso’s, who dealt the death blow. In 1959, in his capacity as Minister of State for Cultural Affairs, he saw to it that Buffet and his work were shrouded in a cloak of silence. Henceforth the name Buffet was obsolete, taboo, in the cultural life of Paris.

Buffet commented defiantly that he regarded the wave of contempt that came crashing over him as a gift, since it allowed him additional scope. In 1964, he set to work on a series of monumental insect sculptures with haptic swirls of paint, which can be considered a daring pre-emption of the painted sculptures of the 1980s. The series of paintings entitled Les Ecorchés (The flayed) that he made that same year also showed clearly the deep wounds that the constant attacks had inflicted on him. In these images he transcended the level of pain which until then had been evidenced in Art Brut. It was the merciless sound of Grindcore in the days of “swinging London”.


Bernard Buffet, Les énchorches, 1964

The artistic project of the thematic cycles that he had embarked on in the early 1950s really gained momentum after his banishment from the “art world” in the late 1950s, and it resembled a boundless nocturnal trip through a ruined incoherent world memory. In its monumental, kaleidoscopic scope in 20th-century culture it can best be compared with literature, perhaps most appropriately with Ezra Pound’s sharply idiosyncratic Cantos. In 19th-century pictorial art there was a precursor whom Buffet could cite in his favor, a man who within a mammoth pantographic project had with his crayon traversed all manner of regions, from the most bizarre fantasies through to realist reportage of social immiseration. That man was Gustave Doré, who with the partial realization of his project of illustrating the canon of world literature achieved a degree of worldwide popularity that later was to be emulated only by Walt Disney.

Bernard Buffet, Le combat avec le requin, 1989

Doré’s increasing influence on Buffet’s encyclopedic concept shows itself in the 1960s in his choice of a whole series of mythological themes for cycles. Ostracized, Buffet was able to see his own fate mirrored in Doré’s. For the latter had been personally crushed by the broad swath of criticism which he had encountered while trying to be accepted as an artist. The accusations leveled by the anti-Doré campaign had been voiced chiefly by the cartoonist André Gill, and they were identical to those used to condemn Buffet: Inflationary, machine-like art output and a shameless accumulation of wealth, symbolized by flying moneybags that buzzed around the artist’s head.

Indeed, the accusation of sullying genuine creative categories by introducing narrative elements alien to them, a charge which critics like Cézanne leveled against Doré’s paintings, overlaps with the criticism to which Buffet’s art was subjected, even if his creative approach was significantly different from Doré’s. In Doré’s case, we essentially have the first major operational upset in Modernist art, consisting of an insoluble and ever more intense conflict between popular culture based on a multi-faceted and heterogeneous approach and an avant-garde dedicated to precision and exclusiveness. Doré was the first prominent victim of this increasing bifurcation of high and low, Buffet the second.


Zero and not zero

When the 1959 retrospective in the Tate Gallery set out to familiarize the British public with the forgotten paintings of Francis Gruber, Buffet’s name was still good enough to be used to advertise the show by referencing the influence Gruber had on him.(25)  In the exhibition of Gruber’s work that Johannes Gachnang mounted 18 years later at the Kunsthalle in Bern, no reference was made to Gruber’s popular student. Likewise, when in 1989 the same curator presented Gruber’s paintings in connection with a Giacometti sculpture in Bilderstreit, that major exhibition of painting which marked the diffuse end of the wave of heroic painters in the 1980s, there was still no mention of Buffet.

Yet it would have been revealing to bring Buffet back into the discourse on contemporary painting precisely in the Bilderstreit context, with its genealogical emphasis on the Neo-Expressionist artists represented by the Galerie Michael Werner. After all, this generation of artists followed on from Buffet’s, and as one of their goals they carefully maintained – even replicating some of its details – the career model of the rise of the recalcitrant young star to the painter-lord of the manor, a feat that Buffet had pulled off with clear self-confidence and for which his critics had stoned him.

In conceptual terms, they were far closer to Buffet’s art than to that of a Gruber or Giacometti. After all, one of their central themes was the rupture of the internal linkage of theme and style, already a significant feature of Buffet’s painting. The reduced iconographical thrust and the materiality of the nervously scratched textures move further and further apart in his work, and in his late pieces they confront each other as autonomous elements.

Bernard Buffet, Jeux d´enfants, 1998

Condemnation of Buffet was still very much the norm in the 1980s, as can be seen from the article Heinz Peter Schwerfel published in the Hamburg art magazine Art in April, 1983. Entitled Das feine Elend des Bernard Buffet (The refined misery of Bernard Buffet), large parts of it were nothing more than a replication of the Spiegel cover story of 1956, which the author overtly cited. In their studios younger groups of painters such as Mühlheimer Freiheit in Cologne had meanwhile come across the forbidden fruits of the excommunicated painter and were not only curious to study his work but found it inspirational. Yet in the established gestural/figurative camp, the exponents and curators of that line showed no interest in assessing whether the old prejudices against Buffet were justified. And with good reason: Its own existence was indebted to the repression of Buffet’s once so powerful and popular position, with its strong roots in the domain of trivial culture, since this had in the mid-1960s allowed a wasteland to emerge in the vague border region between subcultures and figurative-expressive painting, and this had prompted the new generation of painters to develop artistic positions which, thanks to the major shows of the 1980s, led to their going down in the annals of art history.

The fact that the genealogical linkage of Gruber to his student Buffet was severed emphatically in the mid-1970s meant that any memory of the “miserabilist” school of French postwar painting was erased. This was directly linked to the staking out of new territorial claims. Gachnang’s postscript to the Bilderstreit exhibition indicates that as early as 1976, in the Francis Gruber retrospective held in Bern, the focus was on installing a new set of crown princes. For this exhibition – albeit not explicitly mentioned in the accompanying catalog – had been dedicated to Gachnang’s friend, the Saxon painter Georg Baselitz, “who at a very early date was interested in the man from Lorraine as the most German of French painters, and told me of these ways of creating images in Berlin back in the early 1960s.” (26) It was not only in terms of pictorial technique that the new prince endeavored to follow in the footsteps of that tradition, but also in his efforts to cause a media stir by adopting a lordly lifestyle while coupling this with a call for genuine miserabilist qualities.(27)

Whether the risky pictorial world of the nullified and vilified Bernard Buffet could even have been seized with the tools of painting criticism in the 1980s can be doubted. Yet there is a vital disquiet exuded by the abysmal paradoxes of the œuvre of an artist who Picasso considered the zero and Warhol the no. 1 of French painting. His coolly hot temperature is as far removed from the archaizing heat of the painter as it is from the self-confident coolness of the rhetoric of representation in Pop culture. And the supposition that an ambiguous post-Modern pictorial strategy was at work must be unsustainable in the face of the truly drastic and laconic quality of an art that forged a tangible image by combining the most extreme violability with self-assertion, and that unleashes an incredible presence.

This  essay  was first published in “Bernard Buffet. Maler. Painter. Peintre”, ed.Udo Kittelmann u. Dorothee Brill, Frankfurt-Köln 2008

Editing: Dorothée Brill, Klaus Görner, Andreas Bee

Translation: Jeremy Gaines

My special thanks go to Ursula Walbröl



1  Maurice Druon, in: Bernard Buffet, Paris: Hachette, 1964.

2  Juri Steiner, New Babylon. Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Paris zwischen Second Empire und 1968, Ph.D. thesis, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zurich, 2003, p. 83.

3  Cp. Gabriel P. Weisberg (ed.), Montmartre and the Making of Mass Culture, New Brunswick/N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

4  Cp. n. 2

5 Pierre Descargues, Bernard Buffet, exhibition catalog, Paris: Librairie des Impressions d’Art, 1957.

6  Cp. Harriet Weber-Schäfer, Die Kontroverse um Abstraktion und Figuration in der französischen Malerei nach dem zweiten Weltkrieg, Ph.D. thesis, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Cologne, 1997, pp. 115 ff.

7  Alberto Giacometti, “A propos de Jacques Callot“, in: Labyrinthe, Geneva and Paris, 1945.

8 “Buffet: Elend in Öl“, in: Der Spiegel, July 11, 1956.

9   Jean-Paul Sartre: “La recherche de l’absolu“, in: Exhibition of Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings, exhibition catalog, New York: Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1948.

10  From a manifesto by Bernard Buffet in: Bonjour Monsieur Buffet!, exhibition catalog, Ornans: Musée Courbet, 1993.Since 1945, as Buffet explicates further, Courbet’s paintings La Remise aux Chevreuils and L’Atelier du Peintre have always been for him the summit of the art of painting.

11 Louis Aragon, L’exemple de Courbet

12 Louis Aragon, “Le paysage a quatre siècles et Bernard Buffet 24 ans“, in: Les Lettres Françaises, no. 453, 1953, pp. 8-9. The second part of the article appeared in the following issue of Les Lettres Françaises.

13 Michael Nungesser, “Die Steinkopfer im Spiegel der Kritik“, in: Klaus Herding (ed.), Realismus als Widerspruch. Die Wirklichkeit in Courbets Malerei, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1978, pp. 177 ff.

14 Jean Cocteau, Le Passé défini, vol. V, 1956-1957, Paris: Gallimard, 2006.

15 Jean-Claude Lamy, Bernard Buffet – Le Samuraï, Paris: Albin Michel, 2008, p. 152.

16 Jean Cocteau, Poésie Critique I, Paris: Gallimard 1959, pp. 262-265.

17 “Buffet: Elend in Öl“, in: Der Spiegel, July 11, 1956, p. 34.

18 Georges Simenon, When I was old, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

19 Cp. n. 18.

20 1956 was the year of Richard Hamilton’s legendary show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London. It was also the year when Andy Warhol made his first drawings of consumer articles.

21 Heinrich Burkhardt, “Der Miserabilismus“, in: Bildende Kunst, no. 6, Dresden, 1958.

22 The “Miserabilismus” essay in the Dresden journal Bildende Kunst included, among other things, a reproduction from Buffet’s portfolio on Lautréamont’s Le Chants de Maldoror, published in 1952. These lucid dry-point engravings were considered among the best of 20th-century prints.

23 The influences of US printed illustrations to be detected in the solitary work of Jean Helion were not something the latter really pursued or took further after he returned in 1945 from exile in New York.

24 Sarah Wilson, “In search of the absolute“, in: Frances Morris (ed.), Paris Post War, Art and Existentialism 1945-55, exhibition catalog, London: Tate Modern, 1993, p. 47.

25 René Huyghe, “Introduction to Francis Gruber“, in: Francis Gruber 1912-1948, exhibition catalog, London: Tate Gallery, 1959.

26 Johannes Gachnang, Im Bilderstreit. Vorträge und Aufsätze zur zeitgenössischen Kunst, Vienna: Sonderzahl, 1993, p. 57.

27 Georg Baselitz: “Ich bin elend, kotzig, miserabel“, in: Stern, Nov. 20, 2007.

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