First, astonishment seizes you: what? a Bernard Buffet exhibition (at the MAMVP, October 14, 2016 – March 5, 2017)? Then, doubt unfurls: maybe I’ve let something slip by me? Am I missing out on some revelation because of my prejudices?
After having seen the exhibition, it’s nothing but consternation: how could they dare to make such an unconvincing show? Or is it that rehabilitating Buffet amounted to an impossible task? And if so, why put together this exhibition? To please Pierre Bergé, the ex-boyfriend, who owns a fair amount of the paintings on display (his portrait pictured last)? I cannot think so. This is not a rediscovery or rehabilitation, this is a “rebranding” —on the walls of the exhibition, a quote from Bergé: “[Buffet’s] prickly signature has become a brand name.” Is this actually the context in which we should apprehend this promotional relaunch?
There is too much to criticize to know where to start. By the biographical dimension, the Rolls, the Yves Mourousi-like wedding? By the style, always the same, with some variation in the details over the years? By the concern for his image, the belonging to a small trendy clique, the concern for popularity, the thirst for honors, the obsession of a conspiracy against him fomented by André Malraux, the left wing, the critics? (Buffet once said with a straight face that his series The Terrorists were a response to the intellectual terrorism he was the victim of; is it really a surprise that the painting pictured below belongs to a David Hamilton eulogist, Éric Troncy?) Or should we simply start by the feeling of boredom intensifying with each room? Let’s quote Alain Bosquet: “a man in his prime, rich in money, influence, glory, who does not want to make any effort anymore, who paints fake little castles in fake landscapes for actual idiots with actual bank accounts and actual veneration for what is at their appalling level?”
In fact, none of this is really interesting from an art-historical standpoint, but is certainly interesting from an historical standpoint, studying trends, the market, and even the “society of the spectacle.” How and why does Buffet earn his fame after WWII? The exhibition could have better shown which powers, coteries or financial interests came into play, and not so much Paris-Match (profusely on display in the documentary glassboxes) than the sociological, ideological reasons behind his rise, not so much the facts than their intelligence: was it a form of hyperfigurative apolitical reaction in face of modernity? Or a French claim in the times of American domination over art? There would have laid the value of this exhibition, which would therefore have had to be less “aesthetic” and more focused on sociological, political and even economy-related issues (and not only to relish in saying the clown face pictured below has been reproduced on millions of postcards…).
But in order to do so, this exhibition would have had to scrutinize itself as well: why hold this exhibition today? What are the forces, the ideologies that made this exhibition relevant for today? To what trend in our society is it answering? A return to order? Self-isolation? A resurgence of demagogic populism? These are the issues I would have liked to see addressed by curators and critics with the slightest interest in spectacle.
In the absence of meaningful reasons, it is nonetheless quite clear how this updating to the current trend is trying to happen, and why: through the will to anchor Buffet in art history, to give him a varnish of importance, to establish him in a lineage of talented painters. To do so, there is a plethora of quotations in the exhibition’s texts: I have rarely seen as many references to other artists in the labels, documents and other published material about this show (and I haven’t even skimmed through the catalogue yet). I am not talking about legitimate comparisons, like the one with Gustave Courbet’s Sleep, absolutely warranted; I am talking about this circuitous way of name-dropping artists off-handedly, in an attempt to anchor Buffet in the history of art, with sentences like, for example: “Summoning Caspar David Friedrich, Eugène Delacroix, François Clouet ou Léonard de Vinci […].” And here it is, the star-studded list of more than 30 “godfathers” to the one and only Buffet (but no mention of Francis Gruber, curiously).In the labels of the first part of the exhibition: Courbet, Chardin, Utrillo, Quizet, Picasso (of whom he is the “successor,” and three times so), Degas, Callot, Goya, Henri “Douanier” Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Rouault. The second part exercises restraint (another writer, maybe?): Buffet’s “Folles,” only evoke Lautrec and Otto Dix (my god!). The third part, beside the aforementioned “summoning,” offers Delacroix, Friedrich and Clouet again, but also adds Raphaël, Signorelli, Basquiat, “Bad” Painting, and, to crown it all, see de Vinci’s Vitruvian man in Captain Nemo with his arms outstretched, of course…
Along the texts and interviews, Beckmann, Doré, Daumier, Giacometti, Permeke, Cézanne (“Buffet, his gaze turned towards Cézanne”), and even Renoir (Buffet being as prolific as Renoir and Picasso, though they did not paint five or ten canvases at the same time, industrially…). Finally, in this orgy of references, let’s not forget to mention that his lithographer (Charles Sorlier) worked with Chagall, and his etchers (Lacourière and Frélaut) with Picasso, Miró et Dali, and above all the fact that his house in Montmartre was close to those of Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo. Here ends the roll call! It says it all.
(I shamelessly borrowed Salvador Dali’s pun “Bernard Buffet froid” and appropriated it.)
Original publication date by Lunettes rouges: February 14, 2017.
Translation by Lucas Faugère