fig. 1
Bernard Buffet

In 1954 the National Gallery of Victoria purchased a major painting by the French artist Bernard Buffet titled simply Owl, 1950 (fig. 1).1 Owl was bought for £150 from the Mayor Gallery. London, as reported by the London-based Felton Adviser, A. J. L. McDonnell to the Secretary of the Felton Bequests Committee, on 16 May 1954 (Letter 92). The painting was formally presented by Sir Alexander Stewart on 23 September 1954 at the opening of the new Murdoch Gallery. I am grateful to Dr Ted Gott for obtaining these details from the acquisition records, National Gallery of Victoria. The acquisition, funded by the Felton Bequest, followed the favourable reports on Buffet’s painting by English art critics in journals such as Studio 2 For example, Buffet’s The burial (L .Enterrement) was reproduced with favourable comment in A. Watt, ‘Paris commentary’, Studio, vol. 139, February 1950, p. 60; and a reproduction of The flagellation (La Flagellation) headlined Watt’s ‘Paris commentary’, Studio, vol. 143, May 1952, pp. 154–6. Watt notes the debate going on around Buffet’s work, and though he finds the Passion paintings uninspiring, he praises Buffet’s parallel showing of drawings at Galerie Visconti. and the inclusion of his self-portrait The painter (Le Peintre), 1949, in the travelling exhibition French Painting Today that came to Melbourne in October 1953.3 French Painting Today was supported by the French and Australian governments through the Board of Trustees of the National Art Galleries of Australia for exhibition in the Commonwealth, January–September 1953. The show contained 119 paintings and four tapestries and was viewed in Australia as a crucial access to European developments in modernism. In addition the interest in Buffet’s style shown by the young Australian painter John Brack may have encouraged the NGV to acquire a work by the most talked-about French artist to have come to notice since the end of the war. Bernard Buffet’s Owl may today be seen as an emblem denoting the close connection between Buffet’s rétour à l’ordre (return to order) manoeuvre in Paris and Brack’s promulgation of a realist aesthetic in Melbourne. The NGV acquisition testifies both to the renown of Buffet’s work and directly engages the Gallery’s collection with the international debates on realism and abstraction that dominated the 1950s.4 It is worth noting here that a second major acquisition in the same group of Felton Bequest purchases as Buffet’s Owl was a still life by another young École de Paris painter to emerge in 1944, Nicolas de Staël, and that de Staël’s work could be seen at this time to contradict the principles of Buffet’s realism.

The stylistic complicity between the paintings of Bernard Buffet and John Brack in this period is an unnerving reminder that the history of modern art refuses to be smoothly progressive in either style or politics. Brack’s confrontational Self portrait, 1955 (fig. 2), powerfully reprises Buffet’s early self-portraits, such as Man in the toilet (Homme au cabinet), 1947 (fig. 3), or The painter. Both artists depict unsmiling anti-heroes engaged in banal daily acts. The figures are compressed frontally into undecorated, spaceless interiors, their verticality deliberately accentuated by the rigid black contouring and their long, angular facial features, with only a minimal hint of fleshy volume. There is no softening touch in either the dry paint, muted colours or the flattened, slick surface.

Buffet’s importance for the work of the Australian painter is well documented. Brack’s decision by the end of the war to repudiate the avant-garde tenet of ‘competitive iconoclasm’ led to a sustained investigation of the possibilities for a renewed humanist tradition of realism.5 See S. Griffin, The Art of John Brack, vol. 1. Melbourne, 1990, p. 12. Brack used the term ‘competitive iconoclasm’ in his lectures, such as ‘Abstraction in painting’ to the National Gallery Society, Melbourne, 30 July 1953. Buffet’s work posited a viable model of painting practice in contradiction to abstract expressionism, which Brack considered merely decorative and insufficient to the task of representing historical experience.6 ibid., p. 34. In an interview with the art writer Sasha Griffin, Brack stated that Buffet’s work supplied him with the key to a style of painting which maintained the recognisable depiction of external reality through the traditional skill of drawing:

Art had to be very clear, very explicit, not capable of being misunderstood. It had to be particular and a close-up view. Drawing was to be the essence of this style, it had to have no flourishes, everything had to be plain and clear and Buffet seemed to fit in. His appeared to be a splendid form of draughtsmanship. It was obviously inadequate, but it took me a couple of years to realise that.7 John Brack, quoted in Griffin, p. 32. The impact of Buffet is demonstrated in Brack’s major paintings throughout the 1950s, from The barber’s shop (shown in February 1953, acquired by the NGV the same year) and Short street, 1953, to Self portrait, 1955.

 However, at odds with the emphasis on an explicit realism, Brack commented that ‘irony was the only thing available to us’. Brack appears sensitive to the ambiguous, multivalent status of realism, and of the implications of taking up a supposedly anachronistic, academic mode of representation and applying it to the depiction of contemporary life.

 

Owl, the painting that would allow Brack to study Buffet’s technique up close, depicts a large great-horned owl perched on a wooden stand facing the viewer, accompanied by two blackbirds set just behind. The table-top of four wooden planks on which the three birds are positioned fills almost the entire space of the canvas, thrusting forward so that we do not see the table legs. Horizontal recession into space is conceded only by the variant positions of the blackbirds’ perches on the table-top and the indication of a thin drawer in the side of the table. The colouration is drawn from a restricted palette of cream, brown, black and muted green, enlivened by Buffet’s habit of scoring the paint with long, straight scratches that zigzag back and forth, unifying the pale background and oblong table into a single, flat, planar surface. The hard, thick black outlines of the birds ensure that each holds its pose in an ordered, morbid stillness. The NGV painting is one of a small suite of works done in 1950 using stuffed birds, an item collected by Buffet. It appears to be the only canvas of the group that includes the great-horned owl, though it omits the ominous handgun lying on top of a white envelope featuring in another painting of the suite.8 My thanks to Maurice Garnier at Galerie Maurice Garnier who supplied the information regarding this group of works and confirmed that Buffet had a collection of stuffed birds.

As a still life rigidly structured through drawing, Owl takes its place within the set of historically established genres of painting, which Buffet adhered to in his defence of a realist tradition. His still lifes, self-portraits, nudes, landscapes and crucifixions work together to contradict Henri Matisse’s arabesque line and his bright pinks and yellows, the Cubist ‘distortions’ of Pablo Picasso and, above all, the seductions of abstraction. Rather than attempt the colourful synthesis of cubism and fauvism that characterised much of the recent painting which came to public notice at the end of 1944,9 In 1944–46 this term most commonly referred to the group of painters during the war known as the Jeune Peintres de Tradition Française, which included Jean Bazaine, Alfred Manessier, Gustave Singier, Jean Le Moal, Charles Lapicque, Léon Gischia, Maurice Estève and Édouard Pignon. Buffet was loyal to his training as an adolescent with a drawing master (in 1943) and his four years spent in the École des Beaux-Arts. However, his academic lessons either seem to have not instructed him in shading or he decided that his particular version of modern realism would eradicate depth and volume, instead delineating objects and figures by means of the precise, black outlines that became the trademark of ‘le style Buffet’.10 See E. David, Le métier de marchand de tableaux, entretiens avec Hervé Le Boterf, Paris, 1978, p. 221. When Drouant gave Buffet a lecture on shading, Buffet apparently replied ‘Shade? I don’t know what that is … I have never put it in!’

The precocious power of Buffet’s harsh technique swiftly brought him to the attention of art critics seeking to revive the climate of innovation which had made Paris the ‘capital of the arts’ during the interwar years. In 1958 Claude Roger-Marx recalled the emotional shock which he and his colleagues – and perhaps John Brack – felt when they first viewed Buffet’s early paintings:

What a shock – we were ravaged and charmed at once on that first contact with Bernard Buffet’s universe! Desolate objects … bathed in an atmosphere of anguish, as angular and elongated as the painter with his stick-insect body, with a triangular mask, bristly hair, perched on a spindly stool or lying on a camp bed, with a skinned rabbit or two dried fish for company. The distress in these monochromatic compositions, the emptiness which translates all that the heart lacks, the elongation of verticals and horizontals, the nervousness of evil lines of force, lightly scratching the thin paint, all proclaim a painter fit to resume like Kafka, Kierkegaard, Sartre, the insecurity and deprivations of his childhood … From his first self-portraits … a completely original manner asserted itself, a style at once violent and frozen, cynical and caressing, naive and full of tension.11 C. Roger-Marx, Cent tableaux de 1944 à 1958 (exh. cat.), Galerie Charpentier, Paris, 1958, n.p. The translation used appears in Aftermath: France 1945-1954 New Images of Man (exh. cat.), Barbican Centre, London, 1982, pp. 48–9.

 In 1946, aged eighteen and suffering the trauma of his mother’s recent death, Buffet submitted a grim self-portrait to the Salon des Moins de Trente Ans (Salon for Artists under Thirty). His first solo show took place in December 1947 at a small gallery-bookshop, Impressions d’Art, with a catalogue preface by the young left-wing art critic Pierre Descargues. During 1948 Buffet’s public profile in the resurgent Paris art scene was consolidated by the jury debate over his candidature for the Prix de la Jeune Peinture (Young Painters Prize). Although Buffet did not win, he gained the passionate support of a major collector, Dr Maurice Girardin. His work was also defended vociferously by the coterie of art critics writing on behalf of realism in the Parisian newspapers, who secured for Buffet the Prix de la Critique (Critics Prize) as compensation.12 Buffet’s loss of the Prix de la Jeune Peinture was seen by the critics Descargues and Jean Bouret as submission to the ‘error’ of abstraction (see Bouret, ‘Point de vue’, Arts, 7 May 1948, p.4). The jury for the Prix de la Critique was almost entirely made up of pro-realist art critics from both the prewar and postwar generations. Buffet’s co-winner, Bernard Lorjou (1908–1986), was an autodidact realist painter and political activist. Moreover, with prize in hand, Buffet was approached by the dealer Emmanuel David, who signed him in exclusivity to the Galerie Drouant-David in Paris.13 See David. The author recalls how he set up Galerie Drouant-David in 1942 in partnership with Armand Drouant. David’s conception of the École de Paris was one founded firmly upon the academic realism of French-born artists such as Jean Carzou and Buffet. In 1956 David formed a partnership with Maurice Garnier which lasted until 1968, when Garnier took on Buffet alone.

In his early discussions of his friend’s work, Pierre Descargues argued that Buffet invested the bleak portrayal of the impoverished and immobilised world which had surrounded him during the Occupation with a required sincerity and a heightened sensitivity to a world that seemed stripped bare of pretence. Buffet painted only ‘what he sees, what industry has produced so that we can eat, drink, have light, sleep, exist: a gas ring, jugs, coffee pots, salad shakers, bottles’.14 P. Descargues, Bernard Buffet, Paris, 1949. p.4. Adolescent boys, with pendulous genitals, staring sullenly at nothing in scarcely furnished, filthy interiors, isolated bottles on the table and an eviscerated chicken slumped alongside, confronted the public with the cold expression of Buffet’s hostility towards the world. His paintings publicised a private anguish that seemed a match for the disillusioned postwar bitterness of the French population suffering the deprivations of an economy in crisis and a riven national identity. In addition, Descargues and his colleagues supported the realist cause in art as part of a political strategy which would return art to the people, healing the rift they saw exacerbated by the dehumanised, subject-less decorations of the abstract painters. Buffet’s work was thus viewed within the context of the postwar search for a necessarily sobering cure for French art:

The fashionable word at the moment is testimony, thrown about rather nonsensically. This young painter, Bernard Buffet, allows us, through his work to use it anew and without smiling, because his painting possesses that rare tone of purity and truth that is often sought in vain. A tone that is bitter and hard, expressing … all the imperturbably crucified life of an exposed world that is our own.15 Descargues, ‘Bernard Buffet’, Arts, 5 December 1947, p.3.

Descargues’s portrayal of Buffet in 1947 suggests that he was ready to become the paradigmatic angry artist, the leader of a group of young realists replacing the staunch traditionalist and French Communist Party stalwart Francis Gruber as witness to the horrors, solitude and existential anguish induced by the war (fig. 4). Prior to his death in 1948, Gruber became well known for paintings that demonstrated his conviction that only painting, as opposed to photography, retained the capacity to truly represent the life of humankind, with its social utility and the events of history.16 See M. Riffaud, ‘Interviews et opinions, Francis Gruber’, Arts de France, no. 5, April 1946, p. 7. From 1944 Gruber’s paintings were shown at the major salons and in 1947 he was awarded the Prix National. See also S. Wilson & F. Morris, Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945–1955 (exh. cat.), Tate Gallery, London, 1993, pp. 129–31. A certain resemblance in the miserabilist subject matter and dry outlining may be observed between the work of Gruber (fig. 5) and Buffet. However, the significant influence on the younger painter resides in the assertions of principle made by Gruber: that art should be transparently realist, that the métier of painting should be taught, and that a simplified, ordered representation of reality sufficed to witness the world and to communicate beauty and meaning to the lives of men.17 The rapport between Buffet and Gruber was noted in A. Warnod, ‘Francis Gruber a ouverte la porte à la peinture désésperée’, Le Figaro, 12 October 1949, p. 7; and on the occasion of a Gruber retrospective, Musée d’Art Moderne, see C. Roger-Marx, ‘Une plastique de l’absurde, ou l’absence de l’espoir dans la peinture contemporaine’, Le Figaro littéraire, 1 September 1951, p. 9. Building upon such principles, and bolstered by his newly acquired material security, Buffet’s large-scale paintings of the late 1940s, such as The fishnet mender (La Ravadeuse de filet), 1949 (fig. 6) and, in 1948, a trilogy of religious canvases depicting the stoning of Christ, the deposition from the Cross and the pietà, were an ambit claim that sought to reinstate the heritage stemming from the fifteenth-century masterpiece of religious painting attributed to Enguerrand Quarton, the Pietà of Avignon (Pietà d’Avignon), c.1455 (Musée du Louvre), through to Jean-François Millet, Gustave Courbet and Gruber, in place of the experiments of Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Picasso and the Surrealists.18 See P. Bergé, Les Jours s’en vont je demeure, Paris, 2003, p.60.

If Gruber set for Buffet a contemporary model of moral and stylistic comportment, Buffet’s avowed idols were the great nineteenth-century realist painters Théodore Gericault, Courbet and Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, whose monumental canvas The victims of the plague at Jaffa, 1804, had overwhelmed Buffet as a child when visiting the Louvre. One of Buffet’s few public statements extolled the example of Gros for a contemporary revival of neoclassical heroicism in painting:

We must understand Gros’s lesson in two ways: first because he helps us to react against expressionism, which leads to nothing. Second, because he is the master of history painting and it is through vast compositions that painting today will be able to get out of the impasse in which it finds itself.19 Buffet, ‘La leçon de J.-A. Gros, Les Lettres francaise, December 1953, p. 8.

With such a heritage in mind, Buffet briefly engaged directly with the politicised debates on art dividing artists and art critics at the onset of the Cold War. In 1949 he exhibited with the Homme-Témoin (Man-Witness (lit.)) group of artists led by the older realist painter Bernard Lorjou. The group announced its principles in a manifesto written by the critic Jean Bouret that railed against the loss of a sane equilibrium in a world dominated by abstraction:

The true subject of art is man in his universe … All art which does not have a universal meaning is a diversion and for it to have a universal meaning, it must use an intelligible language … The universal language is that of familiar objects, of the bread on which the knife rests.20 See Bouret, Manifeste de l’homme témoin, for the first group exhibition at Galerie du Bac, 21 June–21 July 1948, showing Bernard Lorjou, Paul Rebeyrolle, Michel Thompson, Yvonne Mottet, André Minaux, Simone Dat and Gaston Sebire. Buffet was especially close to Minaux and Thompson. For details on these painters, see L. Harambourg, L’École de Paris 1945–1965 Dictionnaires des peintres, Neuchâtel, 1993.

The manifesto had a double mission: to attack the craven neutrality, perceived inhumanity and alienation of abstract painting, and to provide an alternative to the doctrine of socialist realism propounded by the French Communist Party. Following the Homme-Témoin exhibitions, two new salons were established to expand the public view of anti-abstract, pro-realist painting. Buffet was a loyal participant in both the Salon de la Jeune Peinture (Young Painters Salon), whose inaugural exhibition was organised by Descargues in January 1950, and the Salon des Peintres Témoins de Leur Temps (Salon of Young Artist-Witnesses) established in 1951.

Peintres Témoins de Leur Temps (Salon of Young Artist-Witnesses) established in 1951.21 See Bouret, ‘Les peintres témoins de leurs temps, ou le triomphe du sujet’, Arts, 2 February 1951, p. 3. He states that the goal of the Peintres Témoins is to bring art back into contact with the worker and a new public, to integrate art into political economy. For a contextual discussion, see B. Ceysson, ‘Réalismes et engagement’, in L’Art en Europe: Les annees décisives, 1945–1953 (exh. cat.), Musée d’Art Moderne de Saint-Étienne, Saint Étienne, 1987, pp. 75–82.

In one of a series of interviews conducted by Georges Charbonnier in 1959 and 1960 with artists on the question of realism and abstraction, Buffet stood alone in his unqualified acceptance of being labelled as a realist painter. When asked how he defined his task, Buffet stated:

‘For me, the notion of realism corresponds to the recognition of objects, of nature. Realist painting for me is concreteness … realism consists in the representation of things.’22 G. Charbonnier, Le Monologue du peintre, (1959 & 1960), Paris, 2002, pp. 213–14. Although Buffet admitted that each artist will have a different vision of how things are represented, his inalienable belief was that realism is defined by the clear and unmistakable recognition of things. He did not subscribe to the doubt of the sculptor Alberto Giacometti who spoke eloquently of the impossibility of obtaining an exact resemblance between the object seen and the painterly or sculptural representation of that object.23 See Charbonnier, pp. 122–3. Instead, Buffet avoided the questioning of ‘realism’ as just one possible mode of representation and proceeded to a moral justification of his stance by denigrating the subject-less status of abstract painting. It is only a ‘strong’ realism, said Buffet, like that of Rembrandt or Chaïm Soutine, which can shock the spectator into a confrontation with the conscience: ‘It forces the spectator to exist. The pressure of what is painful, unbearable, forces him to exist.’24 Buffet. quoted in Charbonnier, p. 217.

Despite Buffet’s rhetoric of conscience, the link to an engaged politics was tenuous, premised on a deliberately naive belief that a transparently realist style was sufficient committment.25 Descargues, L’Art est vivant, Paris, 2001, p. 325. Letter from Buffet to Descargues, 1947: ‘Regarding my conception of painting, I will answer you in reversing the formula of René Descartes, “I endeavour to not think in order to be.”’. Though he desired to equal the history paintings of Gericault and Gros, Buffet’s world is fundamentally an interiorised one, exemplified by his lonely self-portraits and the restricted vision he lavished upon the still-life genre. Buffet’s ‘realism’ signals not so much an objective or even dispassionate vision of the world as an angry withdrawal from the questions of civic engagement and contemporary events. The bodies that populate his interiors and landscapes are divorced from action, stilled in time by their linear stiffness, lack of volumetric form and expressionless faces. His spiky, fleshless figures assume the status of cyphers populating etched landscapes that resemble theatrical stage sets. Likewise, the still lifes, such as Owl, refuse to participate in the traditional trade of metaphors. Owls and ravens signify wisdom and mortality, but standing on their perches on Buffet’s bare-board table, they are reduced to a schematic drawing, devoid of allegorical powers.

 Owl demonstrates the systematised purification of Buffet’s technique, barring occasional experiments with a thicker paint surface and a wider range of colours. Buffet settled upon a procedure which began by drawing the motif in charcoal directly onto the canvas, then covering the surface with a translucent layer of zinc white and finally, filling in the outlines with a set sequence of colours. For his smooth surfaces Buffet thinned the paint with turpentine to produce an almost transparent, tinted glaze (jus).26 See S. Laurent, Bernard Buffet, Paris, 2000, pp. 53 & 146. In a manner which has been likened to Giacometti’s lacerating lines, Buffet liked to cover the enamelled surface of the canvas with grattage: criss-crossing webs of pencil lines that work to texture the surface as well as exaggerate its function as surface. Buffet worked by a straightforward set of technical steps that he modified only slightly with time, having succeeded early in his career in defining a technique that was compatible with his representational, anti-modernist goals. It was also a technique that permitted rapidity of execution. He apparently never spent much time on any one work and, by 1950, achieved even greater speed by tacking pieces of sized, cut-up canvas directly onto the well and covering them sequentially with variations on a single theme, according to his set of technical steps.27 Pierre Descargues and Catherine Valogne, interview by the author, Fontenay-aux-Roses, 28 July 2003.

Buffet’s exclusive contract promised the Galerie Drouant-David a yearly exhibition.28 See Laurent, p. 104. The figure of a monthly payment of 50,000 francs against his production is given. To this end, he began to restrict his subject matter to set themes that included Breton women in their archaic, stylised costumes; the Vacation in the Vaucluse pictures depicting the stark Provençal countryside where Buffet was living in 1950; the urban landscapes of 1953; Interiors (Nudes) of 1954; The horror of war in 1955; and The circus in 1956. From 1952 a dual ‘expo-choc (impact-exhibition) system was put in place: each February paintings were shown at Drouant-David and an exhibition of drawings could be seen at Galerie Visconti on rue de Seine. Thematically, Owl belongs to the large number of works depicting insects and birds which derive from Buffet’s long-standing passion for the natural sciences.29 See Y. Le Pichon, Bernard Buffet 1943–1987, Paris, 1986, vol.1, p. 249 & vol. 2, pp. 57–8. Le Pichon refers to the artist as ‘Buffet Buffon’ because of his keen interest in the natural sciences, seen in works such as the series of insect paintings in 1952 and the ink drawings from 1953, titled Le Bestiare, of all the animals saved by Noah. After the blackbird and owl paintings of 1950, stuffed birds feature in paintings such as Two blackbirds, 1951; Still life with lyrebird, 1952, with a great-horned owl and lyrebird; and Still life with great-horned owl, 1953. In 1958 a great-horned owl features again in several paintings and a tufted-eared owl on its perch is seen in a photograph published in Elle showing Buffet drawing before the model at his villa in Sables-d’Or-les-Pins.30 J.-F. Devay, ‘Ce jeune homme pale, solitaire, et travailleur qui s’appelle Bernard Buffet’, Elle, 13 May – 22 April 1957, p.47(?). This owl is not the same as the one of 1950. Note the works by two of his favourite realist painters, Michel Patrix and Alphonse Quizet, on the wall behind. The owl participated again in the scandalous Birds exhibition of 1959, showing paintings where giant birds stand triumphant over the naked, exposed body of a reclining nude.

In 1964 Buffet’s annual exhibition was titled Muséum de Bernard Buffet and featured his foray into sculpture with giant metal insects suspended from the ceiling and on the walls, a mini-retrospective of his paintings and drawings from the 1950s to recent works from 1962, depicting in taxonomic style animals, birds and insects (fig. 7).31 See Laurent, p. 28.

In her memoirs Simone de Beauvoir observed that the generation that came of age with the experience of the war had

lost their faith in perpetual peace, eternal progress, in unchanging essences: they had discovered History in its most terrible form. They needed an ideology which would include such revelations without forcing them to jettison their old excuses.32 S. de Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance, 1950, p. 46.

 The obvious anguish feeding Buffet’s work supplied a bitter condemnation of this cruel world, where optimism had been annihilated by the revelations of the concentration camps. Buffet’s youth and his attitude of rebellious reaction against the tenets of avant-garde modernism appealed to the gilded youth dancing to jazz in the bars of Saint-Germain des Prés. Along with the briefly popular painters of a style known as Miserabilism in the early 1950s, Buffet’s pictures were easily digestible accompaniments to the existential revulsion described in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea (La Nausée), 1938, and the fiction of Albert Camus, melded with the sordid underbelly of Georges Simenon’s detective stories.33 For an analysis of Miserabilism as a deformation of the world according to a point of view invested with sadness and ugliness, see E. Mercier, ‘Le misérabilisme dans ‘la jeune peinture’ des années 50′, La Gazette de l’Hôtel Drouot, 22 November 2002, pp. 309–11. Buffet’s work can be seen to participate in this aesthetic which was maintained by painters such as Jean Jansem, Claude Weisbuch, Michel de Gallard, Roger Lersy and André Minaux. Mercier notes the primacy of drawing as an ‘anguished trace’ transcribing the artist’s ‘sublimated despair’.

At the same time Buffet provided his buyers with an escape route from a postwar world of political brutality and the flux of modernity with his nostalgic references to the time-honoured heroes and genres of realist painting and his defence of the French beau métier values of drawing, sober colour and smooth finish.34 The second Homme-Témoin manifesto, 1949, by Bouret declared that Picasso and Matisse are responsible for the decadence of the French tradition. On painters such as Buffet, Bouret argues in ‘L’art figurative – Les amoureux de la nature’, in Bilan de l’art actuel, ed. R. Lebel, Paris, 1953, p. 67: ‘These painters are reacting against a tendency represented by the spiritual sons of Picasso and Matisse. They reclaim a return to the real, a solid technique using the paint and observation of nature.’ Buffet and his supporters deployed a moralising rhetoric in seeking to revitalise realism as a national tradition, claiming for it alone the virtues of probity, social conviction and truth to objective vision.35 See, for example, J. Baschet, Pour une renaissance de la peinture française, Paris, 1946, pp. 111–12: ‘The past, with its lessons and examples, indicates to us the road to follow … Arrière toute! Art must be saved by a united will … Conscience. Work. Tradition.’ Buffet’s work was placed by critics into a lineage that included forbears such as Nicolas Poussin, Gros, Courbet, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, such that his intervention into tradition could be seen as simultaneously innovative and as a vital contribution to the essential tradition of French art.36 See R. Moulin, Le Marché de la peinture en France, Paris, 1967, pp. 168–76.

There should be no doubt as to the strength of Buffet’s realism, its capacity to shock or the ability of the public to assimilate with his images of ravaged clowns, war-torn bodies on the barricades, Christ riven by thorns and nails, and graphically detailed nudes. Sustained by a buoyant pictomanie (picture-mania) throughout the 1950s, the prices for Buffet works rose astronomically, from the substantial sum of 50,000 francs for the painting that won the Prix de la Critique in 1948 to an average of 800,000 to 1 million francs for the smallest works in the Galerie Charpentier retrospective of 1958.37 See Moulin, pp. 463–7. The author notes that the pictomanie of the 1950s was due to the economic boom, the speculation allowed by the absence of a tax on added-value capital, a lively interest in painting in general and the social prestige conferred on buyers of art. Other realist painters, such as Lorjou and Yves Brayer, were also obtaining very high prices. In this context the NGV acquisition of Owl in 1954 can be seen as a direct result of the globalisation of Buffet’s profile, which had been achieved by showings in New York, Geneva, London, Copenhagen and Melbourne between 1950 and 1953. The purchase also testifies to the continuing prestige of the so-called École de Paris abroad.38 See N. Adamson, The Identity of the École de Paris in Painting and Criticism, 1939–1964, PhD dissertation, University of Melbourne, 2003. As if to confirm the prescience of the NGV in their purchase of a prime still life from 1950, Buffet was elected the painter of the year in 1955 by a survey in the widely read magazine Connaissance des arts.39 See G. Charensol, ‘Les dix peintres en tête de la jeune école contemporaine’, Connaissance des arts, 36,15 February 1955, pp. 28–35. The votes for Buffet came from conservative art critics such as André Warnod and Claude Roger-Marx, as well as from fellow realist painters. In 1956 Buffet’s work was shown alongside Giacometti and Jacques Villon at the Venice Biennale and in 1958 over 8000 people flocked to the opening of a retrospective of his work at the prestigious Galerie Charpentier.40 See Laurent, pp. 162–3.

However, critical opinion began to turn against Buffet in the same year that the NGV made its Buffet purchase. The repudiation of his work was typified by the scathing, lengthy condemnation by the well-known editor Christian Zervos in the prestigious journal of modern art, Cahiers d’art. Zervos found that Buffet epitomised a generation of young painters who seemed marked by the overt influence of past masters and unable to demonstrate any rebellion against previous art. Zervos argued that the demands of a rapacious art market had emasculated Buffet and deprived his work of imagination, emotion and genuine humanity.41 C. Zervos, ‘Jeune peinture & critique – A propos du Xe Salon de Mai’, Cahiers d’art, no. 1, October 1954, pp. 5–9. At the same time as Zervos passed judgement, one of Buffet’s initial supporters, Guy Weelen, publicly announced his rejection of what Buffet had become, while even Descargues began to distance himself from his former protégé who had metamorphosed into a public celebrity.42 Descargues, Bernard Buffet, p. 8, starts by discussing the suspicion which falls upon Buffet with regards to his status as artist-celebrity. Michel Ragon ‘Mondanité du “misérabilisme”’, in La Peinture actuelle, Paris, 1959, pp. 56–7, noted: ‘The case of Bernard Buffet is one that must be examined, one more time. His paintings have already spread throughout the entire world. He is at the same time the James Dean, the Françoise Sagan, the Brigitte Bardot of recent painting’. Buffet became an emblem of Sartrean ‘bad faith’, espousing the values of authenticity and conscience but seemingly unable to invest his paintings with the signs of such values.43 See, for example, A. Jouffroy, ‘Situation de la Jeune Peinture à Paris’, Preuves 68, October 1956, pp. 24–9.

After being ostracised from the museum walls for years, during the last decade Buffet’s intransigent, reactionary realism has been recuperated by critics and curators keen to demonstrate the end of the modernist paradigm of abstract, formal purity. The ironic truths of Buffet’s ‘bad faith’ painting and the social collectivity of reactionary nostalgia to which it connects, whether of the 1950s or the current moment, were announced in an interview in 1985 between the radical-left art historian Benjamin Buchloh and pop artist Andy Warhol:

Warhol: But the French do really have one good painter, I mean, my favourite artist would be the last big artist in Paris. What’s his name?

Buchloh: A painter?

Warhol: Yes, the last famous painter. Buffet … I don’t see any difference between that and Giacometti. Somewhere along the line, people decided that it was commercial or whatever it was. But he’s still painting, and I still see the things; the prices are still $20,000 to $30,000. He could still be there. His work is good; his technique is really good; he’s as good as the other French guy who just died a couple of days ago, Dubuffet. What do you think has happened? Do you think it is not that good?44 B. H. D. Buchloh, ‘An Interview with Andy Warhol’, in Andy Warhol, ed. Annette Michelson, Cambridge, Mass., 2001, pp. 119–28.

 Buchloh joins the art critics of the 1950s who found Buffet’s repetitive miserabilism and the regressive insolence of his provincial modernism too much to stomach. On the other hand, Warhol praises a painter whose technique is polished and who he deems to be as worthy of admiration as the anti-establishment, avant-garde painter Jean Dubuffet. Buffet’s career could be seen to have set the standard for the values of a mass, capitalist society which Warhol turned to his own advantage: a mode of serial production that emphasises repetition, obviousness, quantity, banality and celebrity. A Buffet retrospective at Kassel Documenta in 1994, paired with recent high prices for the artist’s paintings of the 1950s,45 For example, Buffet’s Street scene (Scène de rue) 1956, was sold for US$797,500 in 1990 at Sotheby’s. ‘Le côté du Figaro’, Le Figaro, 8 March 1991, shows a graph with Buffet’s work skyrocketing into the 5–6 million franc range. seem to have built upon Warhol’s evaluation to recast him as an icon of kitsch or meta-trash painting.46The terms meta-trash and kitsch are used in A. Roob, ‘Qui a peur de Bernard Buffet?’, Cher peintre … Lieber Maler … Dear Painter … Peintures figuratives depuis l’ultime Picabia (exh. cat.), Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2002, pp. 40–1. But, well before Warhol and far from the art-world hubs of New York and Paris, John Brack had already singled out Buffet’s early work as an example of a return to a traditional, realist style that offered a viable way to rebel against the tenets of avant-garde modernism. Brack’s interpretation of Buffet, while acknowledging the requisite of irony in working from an anachronistic model of tradition, does not cast him into the purgatory of kitsch. In the putatively peripheral context of Australian art of the period, looking at Buffet’s Owl in the NGV, John Brack coerced reactionary realism into a reconciled relationship to modernism.

Dr Natalie Adamson, Lecturer, School of Art History, University of St Andrews, Scotland (in 2004).

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Dr Ted Gott, Senior Curator of International Art, National Gallery of Victoria, for the invitation to write on Buffet, and the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland for a research grant that allowed me to do archival work in France. I owe special thanks to the art critic Pierre Descargues and the sculptor Catherine Valogne who allowed me access to their archive and recalled Buffet’s life and work.

Notes

Unless otherwise noted, all translations are by the author.

1     Owl was bought for £150 from the Mayor Gallery. London, as reported by the London-based Felton Adviser, A. J. L. McDonnell to the Secretary of the Felton Bequests Committee, on 16 May 1954 (Letter 92). The painting was formally presented by Sir Alexander Stewart on 23 September 1954 at the opening of the new Murdoch Gallery. I am grateful to Dr Ted Gott for obtaining these details from the acquisition records, National Gallery of Victoria.

2     For example, Buffet’s The burial (L .Enterrement) was reproduced with favourable comment in A. Watt, ‘Paris commentary’, Studio, vol. 139, February 1950, p. 60; and a reproduction of The flagellation (La Flagellation) headlined Watt’s ‘Paris commentary’, Studio, vol. 143, May 1952, pp. 154–6. Watt notes the debate going on around Buffet’s work, and though he finds the Passion paintings uninspiring, he praises Buffet’s parallel showing of drawings at Galerie Visconti.

3     French Painting Today was supported by the French and Australian governments through the Board of Trustees of the National Art Galleries of Australia for exhibition in the Commonwealth, January–September 1953. The show contained 119 paintings and four tapestries and was viewed in Australia as a crucial access to European developments in modernism.

4     It is worth noting here that a second major acquisition in the same group of Felton Bequest purchases as Buffet’s Owl was a still life by another young École de Paris painter to emerge in 1944, Nicolas de Staël, and that de Staël’s work could be seen at this time to contradict the principles of Buffet’s realism.

5     See S. Griffin, The Art of John Brack, vol. 1. Melbourne, 1990, p. 12. Brack used the term ‘competitive iconoclasm’ in his lectures, such as ‘Abstraction in painting’ to the National Gallery Society, Melbourne, 30 July 1953.

6     ibid., p. 34.

7     John Brack, quoted in Griffin, p. 32. The impact of Buffet is demonstrated in Brack’s major paintings throughout the 1950s, from The barber’s shop (shown in February 1953, acquired by the NGV the same year) and Short street, 1953, to Self portrait, 1955.

8     My thanks to Maurice Garnier at Galerie Maurice Garnier who supplied the information regarding this group of works and confirmed that Buffet had a collection of stuffed birds.

9     In 1944–46 this term most commonly referred to the group of painters during the war known as the Jeune Peintres de Tradition Française, which included Jean Bazaine, Alfred Manessier, Gustave Singier, Jean Le Moal, Charles Lapicque, Léon Gischia, Maurice Estève and Édouard Pignon.

10     See E. David, Le métier de marchand de tableaux, entretiens avec Hervé Le Boterf, Paris, 1978, p. 221. When Drouant gave Buffet a lecture on shading, Buffet apparently replied ‘Shade? I don’t know what that is … I have never put it in!’

11     C. Roger-Marx, Cent tableaux de 1944 à 1958 (exh. cat.), Galerie Charpentier, Paris, 1958, n.p. The translation used appears in Aftermath: France 1945-1954 New Images of Man (exh. cat.), Barbican Centre, London, 1982, pp. 48–9.

12     Buffet’s loss of the Prix de la Jeune Peinture was seen by the critics Descargues and Jean Bouret as submission to the ‘error’ of abstraction (see Bouret, ‘Point de vue’, Arts, 7 May 1948, p.4). The jury for the Prix de la Critique was almost entirely made up of pro-realist art critics from both the prewar and postwar generations. Buffet’s co-winner, Bernard Lorjou (1908–1986), was an autodidact realist painter and political activist.

13     See David. The author recalls how he set up Galerie Drouant-David in 1942 in partnership with Armand Drouant. David’s conception of the École de Paris was one founded firmly upon the academic realism of French-born artists such as Jean Carzou and Buffet. In 1956 David formed a partnership with Maurice Garnier which lasted until 1968, when Garnier took on Buffet alone.

14     P. Descargues, Bernard Buffet, Paris, 1949. p.4.

15     Descargues, ‘Bernard Buffet’, Arts, 5 December 1947, p.3.

16     See M. Riffaud, ‘Interviews et opinions, Francis Gruber’, Arts de France, no. 5, April 1946, p. 7. From 1944 Gruber’s paintings were shown at the major salons and in 1947 he was awarded the Prix National. See also S. Wilson & F. Morris, Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945–1955 (exh. cat.), Tate Gallery, London, 1993, pp. 129–31.

17     The rapport between Buffet and Gruber was noted in A. Warnod, ‘Francis Gruber a ouverte la porte à la peinture désésperée’, Le Figaro, 12 October 1949, p. 7; and on the occasion of a Gruber retrospective, Musée d’Art Moderne, see C. Roger-Marx, ‘Une plastique de l’absurde, ou l’absence de l’espoir dans la peinture contemporaine’, Le Figaro littéraire, 1 September 1951, p. 9.

18     See P. Bergé, Les Jours s’en vont je demeure, Paris, 2003, p.60.

19     Buffet, ‘La leçon de J.-A. Gros, Les Lettres francaise, December 1953, p. 8.

20     See Bouret, Manifeste de l’homme témoin, for the first group exhibition at Galerie du Bac, 21 June–21 July 1948, showing Bernard Lorjou, Paul Rebeyrolle, Michel Thompson, Yvonne Mottet, André Minaux, Simone Dat and Gaston Sebire. Buffet was especially close to Minaux and Thompson. For details on these painters, see L. Harambourg, L’École de Paris 1945–1965 Dictionnaires des peintres, Neuchâtel, 1993.

21     See Bouret, ‘Les peintres témoins de leurs temps, ou le triomphe du sujet’, Arts, 2 February 1951, p. 3. He states that the goal of the Peintres Témoins is to bring art back into contact with the worker and a new public, to integrate art into political economy. For a contextual discussion, see B. Ceysson, ‘Réalismes et engagement’, in L’Art en Europe: Les annees décisives, 1945–1953 (exh. cat.), Musée d’Art Moderne de Saint-Étienne, Saint Étienne, 1987, pp. 75–82.

22     G. Charbonnier, Le Monologue du peintre, (1959 & 1960), Paris, 2002, pp. 213–14.

23     See Charbonnier, pp. 122–3.

24     Buffet. quoted in Charbonnier, p. 217.

25     Descargues, L’Art est vivant, Paris, 2001, p. 325. Letter from Buffet to Descargues, 1947: ‘Regarding my conception of painting, I will answer you in reversing the formula of René Descartes, “I endeavour to not think in order to be.”’

26     See S. Laurent, Bernard Buffet, Paris, 2000, pp. 53 & 146.

27     Pierre Descargues and Catherine Valogne, interview by the author, Fontenay-aux-Roses, 28 July 2003.

28     See Laurent, p. 104. The figure of a monthly payment of 50,000 francs against his production is given.

29     See Y. Le Pichon, Bernard Buffet 1943–1987, Paris, 1986, vol.1, p. 249 & vol. 2, pp. 57–8. Le Pichon refers to the artist as ‘Buffet Buffon’ because of his keen interest in the natural sciences, seen in works such as the series of insect paintings in 1952 and the ink drawings from 1953, titled Le Bestiare, of all the animals saved by Noah.

30     J.-F. Devay, ‘Ce jeune homme pale, solitaire, et travailleur qui s’appelle Bernard Buffet’, Elle, 13 May – 22 April 1957, p.47(?). This owl is not the same as the one of 1950. Note the works by two of his favourite realist painters, Michel Patrix and Alphonse Quizet, on the wall behind.

31     See Laurent, p. 28.

32     S. de Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance, 1950, p. 46.

33     For an analysis of Miserabilism as a deformation of the world according to a point of view invested with sadness and ugliness, see E. Mercier, ‘Le misérabilisme dans ‘la jeune peinture’ des années 50′, La Gazette de l’Hôtel Drouot, 22 November 2002, pp. 309–11. Buffet’s work can be seen to participate in this aesthetic which was maintained by painters such as Jean Jansem, Claude Weisbuch, Michel de Gallard, Roger Lersy and André Minaux. Mercier notes the primacy of drawing as an ‘anguished trace’ transcribing the artist’s ‘sublimated despair’.

34     The second Homme-Témoin manifesto, 1949, by Bouret declared that Picasso and Matisse are responsible for the decadence of the French tradition. On painters such as Buffet, Bouret argues in ‘L’art figurative – Les amoureux de la nature’, in Bilan de l’art actuel, ed. R. Lebel, Paris, 1953, p. 67: ‘These painters are reacting against a tendency represented by the spiritual sons of Picasso and Matisse. They reclaim a return to the real, a solid technique using the paint and observation of nature.’

35     See, for example, J. Baschet, Pour une renaissance de la peinture française, Paris, 1946, pp. 111–12: ‘The past, with its lessons and examples, indicates to us the road to follow … Arrière toute! Art must be saved by a united will … Conscience. Work. Tradition.’

36     See R. Moulin, Le Marché de la peinture en France, Paris, 1967, pp. 168–76.

37     See Moulin, pp. 463–7. The author notes that the pictomanie of the 1950s was due to the economic boom, the speculation allowed by the absence of a tax on added-value capital, a lively interest in painting in general and the social prestige conferred on buyers of art. Other realist painters, such as Lorjou and Yves Brayer, were also obtaining very high prices.

38     See N. Adamson, The Identity of the École de Paris in Painting and Criticism, 1939–1964, PhD dissertation, University of Melbourne, 2003.

39     See G. Charensol, ‘Les dix peintres en tête de la jeune école contemporaine’, Connaissance des arts, 36, 15 February 1955, pp. 28–35. The votes for Buffet came from conservative art critics such as André Warnod and Claude Roger-Marx, as well as from fellow realist painters.

40     See Laurent, pp. 162–3.

41     C. Zervos, ‘Jeune peinture & critique – A propos du Xe Salon de Mai’, Cahiers d’art, no. 1, October 1954, pp. 5–9.

42     Descargues, Bernard Buffet, p. 8, starts by discussing the suspicion which falls upon Buffet with regards to his status as artist-celebrity. Michel Ragon ‘Mondanité du “misérabilisme”’, in La Peinture actuelle, Paris, 1959, pp. 56–7, noted: ‘The case of Bernard Buffet is one that must be examined, one more time. His paintings have already spread throughout the entire world. He is at the same time the James Dean, the Françoise Sagan, the Brigitte Bardot of recent painting’.

43     See, for example, A. Jouffroy, ‘Situation de la Jeune Peinture à Paris’, Preuves 68, October 1956, pp. 24–9.

44     B. H. D. Buchloh, ‘An Interview with Andy Warhol’, in Andy Warhol, ed. Annette Michelson, Cambridge, Mass., 2001, pp. 119–28.

45     For example, Buffet’s Street scene (Scène de rue) 1956, was sold for US$797,500 in 1990 at Sotheby’s. ‘Le côté du Figaro’, Le Figaro, 8 March 1991, shows a graph with Buffet’s work skyrocketing into the 5–6 million franc range.

46     The terms meta-trash and kitsch are used in A. Roob, ‘Qui a peur de Bernard Buffet?’, Cher peintre … Lieber Maler … Dear Painter … Peintures figuratives depuis l’ultime Picabia (exh. cat.), Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2002, pp. 40–1.