Next month sees the anniversary of the suicide of the French artist, Bernard Buffet. Bernard who? Some will know just the name, but many will have seen the work.
In the 1950s, Buffet was the most celebrated painter of the post-war world, and had made a colossal fortune by the time he was 30. His celebrity rivalled that of Picasso, whose own children clamoured for Buffet's autograph in the street. In fact, that episode may well have triggered the campaign of deni
gration by the French cultural élite, largely led by Picasso, who detested Buffet for rivalling his fame and seemed never to forgive him for becoming a cult hero to his children. His work — with bold lines and garish colours — was not true art, and was criticised by André Malraux, who became de Gaulle's Minister for Culture in 1959,although it must be said that Malraux was almost certainly influenced by Picasso. In 1955, he was chosen by 100 art critics as the most impressive young painter in the world, and, a year later, was given a spread in Paris Match, where he was described as the young millionaire painter.
But by 1960, he was beginning to be dismissed by the art establishment, his work considered kitsch and the artist a poser. There were signs a few years ago that Buffet may have been on the way to rehabilitation in France. The first large retrospective exhibition of his work for 40 years was staged in 2009 in Marseille, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris finally put on display some of the large collection of Buffet they had locked away for years. However, the projected Buffet Museum in Carpentras, near Marseille, appears not to have materialised, and, as far as I can see, the only museum dedicated to his work is in Japan
— and even that has been closed for a long time for re-building.
But, for quite a few decades, Buffet remained a favourite with the general public, and, in the 1970s, no middle class living room in Britain was complete without its orange couch, chairs on splayed legs and a Buffet print of a spiky clown's face. Buffet remained commercially successful and fabulously wealthy throughout his life, and committed suicide at the age of 71 only because he developed Parkinson's disease and could no longer paint. At about 4pm on October 4th, 1999, Buffet put his head in a plastic bag attached around his neck with tape.