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|The Roving Eye|
by Anthony Haden-Guest
|The life of the French painter Bernard Buffet is dark, odd, sad. Still Life with a Chicken, a Buffet canvas bought for Paris's Museum of Modern Art in 1947, already had the trademark Buffet look -- stark naturalistic images with scratchy black outlines, doomy colors, a massive signature. Buffet was 19. Soon the handsome young man was acquiring powerful admirers. The poet Louis Aragon; the novelist Jean Giono; Georges Simenon, the great writer of crime stories. In 1955, a committee of art world eminences put together by the magazine Connaissance des Arts named him as the best artist to have emerged since the war. In 1958, he had his "retrospective" at the Galerie Charpentier and was the subject of a book by Pierre Berge, later the mastermind behind the Yves Saint Laurent empire.
He also married Annabelle Schwob, a former model, and the wraith-like duo became familiar figures in Paris Match and French Vogue.
But by the early 1960s, it was all over for Bernard Buffet. The existential angst of which he was the chic embodiment had dissipated. Instead, Paris was roiled by the raw energies of the "New Realism" of Yves Klein, Cesar, Arman and Christo, and the "Nouvelle Vague" movie-makers -- Truffaut, Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard. Then, 1968 impended. Buffet was derided as formulaic, and furiously over-productive of series. He was attacked for going commercial -- designing movie posters, wine-labels, wrapping paper. He was, in this regard, like Andy Warhol, but without Warhol's charge of restless energy, his idiot savant ability to function as a blank screen. There was only savage amusement when a Bernard Buffet Museum was founded in Japan in 1973 -- and perhaps a spark of hope for collectors stuck with a canvas.
Of recent years, other artists who began working with that dark mood of post-war miserabilisme -- Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon -- have become giants but Bernard Buffet was always seen as beyond redemption. He continued to be vastly successful commercially, though, and showed annually at the Galerie Maurice Garnier, now at 6, Avenue Matignon. He was also an obsessive worker, and put in seven hours a day in his studio. But Buffet had begun to suffer from Parkinson's disease -- a peculiarly terrible disease for a painter. He had never made a secret of the fact that when he could no longer paint, he wanted to die. Last February, he told Garnier that the year 2000 show would be his last, and he would work on it the hardest. The show is called La mort -- Death. Garnier did not need to be told what Buffet was planning.
It opened last week. Bernard Buffet was not in attendance. Last October, he called Maurice Garnier from his country house in the Var region and announced that he would shortly be killing himself. At four in the afternoon on October 4th he put a plastic bag over his head, scotch-taped it around the neck, and suffocated himself. It is rather moving to realize, with so many applauded artists cheerfully abandoning their studios to make movies and God knows what else, that this long ignored man killed himself because he could no longer paint.
The show is Buffet's darkest ever. It consisted of several dozen canvases depicting skeletons, some wearing ruffs and period costumery, or diapers, all with glaring eyes and fixed grins. You think of the last dark period of Keith Haring. You could almost forget the sterile decades of relentless art production. Certainly you would say he painted himself a fine finis.
It's a sign of the rudely bouncing health of the London art world -- and this is an effect not a cause -- that British pop stars, like Renaissance popes, accept that power confers responsibility and take an interest in art, whether it's collecting or simply hanging out with artists. On Jan. 22, for instance, both Elton John and the wondrous Lulu hopped the pond and showed up for the opening of Sam Taylor-Wood's show of mysterious and magical photographs and videos in Matthew Marks' two Chelsea galleries and for the dinner at Pastis afterwards.
Velvet cords were absent. Publicists likewise. True, John was watched over by a fellow who moved around like a customized Swiss Alp but, in the wake of the stabbing of George Harrison, who is to blame him? And the minder was an unthreatening presence -- certainly not the type to get picked up for, let's say, throwing a loaded handgun out of a speeding limo.
Where are art supporters from the corporate realms of American pop? Okay, Michael Stipe has shown his own photographs and Moby is around, but Moby is Canadian, and that is not nearly enough. Where have the U.S. rock stars gone? To MTV, every one.
|Dinner at Pastis||Author and photographer||Jeff Koons and
George and Anna Condo
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Photos by Jessica Craig-Martin.
ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST is a writer, reporter and cartoonist. He is currently at work on Famous: Some Journeys through Celebrity Worlds (William Morrow).