Q&A: Author Nick Foulkes on the Reinvention of painter Bernard Buffet

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Bernard Buffet in his castle in Provence, France, October 1963. A new biography follows the rise and fall of the 1950s French painter. Francois Pages/Getty

Once considered a contemporary of Pablo Picasso, Bernard Buffet used his brush strokes to depict the voice of a generation. The love bestowed upon the 1950s French painter propelled him to stratospheric levels of fame and wealth, only for him to commit suicide in 1999, alone and banished from the art world that once adored him.

In his authorized biography The Invention of a Mega-Artist, author and journalist Nicholas Foulkes delves deep into the joy and tragedy that accompanied the painter throughout his life.

Foulkes spoke with Newsweek about Buffet, arguably the most famous artist you have never heard of.

The book is titled The Invention of a Mega-Artist. But is it not more a reinvention?

Reinvention is fascinating because the story of his life is quite gripping. He was at various times a drug addict and alcoholic, a massive socialite, then a Howard Hughes-type recluse. He lived in one castle and didn't leave the grounds for two years. Sometimes he was gay, before he was't.

It was a complicated life, while all the time he was painting.

You describe Buffet as being "as famous as Picasso, as glamorous as Roger Vadim, and as celebrated as Brigitte Bardot." That's quite a remarkable space to occupy for someone who is not a household name.

Buffet's certainly not a household name at all. He's not even the grade down from a household name. That's what attracted me to his story.

France was regarded as the city of art and culture before New York took over in the late '50s and '60s. This young guy, according to press clippings, was known as the most talked about artist in France after Picasso. He painted most of the major people of the day, he did film posters, he illustrated books, and yet he just seems to have vanished. The New York Times described him as one of the so-called Fabulous Five along with Françoise Sagan, Roger Vadim, Brigitte Bardot and Yves Saint Laurent, reshaping the cultural map of France.

Why were the conditions in post-war France so perfect for a cultural revolution?

That's what really interested me, the context as much as anything. You had post-war France, and the shame of occupation and collaboration.

What Buffet represented was a complete break with that older generation. He had grown up with the Paris of wartime. [He] demonstrated for many people in France that the country was still capable of creating an artist who was daring.

In what way?

He showed quite homoerotic stuff, and the grinding sort of misery of wartime Paris. It was always grim-looking battered cooking pots and oil lamps, desecrated bits of meat, very normal objects that he dared make into art.

How did Buffet's style fit into that culture and contribute to his initial success?

For young people it was a break from the very colored stuff they'd been used to. Picasso and Matisse were the old men, and this guy came along and gave you 50, 60, 100 shades of grey. A very grimy picture of a man using a lavatory or a women trying to cook something on a really crummy-looking stove.

It spoke to them of their experience. They could relate to it.

The existentialism as well, that whole kind of chic-misery and the impending disaster that the world seemed to hang on. Would there be a nuclear war? When would the grimness end?

All of that was just right. And he became the visual spokesman for that generation and [his work] came to define the era.

What was so exceptional about Buffet's fall from grace? At what point did Picasso and the art industry become ashamed of him?

What was different about Buffet was that he was the creation not just of the art market, but of new media: television and color magazines.

He was in the new milieu that didn't exist before the war so much. He bought a Rolls Royce and started living rather publicly, a lifestyle that was the antithesis of what he had become famous for painting. Critics saw a hypocrisy. There was a sense of envy, no doubt, that he had done so very well so very quickly.

The France of the 1950s was not a place of unbridled affluence. Buffet had the car, he had a castle, he had a pet monkey. He was a society figure and he wasn't even 30. For a French artist, that tarred him for the rest of his life. Buffet was treated as if he was a teen star, a Justin Bieber of painting.

He obviously enjoyed the lifestyle. Would the opinions of the elite matter to him?

Yes. Buffet liked nice things, and he liked living the good life. He didn't court the critics, and it really mattered to him that he wasn't taken seriously by the establishment and he became quite bitter about this later on. He developed a not entirely unjustified persecution complex, which became his schtick for the second part of his life.

If he was loved by the public then how did the elite conspire to erase his name from history?

This is one of the great mysteries of Buffet, whether you believe there was a conspiracy or not.

There is the sense that he was just an unspeakably bad painter who represented an embarrassment, and wasn't fit to be shown in public galleries. It was not what the centralized official culture considered first class art.

It's fascinating that for the first 10 years of his career, Buffet could not put a foot wrong, and then suddenly he became an absolute idiot. How could he be a genius for 10 years, then overnight become a clown?

Does your book aim to redefine Buffet's legacy or depict a flawed art industry?

I think it's an interesting time because now the art world is a branch of two industries: the entrainment industry and the investment industry.

Firstly, I try and reintroduce Buffet to a new generation of people who may not know who Buffet is, or if they do, have only a kind of hazy idea, a kind of spiky signature.

Second, it was to look at the circumstances that created and then killed his reputation.

Who is now responsible for his legacy?

The market for his work has picked up a lot in the last four years. Apparently, they're going mad for it in Asia, and it appeals to former Soviet Union countries.

What story do you think this book tells us about the history of popular culture, and the nature of being an artist?

The fickleness of the market and how public taste can be shaped and influenced. A lot of it is just luck and the power of individuals.

What I tried to do with this book is transport both myself and anybody who is kind enough to read it back to the ringside seat of Buffet's rise and then his fall, and then his semi-rebirth. I hope you understand a bit more about the birth of modern France.

The Invention of a Mega-Artist by Nicholas Foulkes is available now on Amazon.