Born in Paris in 1928, Buffet came of age under the Nazi occupation. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, and by the age of 19 had had his first solo show. Buffet’s was an austere vision of the world that chimed perfectly with the atmosphere of post-war alienation championed by the fashionable existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. It earned him immediate popular acclaim and in 1948, at the age of 20, he was awarded the prestigious Prix de la Critique. Ten years later, now a highly renowned artist, he was hailed by The New York Times Magazine as one of ‘France’s Fabulous Young Five’, together with Françoise Sagan, Yves Saint Laurent, Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot.
Buffet’s style changed little between his early work in series such as ‘The Horrors of War’ (1955) and later paintings such as Sumo Rikishi (1980–81). By the 1950s, success had transformed this archetype of the Left Bank existentialist into a world-famous artist-celebrity who travelled by Rolls-Royce and holidayed at his chateau in Provence. Innovations in contemporary art were leaving Buffet behind.
During the 1950s and 1960s, as Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism purged representation from the canvas, Buffet’s continued repertoire of clowns, bullfighters, cityscapes and flagellated Christs was left open to accusations of quaintness, even kitsch. Nevertheless, in Japan, where two museums are dedicated to his work, he remained a giant, and his paintings and prints are in the collections of both the Tate and the Pompidou Centre.