Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Saint Bernard

Some years ago we were keen to curate an exhibition looking at the history of popular art in New Zealand. As part of the research we discovered a fascinating resource. The catalogues of ‘original prints’ ordered by framing shops from overseas publishers. (That term ‘original print’ would continue to haunt New Zealand print makers for many years). Some of the catalogues were annotated with orders and so our collection gave us a pretty good picture of the good pretty pictures that ended up on New Zealand walls. In the fifties and sixties there weren’t many original contemporary art works to be found in New Zealand homes but two contemporary international artists were household names – Pablo Picasso and Bernard Buffet. When in Frankfurt a couple of days ago, we had to head straight for the Bernard Buffet survey at the Museum fur Moderne Kunst. This was the latest of a number of attempts to revive Buffet from the contemporary art benches he has warmed for most of the last 40 years. It is hard to remember now how influential Buffet’s soulful expressionistic figures and dark jagged-lines were on a whole era of graphic style. Today they seem hammy and overwrought, but there was a time when for many people a Bernard Buffet print in the living room showed an appreciation of what was modern in the world. The curator of the Frankfurt show describes Buffet’s low standing with contemporary art critics and curators as ‘suppression’ but when you looked at the work that assertion didn’t ring true. Buffet’s genre narratives still look like illustrations of someone else’s ideas and the curator, by also hanging some great Andy Warhol paintings alongside the Buffets (Warhol said something nice about him once – it was that kind of show) was, albeit unintentionally, putting the boot in. The question that occupied us was why Buffet, who was so richly rewarded, influential and world-famous, still felt so unappreciated?

Images: Top and middle Bernard Buffet details and Self Portrait. Bottom Buffet print on sale opposite the Museum fur Moderne Kunst.