Maurice Garnier has died, aged 93
A Paris dealer with a 60-year obsession with Picasso’s rival, Bernard Buffet
By Claudia Barbieri Childs. Web only
Published online: 31 January 2014
For more than 40 years, on the first Thursday of February, the dealer Maurice Garnier held a reception for admirers of the work of the artist Bernard Buffet (1928-99) in his elegant gallery on the Avenue Matignon, in the heart of the Paris Right Bank art district. Amid Art Deco furnishings by the designer Jacques Adnet, the party was an esoteric, cultish affair. One recent participant said that none of the guests were “the usual people that you see at Parisian gallery exhibitions”.
The gathering was more than a ritual; it was a declaration of faith. Garnier “entered into Bernard Buffet’s painting in the way one enters a religion”, the French art critic Jean Bouret once wrote, to which Garnier responded (in a rare interview), “that judgement is absolutely exact”.
Faith was needed. In the 1950s, soon after Garnier was first introduced to him, Buffet was a star of the Parisian art scene, on a par with Picasso (the two detested each other). In those years, Buffet made Garnier a wealthy man. But within a decade, as Picasso’s star waxed, Buffet’s was eclipsed. Japanese collectors adored him, seeing in his spiky, angular style a cartoonish element that spoke to them, but for intellectual Parisians, his figurative, anti-Abstractionist work seemed too facile. Only in the past five years or so, long after the artist, suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, committed suicide, has he been rediscovered by an art market avid for any neglected work.
They were an oddly assorted pair. Garnier, born in 1920 into a well-to-do family in suburban Meudon, was gentlemanly, introverted to the point that he described himself as a misanthrope; Buffet, eight years his junior, was mondain, first the lover of Pierre Bergé until Bergé left him for Yves Saint-Laurent, and later the husband of the androgynous singer/model/actress/Left-Bank intellectual Annabel Schwob. But the two men understood one another. “It wasn’t friendship,” Garnier told one interviewer, years later, “It was complicity.” When they talked to each other, they used the formal “vous”. But mostly they communicated without speaking, which suited Garnier. “People used to say I was the only dealer in Paris who could sell paintings without speaking,” he told a fellow dealer in 2002.
The pair were introduced in 1948 by Emmanuel David, an older Right Bank gallery owner with a passion for discovering young talent. It was David who, not long after the end of Second World War, had encouraged Garnier to open his first gallery, Visconti, on the more bohemian Left Bank. They later became partners, opening a gallery together on Avenue Matignon in 1956. The partnership lasted until 1968, when David went his own way, leaving the space and its artists, including Buffet, to Garnier. “He gave me the taste for this trade,” Garnier said, “I learned everything from Emmanuel David.”
At first, the Avenue Matignon gallery represented some 20 young painters, but in 1977 Garnier, by then working alone, took the decision to devote the shop exclusively to Buffet, whose reputation was then in free fall. From then on, Garnier bought paintings from the increasingly dysfunctional artist, gave him a steady income, found him a home and looked after his finances. After Buffet’s death, he continued to support his widow and children. Sebastien Janssen, a Brussels gallery owner who also shows Buffet, told The Art Newspaper: “He had the role of a banker. Buffet was incapable of running his life.”
Garnier gave Buffet the freedom to work, which he did obsessively, producing around 8,000 paintings, lithographs and engravings, despite battles with drink and depression. But acting as the artist’s nanny took a toll on Garnier’s own life. Buffet was one reason why, he said, he married late in life (aged 64) and had no children. “I consecrated my life to Bernard Buffet,” he said, “Bernard Buffet was my life, my family, my children. He was a great creator, a genius.”
Yet, there was another side to him. “He was an old-fashioned art dealer—a complex and extraordinary person,” said Janssen, who started buying from him in 2007. “He had an extremely generous nature and was very open to contemporary art. We worked well together.”
For all his self-confessed misanthropy, neighbours on the Avenue Matignon remembered him as courteous and amiable. “He offered me the catalogue raisonné of Buffet’s work. We had an amicable, professional relationship,” recalled Armand Israel, a specialist in Georges Braque, who had had a shop nearby.
Garnier died, aged 93, on 10 January, leaving a widow and an unfulfilled ambition to establish a French museum based on his substantial private collection. Japan has had a Bernard Buffet museum since 1973 but the nearest equivalent in France is a two-room space, opened in 2011, at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. There is, however, a Garnier website. There, a notice says: “Madame Ida Garnier and employees of the Gallery Maurice Garnier continue the task of Maurice Garnier for the work of Bernard Buffet.”
Claudia Barbieri is an independent Paris-based journalist who writes about art and the contemporary art world. Her work has been published by The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, The Art Newspaper and Paris Update.
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