Swellboy on… a Bernard Buffet show in Baku

How encouraging that the art world is taking note of the remarkable French painter’s revival…

Image: Brijesh Patel

I was in Azerbaijan for the opening of the Bernard Buffet show at the Heydar Aliyev Centre. I am writing a book about the life of this remarkable French painter who was the superstar artist of his time (a prototype YBA, only that he was French), who was famous at 20, had a castle and a Rolls-Royce (even though he did not drive himself) long before he was 30, had a museum opened in his honour in Japan by the time he was 45, was the lover of Pierre Bergé, then married a nightclub singer called Annabel, was one of the pillars of Paris Match society and still found the time to paint around 12,000 works.

It is the trajectory of the reputation that is so fascinating; having been the darling of the intelligentsia of his homeland until he was about 30, he was then shunned by the cultural establishment and dismissed as overly commercial. 

Now, however, he is being rediscovered by a new generation of collectors, a number of whom were packed into the Heydar Aliyev Centre on a Friday night for the opening of the show. This was organised by the Le Fonds de Dotation Bernard Buffet and a fellow HowToSpendIt.com contributor, Jean-David Malat of Opera Gallery, who wrote the Diary of a Somebody earlier this year.

Named after Azerbaijan’s president from 1993 to 2003, the Centre is huge. It is the sort of thing that would take a European city a decade to organise and yet over here it is just one of many similarly ambitious projects. Designed by Zaha Hadid, it is one of those buildings so large that it has its own microclimate: in order to keep the masterpieces at their peak condition a museum had to be built within the museum in order to control the environment and lighting. 

I was familiar with many of the works on show, having seen them in storage in Paris, where Buffet’s lifelong dealer Maurice Garnier – a great character who, even though well into his nineties would still walk to his gallery, but who, alas, died earlier this year – assembled a remarkable collection that one day, I hope, will be housed in a permanent museum honouring this remarkable artist. 

Certainly the art world is taking note of his revival, as among the guests at that private view was superstar curator Hervé Mikaeloff, who also works for Louis Vuitton, as well as artists Joana Vasconcelos, Annie Morris, Idris Khan and Jean-Michel Othoniel. And prima gallerina Joanna Thornberry of the fashionable Lisson Gallery turned up with Anish Kapoor’s right-hand man for the dinner and after-party.

Even though I was familiar with the paintings, it was exciting to see them in a museum setting. Leyla Aliyeva, vice president of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation (based in the Centre), opened the exhibition, then toured it, and I found myself in the unusual position of being one of those people who tag along with the official party, occasionally murmuring an answer to a question or venturing some sort of biographical detail.

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But the size of the Centre is such that a major exhibition like this is just one of many attractions; there was a Tony Cragg show, among other things, and as I spent the weekend visiting museums and touring the city, the realisation dawned that this was a more or less brand-new nation in the process of defining itself. Baku had enjoyed an oil boom in the mid-19th century and experienced a brief flicker of independence after the first world war. And I familiarised myself with the feel of belle-époque Baku by reading the novel Ali and Nino (which reminds me a bit of Bulgakov’s White Nights). Written in the 1930s, it gives a picture of what life was like in the early part of the last century in a part of the world that finds itself on the crossroads of Europe and Asia on the East-West axis and Russia-Arabia on the north-south. 

It has witnessed Zoroastrian fire worship, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the past of the area is an hypnotically colourful kaleidoscope of Khanates and kingdoms over which history in the forms of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, Russia and the Soviet Union have washed. 

However, it has only been a country in the sense that we in Europe understand it, with clearly drawn borders, branches of all the world’s most famous luxury brands and what have you, for less than quarter of a century and it is fascinating to see a country in the process of making. 

There is a giant Ferris wheel known colloquially as the Baku Eye. The Crystal Hall was the venue for the Eurovision Song Contest. The night after the opening of the Bernard Buffet exhibition I went to another significant first night: that of the city’s Buddha Bar; which in terms of canapés, music, beautiful people and sumptuous VIP zone would have held its own in any city in Western Europe. 

Moreover, there always seems to be something in the pipeline (and I am not just talking about the oil pipeline that snakes from Baku to Turkey). A new “Art City” zone is being planned. And Baku is the host nation of next year’s Olympic European Games – if you are trying to remember where the last European Games were held, you can stop racking your brain, because this is the first edition of this sporting event. 

But what I liked was the fact that alongside these new projects, there is a concerted effort to safeguard the city’s past. The old town is a charming nearly car-free zone and remains in a sufficient state of preservation to give you an idea of what the city was like in the days of the Silk Road. I also found myself surprisingly intrigued by the newly opened carpet museum which is built in the shape of a rolled-up carpet, and includes some cracking examples of social realist weaving from the Soviet era depicting joyful Communists living the dream (and, no, I am not joking).

Although the history is at times hazy – apparently academics are still unsure whether the Maiden Tower, the city’s chief architectural ornament, was used for defence, astronomy or fire worship – I was relieved that it was not all being swept away on a tsunami of sushi bars and sports-car dealerships.

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