This work is recorded in the Maurice Garnier Archive.
Le clown musicien was executed by French artist Bernard Buffet in 1960, a time during which the artist had achieved great artistic renown in Paris. In 1943 Buffet began his career in Paris, enrolling at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts. In 1947, at only nineteen-years-old, Buffet had his first solo exhibition. Buffet had begun to achieve national acclaim by the beginning of the 1950s, and in 1955 he was voted one of the greatest post-war artists in France by the art review Connaissance des Arts. A predominantly figurative artist, Buffet developed a distinctive and unmistakable style depicting highly stylized figures and objects with strong, expressive black lines and flattened, bold color. In 1971 the French State awarded him the Légion d'Honneur and in 1974 he was elected to join the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Le clown musicien portrays a tragicomic clown: a musician in a clown costume stands facing the viewer, engaging us with a melancholic gaze that is at odds with the cheerful character of his attire; the exaggerated make-up on his face contrasts sharply with his forlorn expression. In its combination of music and theatre costumes, the present work evokes a tradition which had been central to much of the art of the avant-garde. In the first half of the 20th-century, clowns, acrobats, and musicians had become symbolic figures in the works of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Georges Rouault. In those years, the figure of the circus performer was often used as a representation of the marginalized, story-teller figure of the artist himself, evoking the hardships of his vocation, but also the charm and magic of his art, as he conjures new imaginary worlds into existence, immersing the viewer in his narrative web. Le clown musicien presents the theme of the clown in the unmistakable style of Buffet: the figure is outlined with dramatic black lines, combined with flat areas of color, adding to the picture's charged atmosphere.
Buffet first turned to the subject of clowns and the circus in 1955. Though a seemingly light-hearted and entertaining subject matter, the flamboyantly attired clowns and acrobats were depicted with a muted color palette and with the same solemn, melancholic expressions that can be seen in the present work. Instead of presenting a comedic extrovert, Buffet has portrayed a vulnerable, introverted image of the clown; his theatrical and cheerful mask is dropped, exposing a more human element to the portrait of the entertainer.
Buffet's art in general was understood to be akin to the Existentialist philosophy which compellingly voiced the feeling of disorientation which characterized the Post-War period. His figures reflected and expressed the angst and trauma of the period.
Much later in the century, contemporary Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi also contemplated the concept of a figure's mask or external façade in his important Mask series, which he began in 1994. In these paintings, Fanzhi depicted portraits of figures whose facial features were distorted and concealed by white masks with blank and vacant expressions, a comment on the sense of alienation and isolation the artist felt in the rapidly changing society of China in the mid-1990s.
Accompanying Le clown musicien is an equally sized sheet of paper on which Buffet has written a note in crayon exclaiming, « “Le Clown Musicien” La “Grande” Musique c’est Lui,” » which translates to “The Clown Musician, The ‘Grand’ Music is Him.”' Le clown musicien thus presents not only a key motif in the artist's career, but also encapsulates his unique style and distinctive mode of expression.