This work is sold with a photo-certificate from Galerie Maurice Garnier.
Portraying a tragi-comic duo as they perform a musical number to an unseen audience, Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste is a rare example within Bernard Buffet’s oeuvre of a large-scale work dealing with the theme of the clown. At the heart of the composition, these two performers appear in an explosion of bright colour, their dramatic attire and make-up evoking a festive atmosphere. However, the title character, the saxophonist, appears despondent, gazing mournfully across the stage towards his partner. His melancholy expression seems out of place among the bright costumes, and playful nature of the performance, especially when compared to that of the female clown on the right hand side, who sings and engages the audience with a much more cheerful countenance. Reminiscent of the vaudevillian performances that toured Europe in the early Twentieth Century, Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste harks back to a culture of light entertainment which had all but disappeared in the modern world by the time this work was painted.
Bernard Buffet had enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame during the 1940s and 50s, quickly gaining an international reputation that would soon rival that of his contemporary, Pablo Picasso. Born in Paris, he enrolled at the city’s École Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts at the age of just fifteen, where his unique artistic talents were soon recognised by his teachers. In the years following the cessation of the Second World War, he became known as one of the most exciting figurative painters in France, a reputation enthusiastically promoted by the writer and art critic Pierre Descargues, who became one of the young artist’s earliest and most ardent supporters. On the occasion of his first solo-exhibition in 1947, the Musée National d’Art Moderne bought one of Buffet’s still life-paintings for its collection, and the following year he was awarded the prestigious Prix de la Critique at the age of just twenty. Buffet’s distinctive style, characterised by stark, angular black outlines, stylised figures and areas of flat colour, made him a unique artistic voice in Post-War France, and earned him a place among the elite artistic personalities of the day. This reputation was cemented in 1955 by the art review Connaissance des Arts, when it decreed him the greatest post-war artist in France.
By focusing on the two clowns mid-performance in Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste, Buffet revisits a subject which had held a particular fascination for him during his early career. Beginning in 1955, the artist undertook an extensive exploration of the theme of the travelling circus, painting melancholy portraits of clowns, trapeze artists, animal performers and acrobats as they entertained an invisible audience. In these paintings, the mournful expressions of these characters clashed with the exaggerated makeup and flamboyant costumes they wore, projecting a melancholic atmosphere that belied the traditional view of the circus as a gleeful, jubilant form of entertainment. Viewed in the context of Post-War Europe, these figures were seen as symbolic reflections of the internal suffering and angst hidden by so many people following the conflict, as they attempted to continue with normal life in the wake of such tragedy.
While the bright, colourful atmosphere of Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste offers a stark contrast to the dark palette of this earlier series of works, the choice of subject matter and prevailing mood of the painting demonstrate Buffet’s continued attraction to the character of the clown as a figure who embodies the conflict between an internal emotional landscape and external appearances. In the present work, this manifests itself in the disconnect between the clown’s colourful costume and vibrant make-up and his despondent air. Whilst the attire he adopts during his performance projects an impression of happiness, joy and exuberance, behind this façade the character is clearly enveloped by feelings of despair. Underneath the thick layers of pan-stick and eccentric accessories, the man behind this character, his sorrows and his hardships, remains hidden from public view. This concept has been taken up by a number of contemporary artists in recent years, most notably Zeng Fanzhi, in his celebrated Mask series. Here, the Chinese artist explores the conflict between superficially composed appearances and true identity in the modern world, as he painted numerous types of people wearing blank, expressionless masks that conceal the faces and emotions of the figure portrayed.
The forlorn attitude of the saxophonist in the present work recalls the iconic character of Pierrot, the sad clown of French comedic theatre, who had enthralled numerous avant-garde artists during the early Twentieth Century. Appearing in a uniform of loose, long white blouse and starkly painted face, the Pierrot was a stock figure within European theatre, moving slowly and mournfully through his performances, with a melancholy attitude that subverted traditional notions of the jester or clown. The character appeared in paintings by Paul Cézanne, Juan Gris, and most notably, Pablo Picasso, who returned to the figure of Pierrot numerous times over the course of his career. Eschewing the traditional costume in favour of more eye-catching attire, Buffet follows the lead of his predecessors by channelling the despondency of Pierrot into his title character. Pierrot’s sorrow was rooted in his unrequited love for the character Columbine, who preferred the exuberant and extroverted Harlequin to the sensitive and thoughtful Pierrot. Based on the direction of the saxophonist’s sorrowful gaze, a similar situation may be detected in the relationship between the two central characters in Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste. While the saxophonist’s attention is fixed on the female clown as she performs, she remains completely unaware of his attention, caught up in the performance and the crowds before her, a situation perhaps reflective of their relationship as a whole.