This work is recorded in the Maurice Garnier Archives.
Bernard Buffet’s clown series evoke a tradition which had been central to much of the art of the Avant-garde. In the first half of the Twentieth Century, in fact, 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 marginalised, 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.
Buffet first turned to the subject of clowns in 1955, when he created the Circus series that also featured acrobat troupes and trapeze artists. Though a seemingly light-hearted and entertaining subject matter, the flamboyantly attired clowns and acrobats were depicted with a muted colour palette and with the same solemn, melancholic expressions that can be seen in Clown. At the time the first Circus series were painted, France was recovering from the devastating effects of the Second World War. Within this context, the figures reflected and expressed the angst and trauma of the period and voiced the feeling of disorientation which characterised the Post-War period. That 1955 series of clowns enjoyed a great success and, that same year, Buffet was voted the best artist in Paris in a poll organised by the art review Connaissance des Arts.
Returning to the theme at various points in his career, Buffet continues to present his clown portraits as juxtaposition between the internal and external being, joy and melancholy, pleasure and despair. The clown's brightly coloured costume, designed to entertain and amuse an onlooker, contrasts with his vacant, despondent expression. The colours are not part of the figure, they float; they are at odds with the character, the lively counterpoint to him. The eye must see two planes simultaneously; the face is sad but the colours are bright and vibrant. 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.
The present lot was executed as part of a second major Clown series in 1989. While the compositional elements remain unchanged – sharply arched eyebrows; a red circle for a nose; the exaggerated make-up on his face contrasting sharply with his listless expression - three decades later, the 1989 Clown series seems to return to the theme with a different perspective from that employed during the Post-War period. When compared to his first, almost monochrome Circus series, the strongly expressionistic brushwork and raw, unmixed application of thickly impastoed paint, demonstrate the advancement of colour over line in Buffet’s practise over his long career. While during the Post- War period Buffet had turned the clown into a symbol of malaise and suffering, in the late 80s the artist seemed to depict the same subject in a way that hinted at a coming to terms with their disillusionment. Unaffected by the comic appearances of their condition, the figure in the present lot displays a forbearing, perhaps even hopeful stance.