Characterised by angular black outlines and expressive vibrant colours, Clown is instantly recognisable as a work by the iconic French artist Bernard Buffet. Growing up in Nazi occupied France during World War II, Buffet experienced years of deprivation, finding his unique artistic voice between the 1940s and the 1950s. Championed by the French art critic Pierre Descargues, Buffet’s artistic career had flourished by the early 1950s, and in 1955, Buffet was given First Prize and voted one of the greatest post-war artists in France by the art review Connaissance des Arts. It was during that same year, that he first turned to the subject matter of clowns which became his most frequently depicted theme. By the age of 30, Buffet held his first retrospective at Galerie Charpentier and his international fame rivalled that of his contemporary, Pablo Picasso which led to a competitive tension between the pair.
Clown is portrayed as a tragicomic figure that is both imposing and vulnerable. Buffet depicts his subject as a figure representative of humankind, with an innate vulnerability at odds with the boldness of his costume, clothed and with makeup that betrays his inner motional state. The clown maintains a direct gaze with the viewer, portrayed alone with a wistful expression amidst the vibrant and warm yellow background which is inviting by contrast with his disengaged expression. The shape of the mouth is ambiguous, with the lines at the corners hinting t both a smile and a frown. This contrast engenders a multitude of possible emotions underlying the clown’s
concealed expression; desire, desperation, despair and hope.
Circus performers such as clowns had been a focal subject in the work of avant-garde artists and remain a legacy within the pictorial language of the 20th Century. From Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault and Marc Chagall, many artists portrayed these entertainers, often in the guise of the Harlequin or Pierrot, as clowns, dancers or trapeze artists, as marginalised story tellers who often represent the artists themselves. Fernando Botero has also investigated this theme in more recent times, drawing upon his childhood memories of this fantastical world, behind which is found a different reality of life, at once nomadic and familial, drawing together the mundane
and the magical in his representations of this fascinating community.
Bernard Buffet painted this work in 1966, a time when Abstract Expressionism dominated the international art scene. Buffet persisted with his conviction of figurative paintings and was a member of the anti-abstract art group L’homme Témoin. His distinctive graphic style with expressive colours created a legacy in modern art history which continues to influence new generations of contemporary artists embracing figurative elements to convey complex concepts and ideas.