BERNARD BUFFET (1928-1999)
BERNARD BUFFET (1928-1999)
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Where Christie’s has provided a Minimum Price Guar… Read more PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTION, UNITED KINGDOM
BERNARD BUFFET (1928-1999)

Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste

BERNARD BUFFET (1928-1999)
Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste
signed ‘Bernard Buffet’ (centre left); dated ‘1991’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
225.4 x 270 cm. (88 3⁄4 x 106 1⁄4 in.)
Painted in 1991
Galerie Maurice Garnier, Paris
Private collection, Europe, by whom acquired from the above; sale, Christie's London, 22 June 2016, Lot 22
Private collection, by whom acquired at the above sale

This work is recorded in the Maurice Garnier Archives
Paris, Galerie Maurice Garnier, Bernard Buffet: les clowns musiciens, February - March 1992, no. 3, pp. 14-15 (illustrated).
Special notice
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Lot Essay

“Only the clowns, his lifelong friends, are his interpreters. Faceted characters, specialists in derision, they reflect wonderfully the emotions, the fights, which Bernard expresses through them.”
Annabel Buffet, the artist’s wife (quoted in Bernard Buffet, Les clowns musiciens, exh. cat., Paris, 1992, pp. 7-8)

An epic reprisal of Buffet’s most celebrated motif, Les clowns musiciens, le saxophonist represents one of the artist’s grandest representations of the iconic subject of the clown, measuring over two metres high and wide. Painted in 1991, this magnificent doubleclown portrait is the most ambitious and outstanding depiction of the motif seen at auction, originating from his heroic series of Clowns Musiciens of the same year, exhibited at Galerie Maurice Garnier in 1992. Assuming the monumental presence of a grand history painting, Les clowns musiciens, le saxophonist presents a bold return to the key theme that propelled the young artist even further into the spotlight when it appeared first in his work during the mid-1950s. The clown theme, a legacy from his early-20th Century forbearers from Toulouse-Lautrec to Chagall and Picasso, would be redefined and reclaimed by Buffet as his most popular and enduing motif, consuming his interest at key periods throughout the many decades to follow.

Born in Paris, Buffet enrolled at the city’s École Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts at the age of just fifteen, shortly after becoming known as one of the most exciting figurative painters in France. 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. Having enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, which at one point rivalled that of his iconic contemporary Pablo Picasso, Buffet become an art celebrity in a way never witnessed before, quickly gaining an international reputation alongside others of his generation such as the actress Brigitte Bardot and fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. As noted by Fabrice Hergot, Director of the Musée d’Art Moderne at the time of his recent retrospective in 2016, “No artist anywhere has ever been as popular in his lifetime as Buffet…Today, we could compare him to Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami, but neither has achieved Buffet’s universal popularity” (quoted in New York Times, 20 October 2016). Buffet’s reputation was cemented in 1955 by the art review Connaissance des Arts, when it decreed him the greatest post-war artist in France.

During this seminal year of 1955, Buffet undertook an extensive exploration of the theme of the travelling circus, painting portraits of clowns, trapeze artists, animal performers and acrobats. In these paintings, the woeful expressions of these characters clashed with the exaggerated makeup and flamboyant costumes they wore, subverting the traditional view of the circus as a gleeful, jubilant form of entertainment, their true emotions remaining hidden from public view. The clown motif was a legacy inherited from the masters of the early 20th Century, particularly Chagall and Picasso, who explored the Pierrot or Harlequin as a self-reflexive figure and a metaphor for the artistic path and the challenges one may face with such a vocation. For Buffet too, the clown became an avatar, bearing similarities in expression to his early self-portraits, exploring the contrast between true emotive qualities of his sitters and their socially constructed masks.

Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste from 1991 represents a grand reprisal of this significant subject at the height of Buffet’s mature career, whereupon he painted a monumental series of works celebrating the theme in his Clowns musiciens series. This outstandingly colourful group of works, each featuring multiple performers engaged in different acts within vastly-sized canvases, replaces the pale or monochrome palette of Buffet’s earlier clown portraits, shattering the sombre mood with an explosion of colour. On this brilliantly grand and confident scale, the slapstick duo in Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste take on a more extreme and outrageous character. Their large shoes, full make-up, elaborate, brightly-coloured costumes all scream for attention, whilst the instruments they play can be imagined to sound just as bold. The distracted expression of the saxophonist points to the duality of his earlier clown character whilst by contrast, the female clown on the right hand side, sings with a wide, playful smile and engages with the audience, creating a dynamic paradox between the pair.

As witnessed in its triumphal return in Les clowns musiciens, le saxophonist, the clown motif was an enduring symbol that remained profoundly significant for Buffet, constantly evolving yet always embodying the conflict between an internal emotional landscape and external appearances. This duality speaks to a sense of alienation and absurdity, remaining just as relevant today in a world under the influence of social media and celebrity culture. Clowns continue to appear in the work of contemporary artists such as Banksy, Peter Doig and George Condo who have been known to adopt this distinctive figure along with its long artistic legacy. Condo’s clowns, with their distorted faces and brightly coloured polka-dot costumes, are seen smoking and frowning through their makeup, similarly twisting their supposedly happy demeanour, occupying an incongruous place in the modern world, in a way that Buffet would have understood and appreciated.

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