BERNARD BUFFET (1928-1999)
BERNARD BUFFET (1928-1999)

Tête de Clown

BERNARD BUFFET (1928-1999)
Tête de Clown
signed 'Bernard Buffet' (lower left) and dated '1999' (lower right)
oil on canvas
116 x 81 cm. (45 5/8 x 31 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1999
Galerie Maurice Garnier, Paris.
Galerie de Souzy, Paris.
Private collection, Europe, by whom acquired from the above in 2009; sale, Sotheby's, London, 22 June, 2016, Lot 440.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.

This work is recorded in the Galerie Maurice Garnier archives.

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Lot Essay

“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” – F. Hergott (quoted in New York Times, 20 October 2016).

At times comical, charming, melancholic, menacing, tragic, hopeful, sardonic or a combination of all these attributes, the figure of the clown persists as easily the most revered and distinctive subject of the artist Bernard Buffet’s illustrious career. Evolving through decades of revisitation from his earliest depictions in the mid-1950s through to those he conjured in the final year of his life in 1999 of which the present work is one, Buffet’s clowns present a constant theme of complex emotional states hidden behind the mask and costume of the clown avatar, both a symbol of humanity’s own dilemma and at times, a self-reflexive portrait of the artist himself.

Growing up 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.

Circus performers such as clowns had been a focal subject in the work of avant-garde artists working in Paris during the early 20th Century and remain a legacy within the pictorial language of the 20th Century European art canon. From Henri de Toulouse Lautrec to Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault and Marc Chagall, many artists portrayed these entertainers, often in the guise of the Harlequin or Pierrot from the commedia dell'arte, 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. However Buffet’s insistence on this theme, his dedication to it and constant reinterpretations bought a powerfully personalised element to the clown which evolved in tandem with his own career and progression as an artist, displaying different conflicting emotions with an intense and existential quality at times bound up with Buffet’s own identity as artist and hence, performer.

Characterised by angular black outlines and vibrant, expressive vibrant colours, Tête de Clown is instantly recognisable as a work by Buffet. Yet its character defies that of the more common evocations of the clown subject seen in earlier works, typically characterised as a tragicomic figure, representative of humankind, with an innate vulnerability at odds with the boldness of its costume, clothed and covered in makeup that betrays another inner emotional state. Tête de Clown instead conveys a more playful, cheeky, provocative sensibility. Rendered in electric, vibrating, colour, the clown’s thickly textured face with colourful makeup and hair sing brightly forward against the green background. The clown maintains a direct and piercing blue gaze with the viewer, the bright pink tongue protruding from smirking lips in an abandonment of social norms, a mischievous irreverence and humorousness, with matching pink conical hat forms atop either side of its head, a butterfly flitting in between. The butterfly is a motif depicted in earlier works by Buffet, however it’s inclusion here remains somewhat ambiguous. Nonetheless, it retains a comedic quality, whether suggesting a natural outdoor atmosphere, a comical symbol of rebirth or a slapstick prop, it is humorous in its incongruity. In essence, Tête de Clown possesses a new strength of character, an unashamed funny-frightfulness, that emanates a bold, satirically frivolous extreme at the ultimate point of the artist’s career during his final year. As if a final ode to the artist’s beloved subject, Tête de Clown perfectly illustrates the distinctive graphic style with bold expressive colours and unabashed intensity that created Buffet’s legacy in modern art history which continues to influence new generations of contemporary artists embracing figurative elements to convey complex concepts and ideas.

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