French painter Bernard Buffet shot to fame in post-war Paris as a young artist, becoming the iconic star of his own legendary story. At only 18, Buffet was nominated by Connaissance des Arts magazine as one of the top ten post-war artists. Before turning 20, he had received critical acclaim at Prix de la Critique. At just 30 years of age, he became the youngest artist to ever hold a solo retrospective at Galerie Charpentier; a testament to the artist’s unmatched status. Buffet’s dazzling triumphs and prolific output brought extraordinary fame and fortune. But with the looming era of abstract expressionism of the 1950s, at a time when the world’s capital for the arts was shifting from Paris to New York, Buffet’s resolve in figurative art resulted in a decline of interest in his work, and in him as an artist. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest and reappraisal of his work, redressing the artist’s devotion to his own artistic discourse.
The melodramatic life of the infinite jester
Buffet’s oeuvre is graphic; with his most iconic renderings being of tall and elongated, sorrowful clowns. The zenith of the “Clown” series was during the 1950s. Formulated at a time when society was just recovering from the Second World War, the subject proved to be extremely powerful. The masked characters were estranged and enigmatic, capturing the unease and distress of the French people during the post-war period. The present Clown (Lot 1013)adopts a classic composition for portraits and the artist seems to purposefully leave the character’s disposition a mystery. The clown dons a comical appearance, and yet its eyes look equivocal and empty. Angular lines, which paint the lips, suggest a suppression of anxious emotions, thwarting attempts to better understand the character’s inner emotional state. Buffet’s use of an enhanced colour palette exaggerates the clown’s makeup and extravagant costume, which, coupled with the striking green used in the background, is not only visually impactful, but lends depth and brings to life to the solemn theme of the painting.
When asked why the character would be favoured as a repeated focus of his paintings, Buffet answered, “The clown can indulge himself with all sorts of disguises and caricatures.” The depiction of the clown was a way for the artist to embrace and express freedom, and the canvas allowed him space to breathe within the harshness of reality. To put on mask after mask was to cope with the dreariness of social existence. In Nicholas Foulkes’ new biography, Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist, the art historian notes: “It is often said that when Buffet painted a face, whether human of animal, he was painting a self-portrait. While not entirely true, there is no doubt that he used his own features as the basis for some of his clown paintings.” The present work does display some connotations of a self-portrait.
In the late 1960s, as the media and the public disapproved of the artist’s extravagant lifestyle and what was perceived to be an excessively commercial oeuvre, Buffet’s celebrity status turned sour. Bitterly chastised, it makes sense that the artist should exert darkness on to his paintings. Is the clown, dressed in a costume representative of 19th-century French court dress, standing tall and majestic, or does he dejectedly mourn the glory of days gone by? The jester faces the masses in isolation, emanating an air of gloom. More prominent, however, is the artist’s unapologetic resilience to a sense of self that is reflected in his observations and artistic portrayal of life as a melodrama.
Streetscapes, still life and birds are repeated themes in Buffet’s oeuvre. Another frequent subject was the sad clown, which contributes to a sizeable collection of oil paintings and includes the present Clown (1968). Sotheby’s Hong Kong was first to offer the artist’s work at the Modern Art Evening Sale in Autumn 2018, to great success. In response to the strong interest generated in the Asian market, Sotheby’s is pleased to present the classic “Sad Clown” series at the forthcoming spring sale to better showcase Buffet’s vivid creativity. The artist’s use of clean, condense and harsh brush strokes is constant and never vulgar. His fluency in conveying an instantly recognisable and unique beauty within images of dispiritedness and remoteness makes Buffet a certain post-war prodigy of the arts, albeit one disputably forsaken by time.
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