Clowns delight audiences with their brightly painted faces and funny antics. Such comic performers have existed in many forms in every major civilization for more than a thousand years. Whether it is China’s Spring and Autumn period or Europe’s medieval era, court jesters have specialized in entertaining rulers and the elite. With the rise of pantomime and circus troupes in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, clowns became a part of popular culture and brought this form of entertainment to the masses. Clowns originally represented joy and happiness, these figures have in modern imagination gradually become distorted with darker associations. Nominated with a number of awards, the American film Joker debuted last year was one of the finest portrayal of a demonized clown. That constantly-grinning countenance may be unnerving to some, and the manic escalation of antics often inspire more unease than delight.
Clowns and their conflicting qualities have been the subject of several important artists, including Jean-Antoine Watteau in the Rococo period. In Pierrot, Watteau depicts a clown with a lost expression on his face, standing straight on the stage. The work has an inescapable sense of tragedy. Twentieth-century master Pablo Picasso was also drawn to clowns, creating a series depicting the lives of clowns offstage or backstage, often conveying a sense of melancholy. This duality of the comic entertainer, who embodies the tension of both darkness and lightness, achieves its utmost expression in Bernard Buffet’s clown paintings.
Buffet was active in post-war Paris. He achieved fame at a young age, becoming the brightest new star in the art world since Picasso. Buffet’s every action was scrutinized – in not just his work but also in his personal life. Perhaps he identified with the tragic fool who endures ridicule at every turn. From about 1955, the distinctive figures of these clowns began to appear in Buffet’s paintings, becoming a landmark series that includes this 1970 piece Le Cri (Lot 1038). In Buffet’s clown paintings, the exaggerated mask and magnificent attire cannot hide the fool’s disheartened face. The figure may represent another self that could only be revealed through the brush. These works offer a vivid depiction of an artist’s fragile spiritual state amid the haze that enveloped post-war French society and the intense wave of existentialism.
The clown in Le Cri leaves a strong impression. The rough black lines delineate the forms with an almost carved firmness. The subject matter and content of this work are reminiscent of The Scream by nineteenth century by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, a work that has become an enduring visual symbol in modern art. In Munch’s painting, the subject has big, staring eyes and mouth agape, petrified mid-scream. From the environment to the modeling of the figure, Munch’s The Scream is overflowing with dread. The viewer can almost experience that terrifying sound. This is not the case with Buffet’s painting. This screaming clown has an expression that is dead-eyed and listless. Le Cri focuses on a half-length image of this clown, mouth open as if complaining of life’s futility, in stark contrast to the vivid colors that make up the work.
The development of Buffet’s clown series coincided with a high point in the artist’s career. However, as abstract art surged to popularity in Paris during the 1960s, Buffet’s expressionism and insistence on representation were increasingly out of step in the French art world. The artist’s descent into depression permeated his work. Although Buffet quickly fell out of fashion in France, his work achieved great popularity in the rest of the world. The Japanese collector Kiichiro Okano established the first museum for Buffet’s work in 1973, and the clown series is the most essential part of the museum’s collection. Support for Buffet spread from Japan to artistic circles in other parts of Asia. There are many reasons for his appeal in the East. For example, the thick black lines in Buffet’s paintings fully embodied a certain calligraphic sensibility. Last spring, Sotheby’s offered a masterwork from Bernard Buffet’s clown series for the first time at the Hong Kong Modern Art Evening Sale, realizing the third-highest global sale price. This season’s Le Cri comes from the long-standing collection of the artist and his wife Annabel, which only adds to its value for collectors.
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