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Bernard buffet (1928-1999) – ”tête de clown”

Sold for SEK 600.000 at Uppsala Auktionskammare’s Important Sale 11-14 June 2019

Lot 600. Bernard Buffet (France 1928‑1999). ”Tête de clown”. Signed and dated Bernard Buffet 55. Gouache, watercolour, crayon, India ink and pencil on paper, 65 x 50 cm.

Executed in 1955.
This work is recorded in the Maurice Garnier Archives.


600.000 – 800.000 SEK
€ 56.000 – 75.000

In context

Bernard Buffet’s “Tête de clown”

The striking depiction of a clown included in the present sale dates from 1955 and belongs to Bernard Buffet’s first series with this subject. His famous Circus series from this period featured numerous acrobats, trapeze dancers and clowns with a melancholic expression painted in bold contrasting colours. At first they might appear joyful and even entertaining, but at the time these works were executed, France was recovering from the devastating result of the World War II and the subject of clowns proved to be extremely powerful. Buffet’s portraits expressed the trauma and distress experienced by the French people in the post-war period through its sorrowful, elongated faces. When Bernard Buffet was asked why he repeatedly focused on the clown character he remarked: “The clown can indulge himself with all sorts of disguises and caricatures.” The Circus series and especially his portraits of clowns enjoyed a great success. In 1955, the same year as he created the series, Bernard Buffet was voted the best artist in Paris by the art review Connaissance des Arts.

The figure of the clown, acrobats and musicians have fascinated many of the 20th century artists, among them Pablo Picasso, Antoni Clavé, Marc Chagall and Georges Rouault. By turning to this subject in 1955, Bernard Buffet evoked a tradition of alter-ego images painted by some of the greatest avant-garde artists of modern time. These clowns were often associated with the artist himself and worked as story-telling figures, evoking the magic of his art and expressing an underlying freedom. The art historian Nicholas Foulkes notes in his biography Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist: “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.” Although “Tête de clown” at first shows almost no resemblance to the artist in terms of physical appearance, Buffet most likely studied his own features when creating his earliest clowns and emphasised them to a great extent.

Bernard Buffet during an exhibition of his works (Retrospective) in Paris in January 1958 (b/w photo), / Photo © AGIP / Bridgeman Images
Bernard Buffet during an exhibition of his works (Retrospective) in Paris in January 1958 (b/w photo), / Photo © AGIP / Bridgeman Images

The face depicted in “Tête de clown” shows a head composed of harsh and direct lines using different media, characteristic for Bernard Buffet’s work dating from the mid 20th century. The figure wears the traditional attributes of a clown – a red nose, pale white skin and black vertical lines painted over his eyes with an enhanced colour palette which exaggerates his make-up. The colours used in this picture are contrasting to the image itself as he presents his portraits of clowns as juxtaposition between happiness and melancholy. Angular lines form the lips, nose, eyebrows and eyes providing him with a sad face and empty eyes, yet somehow the vibrant red colour in the background together with the bright orange hair suggests a joyful character. Instead of presenting a cheerful clown, Buffet has portrayed a vulnerable and introverted figure far from the stereotypical elements of a circus entertainer. The mask is dropped and behind stands a human facing all of his inner thoughts and fears.

Born in Paris on 10 July 1928, Bernard Buffet gained early critical acclaim through his recognisable stylistic manner and prolific output. At the age of 18, Buffet was nominated by Connaissance des Arts magazine as one of the top ten post-war artists and he held his first solo retrospective exhibition at Galerie Charpentier in Paris when he was only 30 years old. Most of Buffet’s oeuvre features portraits, still life and historical and religious subjects, showing highly stylised figures painted with expressive black lines and a vivid colour palette. His earlier works, one example being “Tête de clown” from 1955, represents the emotional state of the post-war generation. Throughout his successful career, Bernard Buffet has exhibited his works at numerous venues and important private collectors and large institutions worldwide today own many of them, including Tate Modern in London, Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Bernard Buffet Museum in Japan. During his lifetime he was also awarded several prestigious honours, such as being made an Officer of the Légion d’Honneur in 1973 and being inducted to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1974, the institution he studied at as a young artist.

“Tête de clown” provides an opportunity to acquire a work from Bernard Buffet’s first Circus series, dating from 1955 when Buffet first achieved fame for his masterly painted clowns. These figures are a key subject within his production and exemplify his distinctive style as an artist, yet they capture the vulnerability and introvert emotions of the human being.

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