Fernand Léger painted Nature morte au roi des cartes in 1927, at what has since been recognised as one of the great watershed moments of his career. This picture features a composition that recalls the Purism and the so-called rappel à l'ordre - the 'call to order' adopted by much of the avant garde in the wake of the First World War - with which Léger had been associated. And in addition are the undulating, organic forms of foliage, the leaves adding a sinuous and lively dynamism to the picture, breaking up the purity of its forms. The pivotal importance of Léger's pictures from 1927 is reflected in the fact that many are now held in public collections throughout the world. In addition, Nature morte au roi des cartes was itself featured in a range of exhibitions and publications, many of them from the artist's own lifetime, including the edition of Cahiers d'art dedicated to his work and published in 1933 to coincide with his first museum retrospective, held at the Kunsthaus Zürich, a show which demonstrated his stature on the international stage.
Looking at Nature morte au roi des cartes, it is clear to what extent the architecture of the composition recalls the works that Léger had been creating only shortly before this. Even during the course of 1927, he had made pictures which featured a near-geometric rigidity. There was a sense of intensely-constructed order to his close-up views of the objects of everyday life, which had been distilled into machine-like forms. In Nature morte au roi des cartes, the close-up remains key: the king from the playing card which lends this work its title has been blown up with the gigantism that so fascinated Léger; that figure has been broken down into forms that appear factory-built and which recall the industry which had enthralled him to such a great extent. However, the leaves that snake their way down the canvas add an intense sense of life. They have a near-random effect which happily disrupts the rigidity of the rest of the composition, as does the leaf shown glancingly dominating the central sliver of the canvas.
Léger's focus on machinery owed itself to his experiences during the First World War, where he had seen the hi-tech weapons of the day emulating in harsh and violent reality the 'contrasts of forms' which he had explored in his own pictures. This had resulted in his machine pictures which had then evolved into the more ordered works which had dominated Léger's output until 1927, where everyday objects such as a siphon or an accordion were able to be shown as agglomerations of geometric form, as is the case in the roi des cartes itself here. Meanwhile, Léger's use of the close-up owed itself in part to his experiences in film making, which had been a revelation. In 1923 and 1924, he had made his Ballet Mécanique, much of which comprised magnified or multiplied views of themes and objects from life. Taken out of their original contexts and celebrated in this way, Léger was able to illustrate their own beauty, pushing these elements towards abstraction. As Léger explained of Ballet Mécanique, in terms that are suited to Nature morte au roi des cartes:
'I took very ordinary objects that I transferred to the screen by giving them a very deliberate, very calculated mobility and rhythm. Contrasting objects, slow and rapid passages, rest and intensity - the whole film concentrated on that. I used the close-up, which is the only cinematographic invention. Fragments of objects were also useful; by isolating a thing you give it a personality. All this work led me to consider the event of objectivity as a very new contemporary value' (Léger (circa 1924), Functions of Painting, ed. E.F. Fry, London, 1973, p. 50).
In Nature morte au roi des cartes, Léger has extended this scrutiny to the leaves as well, which are viewed on various scales, especially the main one which stretches up the majority of the canvas. In taking this organic form, Léger has introduced a great vitality to his work, as well as a sense of play which is all the more appropriate in this picture with its rendering of a playing card. Looking at the plants, which have been distilled to a near-abstract visual language that lends them incredible visual impact, the viewer well understands Léger's explanation that his pictures were not mere representations:
'There was never any question in plastic art, in poetry, in music, of representing anything. It is a matter of making something beautiful, moving, or dramatic - this is by no means the same thing.
'It I isolate a tree in a landscape, if I approach that tree, I see that its bark has an interesting design and a plastic form; that its branches have dynamic violence which ought to be observed; that its branches have dynamic violence which ought to be observed; that its leaves are decorative. Locked up in "subject matter," these elements are not "set in value." It is here that the "new realism" finds itself, and also behind scientic microscopes, behind astronomical research which brings us every day new forms that we can use in the movies and in our paintings' (Léger (1935), Functions of Painting, ed. E.F. Fry, London, 1973, p. 112).
Thus Nature morte au roi des cartes introduces a new aspect of the world of science to Léger's visual lexicon, adding it to the sense of architecture and engineering that lies behind the presentation of the playing card. This new scrutiny of the organic world would come to feature in a range of works from this point onwards, sometimes in compositions with recognisable components from the world around us such as the cards in this picture or in Nature morte (Le roi de carreau), in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC. Indeed, Léger created a string of images including playing cards during this period, including a smaller gouache now in the Musée Fernand Léger, Biot. Playing cards would also appear amongst a range of other objects in Les quatre chapeaux, Composition in the Center Georges Pompidou, Paris. Meanwhile, the leaves which had made one of their first appearances in Nature morte au roi des cartes would go on to appear in a number of other still life compositions, for instance Feulles et fruits in the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, near Basel. Indeed, Léger would, over the following years, create pictures which examined and celebrated the form of leaves themselves, removed from any context or juxtaposition.
The juxtapositions that lie at the heart of Nature morte au roi des cartes, alongside the almost spontaneous appearance of the snaking foliage, imply that Léger may have been absorbing some of the influence of the burgeoning Surrealism that was making its presence increasingly felt in the avant garde, having turned the head of no less an artist than his fellow former Cubist, Pablo Picasso. While Léger remained distant from the Surrealists, there is nonetheless a sense of contrast between these seemingly incongruous devices that recalls both their works and those of their great predecessor, Giorgio de Chirico. For Léger, this represented a means of changing direction, allowing him fresh new pastures to explore in his pictures after the incredible formality of his prior works. Chris Green has written of the works of this period: 'Léger sabotaged the order of his art from within. Suddenly, in the space of a year, he moved on to something quite different. During 1927 the discipline of his pictorial architecture was allowed progressively to lose control of the objects that floated across it' (C. Green, Léger and Purist Paris, exh. cat., London, 1970, p. 81).
Nature morte au roi de cartes
Oil on canvas
Property from the Vanthournout Collection
Signed and dated 'F.LEGER.27' (lower right); signed and dated again and titled 'F.LEGER.27 NATURE-MORTE' (on the reverse)
Fernand Leger , 1920s, Paintings, oil, France, Modern
Paris, Musée national d'Art moderne, Fernand Léger, Exposition Rétrospective 1905-1949, October - November 1949, no. 49.
London, Tate Gallery, Fernand Léger: An Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings, Lithographs and Book Illustrations, February - March 1950, no. 27.
Bern, Kunsthalle, Fernand Léger, April - May 1952, no. 39, p. 11 (illustrated).
New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Artists and Maecenas: A Tribute to Curt Valentin, Inaugural Exhibition, November - December 1963, no. 159, p. 87 (illustrated).
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
36¼ x 25¾ in. (92 x 65.3 cm.)
E. Tériade, Fernand Léger, Paris, 1928, p. 84 (illustrated).
C. Zervos, 'De l'importance de l'objet dans la peinture d'aujourd'hui', in Cahiers d'Art, Paris, 1930, no. 7, p. 342 (illustrated).
'Fernand Léger au Kunsthaus de Zurich', in Cahiers d'Art, Paris, 1933, nos. 3-4 (illustrated).
D. Cooper, Fernand Léger et le nouvel espace, London, 1949, p. 117 (illustrated).
G.P. Persin, L'aventure d'un grand marchand-d'art Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, Paris, 1990, p. 146 (illustrated).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger, Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, vol. III, 1925-1928, Paris, 1993, no. 474, p. 146 (illustrated p. 147).
Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris, by 1950.
Galerie Louis Carr, Paris, by 1952.
Private collection, London.
Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Inc., London, by 1963.
Acquired by the present owner circa 1975.
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.
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