Léger's large still-life compositions of the mid-1920s are his most adroitly realized purist creations: they manifest the ultimate success of the artist's postwar classicizing process. Using varied formal structural elements, Léger achieved in these canvases a consummate state of architectonic balance and poise, while taking a wholly new approach to content, generating strikingly dramatic contrasts through the seemingly random but carefully calculated juxtaposition of everyday objects. The artist has subjected these components to radical simplification; from the objects he eliminated any and all extraneous detail, yielding forms that appear incapable of further reduction without unduly obscuring their identity. Léger has in effect reinvented them in his own plastic dimension, imbuing them with an incorruptible and enduring permanence that exempts them from the transience of everyday reality as we normally experience it. Removed from any kind of conventional representation or connection to functionality, Léger's objects possess a pictorial reality all their own. To assert their newly autonomous existence, Léger typically imparted to these very ordinary objects an impressive monumentality.
Following a vertically sectioned paradigm that he favored in the mid-1920s (fig. 1), Léger has divided the present Nature morte into two opposing panels, having inserted between them a section of red wall with a transverse molding and a pair of hung pictures--one of them the twin female cameos in a single frame alluded to in the painting's subtitle. He has on the right side cut away an opening in the red wall to reveal the partial image of a potted plant. A half-sectioned baluster on the left serves to counter-balance the arrangement. Several stacked white planes, like the fore edges of book pages, create the semblance of receding depth on the left side. The composition is flat, un-modeled except in the green plant leaves, which appear to undulate in and out of the picture plane; they are ostensibly the only organic element in this composition. They nonetheless appear utterly artificial; like everything else in the painting, their material substance has been reduced and purified as if some high-tech industrial process has cut, tooled and polished them. The painter has emphasized this concretized aspect of his compositional elements by rendering them in a palette based on the stark opposition of red and black, softened with green in the leaves and yellow on the left side. The result of these contrasts and tensions is a hieratic but visually lively pictorial dynamic; the architectural grandeur of Léger's overall conception steadies the composition and projects a transcendent vision of stasis and serenity.
Only a decade earlier, on the eve of the First World War, the abstract, tornadic elements in Léger's now famous contrastes de formes paintings, and just after the war, the motorized bustle in his mechanical pictures, represented modernism in its most kinetic manner. The dissonant elements in the former, and the suggestion of machine-like operation in the latter contravened any possibility of equilibrium or repose. These paintings proved challenging to viewers at that time, and were practically unsalable, as Léger's dealer Léonce Rosenberg had to remind the artist. In the early 1920s, however, Léger responded by stages to the rappel à l'ordre, the humanistic "call to order" that had been taken up by the Paris avant-garde during the post-war period. Léger turned away from the brashly mechanical manner of his earlier work, and began to imbue his paintings with a calmer, more balanced, and deliberately classical demeanor. He remained steadfast to his basic principle of seeking out and exploiting contrasts in forms, but he now pursued these ideas toward a different end, in which the creation of an overall harmony and order supplanted the disruptive effects of dissonance. In a 1924 article published in Rosenberg's Bulletin de l'Effort Moderne, Léger advocated "A society without frenzy, calm, ordered, knowing how to live naturally within the Beautiful without exclamation or romanticism. That is where we are going, very simply. It is a religion like any other. I think it is useful and beautiful" (quoted in E. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 47).
Léger was attracted to the ideal of order in Le Corbusier's and Ozenfant's theories on Purism--L'Esprit nouveau--and he admired the disciplined balance of formal elements in Mondrian's recent De Stijl paintings, which Rosenberg exhibited at his Galerie de l'Effort Moderne in 1923. Léger was now convinced that he should strive in his art to create order and permanence, where previously there had been relatively little suggestion of either. He was keen on making his own momentous statement, in which he would unite the timeless dimension of classicism with objects taken from everyday modern life, often of manufactured origin, which was at that time a modernist prescription already uniquely his own. "The subject in painting had already been destroyed," Léger stated, "just as avant-garde film had destroyed the story line. I thought that the object, which had been neglected and poorly exploited, was the thing to replace the subject" (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, op. cit., p. 87).
There is no single subject in the present Nature morte; the small twin cameos, centrally placed as they are, remain only one object among others that vie equally for the viewer's attention. Léger was instead insisting on a grander overall conception, typically common to these still-lifes, in which he celebrates the symbiotic relationship between diverse objects drawn from both the natural environment and the human sphere, structured within a unifying architectural framework. In a gouache study for the present painting (fig. 2), the cameos are male heads, which Léger subsequently feminized for the present painting, as if to underscore the gentler, more amicable coexistence of all parts contained therein.
Léger was drawn to the beauty of the manufactured object, from the most technically advanced airplane engine to the humblest everyday house fitting. In the prosperity that followed the war, consumer goods filled store shelves, and were shown off in cleverly designed graphic advertisements and enticing window displays. The moving image of the cinema had gained mass-appeal. Léger had done work in avant-garde film with his friend the poet Blaise Cendrars, who introduced him in 1921 to the famed director Abel Gance. In 1924 Léger collaborated with Dudley Murphy, an American cameraman and film-maker, to produce the moving picture accompaniment to composer George Antheil's Le Ballet mécanique. The sequence of images concentrated on objects, without a scenario. This experience was instrumental to the new approach he took in his painting. Léger wrote, "Contrasting objects, slow and rapid passages, rest and intensity--the whole film was constructed on that. I used the close-up, which is the only cinematic invention. Fragments of objects were also useful; by isolating a thing you give it personality. All this led me to consider the event of objectivity as a very new contemporary value. We are living through the advent of the object that is thrust on us in all those shops that decorate the streets" (from an unpublished article, "Ballet mécanique," circa 1924, in Functions of Painting, p. 50).
Léger placed his objects in a flattened De Stijl-like space, organized in abutting or overlapping rectangular planes; it was in this manner that he had composed his first large mural paintings, compositions without objects, in late 1924 (Bauquier, no. 391; fig. 3). The large scale of these canvases, together with the potential they held for supporting the inclusion of diverse objects within a modernist spatial context, set the stage for Léger's monumental still-life paintings of 1925-1927. Christopher Green has observed that these new pictures "combine this new expansiveness and control with a sense of spatial drama far beyond the range or brief of the mural paintings. Léger considered perspective alien to the mural; but in these works it is used in shallow yet undisguised form, combined with the activities of colour and overlapping planes" (Léger and Purist Paris, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1970, p. 79).
The present Nature morte and other compositions of the mid-1920s represent the culminating stage in Léger's classicism, an effort that would give way within a few years to new varieties of objects generating even more novel contrasts, no longer derived from commercial products exclusively but from a greater variety of organic motifs as well, reflecting the growing influence of surrealism on Léger's pictorial vocabulary. Prof. Green has summed up the artist's impressive achievement of this period: "The breadth, the confident sense of breathing space that we find in the mural paintings, is carried over into the still-lifes and the object paintings of 1925-1927 [Bauquier, no. 458; fig. 4]. They bring together all the qualities of his earlier mechanical works; the careful planning, the perfect precision of technique, the clear, standardized pictorial forms, the interest in both variations and repetition, the sense of balance between opposing forces; but they do so with an uncluttered simplicity and a controlled mastery of spatial paradox beyond the range of his earlier work It was now that the common object acquired true monumentality" (ibid., pp. 77, 79 and 80).
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Nature morte, 1927. Formerly in the collection of James Johnson Sweeney; sold, Christie's, New York, 3 November 2010, lot 17. BARCODE: 25017977_001
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Etude pour "Nature Morte (Les Camées)," 1926. Private collection. BARCODE: 28854845
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Peinture murale, 1924. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE: 25238709fig
(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, Les trois figures, 1926. Formerly in the collection of James Johnson Sweeney. BARCODE: 28001904
Nature morte (Les camées)
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM THE ARTHUR M. SACKLER COLLECTIONS TRUST
Signed and dated 'F. LEGER. 26' (lower right); signed and dated again and titled 'F. LÉGER 26 NATURE-MORTE' (on the reverse)
Fernand Leger , 20th Century, Paintings, oil, France, Modern, still life
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (on loan).
The Art Institute of Chicago; The San Francisco Museum of Art and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Léger, April 1953-January 1954, p. 85, no. 34.
Houston, Rice University, Institute for the Arts, Léger, Our Contemporary, April-June 1978, p. 32, no. 16 (illustrated).
Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, Fernand Léger and the Modern Spirit, July-September 1982.
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
51½ x 38¼ in. (130.8 x 97.1 cm.)
Bulletin de l'Effort Moderne, no. 32, February 1927 (illustrated).
C. Zervos, "Nouvelles peintures de F. Léger" in Cahiers d'Art, no. 3, 1927, p. 97 (illustrated).
E. Tériade, Fernand Léger, Paris, 1928, p. 70 (illustrated).
"Fernand Léger au Kunsthaus de Zurich" in Cahiers d'Art, Paris, 1933, no. 3-4 (illustrated).
J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger, Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 204, no. T40 (illustrated, p. 97; titled Composition with Two Profiles).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, 1925-1928, Paris, 1993, vol. III, p. 94, no. 444 (illustrated).
Galerie l'Effort Moderne (Léonce Rosenberg), Paris (by 1927).
James Johnson Sweeney, New York (by 1953).
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York (acquired from the above, 22 December 1959).
Perls Galleries, New York.
Private collection, New York (by 1973).
Crane Kalman Gallery, Ltd., London.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, London, 27 June 1995, lot 31.
Private collection, Switzerland.
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2009.