Fernand Léger painted Le drapeau in 1919, the year after the end of the First World War in which he himself had fought. This picture, which was published by Maurice Raynal and which passed through the Galerie de l'Effort Moderne, the trailblazing gallery of Léger's new dealer Léonce Rosenberg, features the French flag dominating the centre of the composition. The presence in the corner of another flag with the initial F - doubtless the second letter from an inscription reading RF, for République Française - implies that this is a scene of national celebration, perhaps commemorating the Armistice declared on 11 November the previous year. The subject of the Armistice had appeared in a 1918 painting by Léger; in their study of his works on paper, Jean Cassou and Jean Leymarie identified two 1919 watercolours as being preparatory studies for that painting; however, they appear to relate far more closely to Le drapeau in terms of their horizontal composition, the central element of the flag, the dark window-like blocks to the right and the striating scaffolding-like elements that criss-cross and articulate so much of this vibrant painting; the idea that those works relate to Le drapeau is reinforced by their dates, as they are both dated 1919 whereas L'Armistice was signed the previous year (see J. Cassou & J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Dessins et gouaches, Paris, 1972, nos. 55 & 56).
Le drapeau dates from one of the most crucial moments in Léger's life and career. It was after his return from the First World War and the cessation of hostilities that he truly took up his palette and brush once more, having already established himself as one of the protagonists of Cubism some years earlier. The war had provided Léger with a form of epiphany, which took several forms. Now, rather than the almost abstract, conceptual exploration of general subjects such as people on stairs and smoke over towns that had preoccupied him in his earlier Contrastes de formes, he immersed himself in the depiction of the world around him. The factory and the cityscape in particular became his subjects, as did the modern figures who peopled them. This is clear in Le drapeau, which shows the flags hanging in a street: in the background can be seen the cross of the wood separating the panes of a window; likewise there appears to be scaffolding and, perhaps most importantly, advertising in the form of the sign that marks a vertical strip within the composition.
The impact that advertising had on Léger was all the more marked in 1918-19 as it came after the War, after his experiences on the Front, which he described as "Four Years Without Colour." Discussing, two decades later, the watershed moment of the Armistice, Léger wrote:
'1918: Peace. Man, exasperated, tensed, depersonalised for your years, finally raised his head, opened his eyes, looked around, relaxed, and rediscovered his taste for life. A frenzy of dancing, of spending... able at last to walk upright, to shout, to fight, to waste... Living forces, now unleashed, filled the world. The yellow canary and the red flower are still there, but one no longer sees them: through the open window, the wall across the street, violently coloured, comes into your house. Enormous letters, figures twelve feet high, are hurled into the apartment. Colour takes over. It is going to dominate everyday life. One will have to adjust to it' (F. Léger, Functions of Painting, E.F. Fry, ed., London, 1973, p. 120).
In Le drapeau, those 'enormous letters' are visible, as are the sheer colours of the streetscape. Léger has also used the bold bars of sheer colour of the French national flag to add to the incredible vibrancy of the scene. The Tricolore provided a perfect subject matter for Léger, whose paintings during this period featured intense use of local colour; it had already served a similar purpose during the days of his Contraste de formes works, for instance his 1914 picture Le 14 juillet, now in the Musée national Fernand Léger, Biot. It returned at the other end of the First World War in other works showing both the Armistice and the 14th July.
The use of intense areas of colour revealed the evolution of a technique that had first appeared in the Contrastes de formes, where Léger used a bare minimum of colours presented in almost geometric form as the armature for his visions of cities and people. In Le drapeau and other works of the period, though, the palette had expanded and was taking its cue from the bright lights, the signs and the ads that had become part of the landscape in Paris and indeed in the modern landscape. In Le drapeau, Léger has taken a theme that allows the exploration of intense colour while remaining anchored in a figurative language explicitly linked to contemporary existence. This was a technique that Léger had recently developed, as he explained in the same year that Le drapeau was painted.
'I model uncompromisingly in pure local colour and in hefty volume,' he stated in 1919. 'I want to get rid of tasteful arrangements, delicate shading and dead surfaces. It is my ambition to achieve the maximum pictorial realisation by means of plastic contrasts. I couldn't care less for convention, taste and established style; if there is any of this in my painting it will be found out later; right now I'm going to make some life' (Léger, quoted in C. Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven & London, 1976, p. 136).
Certainly, looking at the buzzing, bursting energy of Le drapeau, it is clear that the picture bursts with the life that Léger sought to capture. This was a characteristic shared by several of Léger's paintings during this important period, for instance La ville, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is unsurprising to find that the author Christian Zervos would, writing about Léger on the occasion of a retrospective held in Zurich in 1933, describe the period from 1919 to 1924 as the 'dynamic period' (C. Zervos, 'Fernand Léger est-il Cubiste?', in Cahiers d'art, nos. 3-4, 1933, unpaginated).
That dynamism was in part due to the explorations of pure colour and its visual potential which Léger had already embarked upon in the pre-war period, not least working alongside Robert Delaunay. This had helped to create the Simultanism that both artists embraced, albeit in different ways, and which informs Le drapeau. At the same time, Léger's use of Simultanism had changed in part because of his exposure, especially on the Front, to the wonders of modern technology. While Léger felt the sharp end of the progress that was made in the sphere of machinery during the First World War, he was also enthralled by the new world to which he was exposed, working and fighting alongside people from all walks of life and seeing the almost miraculous new weapons that had been invented. 'It was those four years which threw me suddenly into a blinding reality that was entirely new to me,' Léger said of the War.
'Suddenly I found myself on an equal footing with the whole French people. Posted to the sappers, my new comrades were miners, labourers, artisans who worked in wood or metal. I discovered the people of France. And at the same time I was suddenly stunned by the sight of the open breech of a .75 cannon in full sunlight, confronted with the play of light on white metal. It needed nothing more than this for me to forget the abstract art of 1912-13' (Lger, quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., New York, 1998, p. 174).
That love of machinery would come to inform Léger's work for much of the rest of his life, and in particular during the immediate post-war years when he painted machinery and mechanics. Even a painting like Le drapeau, which ostensibly contains little of the technological in its subject matter, has been painted in a way that speaks of the visual language of engineering and blueprints.