In Fernand Léger's 1929 painting Deux femmes, the two women of the title are perched atop a rocky outcrop, one sitting and the other standing, as though they were modern sirens. Deux femmes combines the striking modernity of the artist's vision at this point in the late 1920s with the newly-developed naturalism and humanity that would make his work all the more accessible during the years, and indeed decades, to come. This picture was formerly in the collection of Dr Ingeborg Pudelko-Eichmann, whose husband had previously been married to the daughter of Gottlieb Friedrich Reber, one of the great patrons of Cubism by whom Léger had been commissioned to create a group of pictures of the four seasons during this period. Deux femmes appears still to have been in Léger's collection in 1931, as that year it was lying against the wall of his studio in a photograph of the artist taken by another of his collectors, Albert Eugene Gallatin. Having inherited a fortune, Gallatin became an artist in his own right, as well as acquiring a momentous string of pictures which would form the basis of one of the first American institutions devoted to the avant garde, his Gallery of Living Art, in New York. The fact that Gallatin shows Deux femmes against the wall in that picture is an intriguing insight, as it was during that period that Léger, having ended his business relationship with Léonce Rosenberg in 1929, began to represent himself, selling pictures directly. This may well have been the case with Deux femmes.
The two women in Deux femmes are shown placed within a setting that hints at both the outdoors and the indoors: there are rocks and a curtain. Indeed, one wonders if the figures in Deux femmes are meant to be involved in some theatrical presentation. With this in mind, it may be no coincidence that the composition of these figures recalls a series of paintings that Léger created during the same period, showing a pair of essentially naked female dancers. One of these, entitled Les deux grâces, is now in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; two others, both entitled La danse, are in the Hiroshima Museum of Art and the Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture, Grenoble. In these pictures, one of the gambolling women appears to have a cloth wrapped around her midriff that in fact resembles stone, lending a Surreal quality to the composition that would be amplified when these same figures reappeared in a string of works where they were juxtaposed with an almost random array of still life objects, for instance cards and keys. By contrast, the rock is given a more grounded purpose in Deux femmes, placed at the bottom of the picture as a support for the women. Meanwhile, the monochrome background against which the graces and dancers were shown, which lent them a sense of airy movement, as though they were shown jumping away from the ground, is replaced in Deux femmes with its more definite backdrop. Here, the women are static, almost classical, like statuary. Nonetheless, the theatrical aspect of dance is continued through the presence of the red curtain, which recalls the stage.
Looking at the almost tubular way in which the women's bodies have been painted in Deux femmes, with their cylindrical necks and spherical breasts, it is clear that Léger was still thinking about machinery for inspiration in his depiction of humans, and indeed of much of the world around him. Léger had developed his unique, pneumatic way of depicting the human figure, and especially the female form, throughout the 1920s. Earlier in his career, he had looked to machinery for inspiration, tapping into the language of geometry and technology that he felt embodied the modern spirit. This became all the truer because of his experiences during the First World War, which served as a form of epiphany for the artist. At the end of the War, he had created pictures in which the human form had been almost splintered throughout technological landscapes, or bodies that themselves appeared to comprise machinery. Suddenly, the need to reassert some organic content, some direct contact with humanity, had imposed itself. This was perhaps best embodied in his 1921 masterpiece Le grand déjeuner, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In that picture, three nudes - the clear antecedents of the ones shown in Deux femmes - were shown against a modern interior, made up of geometric elements that only served to thrust their sculptural bodies further into relief.
There is a clear relationship between the three women in Le grand déjeuner and those in Deux femmes, from the emphatic, almost metallic curvaceous quality of their bodies to the glistening waves of vinyl of their hair. These women are the descendants of the machinery that Léger had so revered, and yet have been softened, reintroducing the human element. During the course of the 1920s, Léger would explore that human element even more, stripping away the background in a number of his pictures and showing figures, as well as objects, against monochrome backgrounds. This was the case with Deux figures (Nus sur fond rouge) in the Kunstmuseum, Basel, and also with the single Nu sur fond rouge of 1927 in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC. Those works appear close to each other, and indeed to Deux femmes, yet they also reveal the increasing sense of warmth and naturalism that was characterising Léger's works during the course of the 1920s: the steely metallic sheen of the women in the Basel picture have been replaced with a greater warmth in its successor; similarly, the pose has a more casual dimension, speaking of a greater informality as the woman arranges her hair. This growing focus on naturalism was a process that was reaching a new crescendo in Deux femmes, where the figures are no longer isolated against a monochrome backdrop, but instead have rocks upon which to stand and a curtain and other bands of colour behind them.
This heightened naturalism, the drift away from Léger's earlier pure machine aesthetic, chimed with developments among large swathes of the avant garde during this period. In Paris in the 1920s, in the wake of the turmoil of the First World War, a number of artists, many of whom had been identified with the revolutionary advances of the 1910s such as Fauvism and, more pertinently, Cubism, had been drawn into the so-called Rappel à l'ordre. This largely took the form of the Neo-Classicism embraced by artists such as Pablo Picasso, with his monumental figures cavorting on beaches. At the same time, the sheer rationalism of the geometric abstraction of Purism, Neo-Plasticism and De Stijl can all be seen as attempts to impose reason upon a chaotic world, and to seek out the beauty inherent in strict harmony. Léger too had responded to these tendencies, be it in the statuesque figures in pictures such as Deux femmes or in his more rigorous still life compositions.
Ultimately, during the 1920s, Léger had created contrasting works - Purist still life compositions that sometimes bordered upon abstraction and other images in which objects were shown under an almost hallucinogenic scrutiny against their single-colour grounds. In these latter works, he was looking at the world as though under a microscope, lending impressive stature to the everyday world, be it in the form of women or of a holly leaf. The notion of the lens was crucial to Léger's new vision: he had discovered the miraculous absurdity with which the camera, and especially the movie camera, could show aspects of the world in close-up or from afar in manners that would decontextualise them. In this, he was able to develop an aesthetic that looked at the world afresh, as in the seemingly gleaming bodies of the Deux femmes. Léger described the process with reference to a tree, yet in terms which are equally apt to the subject of the female figures in this picture:
'If 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 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 scientific microscopes, behind astronomical research which brings us every day new forms that we can use in the movies and in our paintings' (F. Léger, Functions of Painting, ed. E.F. Fry, London, 1973, p. 112).
Léger felt that, by isolating objects in this way, he was aligning himself with a pre-Renaissance tradition, especially after his 1924 tour of Italy in the company of his friend and then art dealer, Léonce Rosenberg. 'All the great ages have striven for the vertical arrangement of the isolated object to obtain a decorative or plastic value,' Léger declared. 'This is the framework of the seventh-century mosaics, of the popular engravings of the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. With the Italian Renaissance the taste for the subject drove out the taste for the object and destroyed style’ (ibid., p. 79). Léger, in paintings such as Deux femmes and his earlier nudes, was seeking to remove subject matter and return his and our focus to the object - in this case, the human form.
Léger's intense exploration of form in his pictures from the period when Deux femmes was painted revealed both a sense of scientific rigour and also a Surrealist twist. By stripping his subjects of any context - by refusing to allow them to be subsumed by any post-Renaissance sense of 'subject matter' - Léger was in fact aligning himself with some of the interests of the Surrealists who were blazing a trail as one of the most current and scandalous avant gardes active in Paris at the time. Rather than a juxtaposition, Léger was removing any grounding factor from his works, as is clear in La danse or the figures against the red backgrounds. In the case of Deux femmes, the Surreal aspect is taken in another direction: the women are shown in a mysterious context upon rocks within an interior space. Is this set design? Or is it an incongruous composition revealing hints of Giorgio de Chirico visions of overlapping ancient and modern realms? Certainly, Deux femmes appears to prefigure some of René Magritte's paintings in which a nude in the foreground is shown next to a velvet-like curtain with an expansive landscape behind her. Magritte was in fact in Paris in the late 1920s, associating with the Surrealist group which had assembled around André Breton. It is a strange twist of fate that his images upon this subject were pre-empted by Deux femmes - which also features the colours of the Belgian national flag in its background.