‘In 1949 Fernand Léger began to collaborate with a ceramicist called Robert Brice,’ says specialist Fanny Saulay, discussing a group of reliefs by the artist that were offered in Christie’s Art Moderne sale in Paris on 21 October 2016.
One of the original Cubists, Léger developed a graphic style that became instantly recognisable, merging bold black lines with high-voltage primary colour. By the middle of the 20th century the artist had begun to experiment with a diverse range of media, producing book illustrations, stained-glass ware and mosaics.
‘Brice wanted to translate Léger’s unique style into ceramics,’ explains Saulay. ‘The resulting works represent a true collaboration: Brice would look at technical aspects of production, developing a brilliant enamel finish. Léger, of course, conceived the design, shaping the final relief after it had been made and applying bright colour.’
The reliefs feature some of Léger’s most characteristic subjects, from acrobats to abstract shapes, in three-dimensional form, cast in his distinctive dark line. For Saulay, one of the earliest examples (above) is perhaps the most appealing. ‘It was made at the very beginning of Brice and Léger’s collaboration, when they were still shaping their technique,’ she notes. ‘Later works are refined, but this is beautiful; it feels very personal.’
Léger’s decision to work in ceramics represented, in part, a broader desire to change what art was. ‘He wanted art to escape the canvas, to appear on everything from decorative objects to the walls of the city,’ explains Saulay. ‘Pieces like this are made of everyday materials, and are part of an edition; he wanted art to be accessible to all.’
By the 1950s, Léger had gained international acclaim. Major commissions allowed him to further fulfil his desire to take art off the canvas and into everyday life — among the most famous, a pair of monumental murals, installed in the United Nations’ New York headquarters in 1952.