Painted in 1954, Fernand Léger’s Danseuse au tambourin shows a woman in front of a circus organ, her outstretched arm waving a tambourine high above fashionably cropped-hair.
The unknown figure would recur across Léger’s paintings from the period: in a study, she reappears arm-in-arm with another woman, dancing in a ribbon-edged tutu to music played by a clown. She is noticeably present, too, in both the first and final versions of Léger’s historic La grande parade — a monumental mural considered to be one of the artist’s finest works.
More prevalent than this unknown muse, however, is the circus — a space that would inspire works throughout Léger’s four-decade long career. As a boy, Léger had been thrilled by the touring circus troupes that would pass through Argentan, his hometown in rural France. ‘The big top,’ he wrote in 1924, ‘is an absolutely marvellous world.’
This ‘marvellous world’ was one which offered infinite artistic possibility: ‘When I am lost in this astonishing metallic planet,’ wrote Léger, ‘with its dazzling spotlights and the tiny acrobat who risks his life every night, I am distracted.’ He then added, ‘There are more ‘plastic passages’ in ten minutes of an acrobatic spectacle than there are in many scenes of ballet.’
These death-defying acts were not only visually arresting, but seemed to evoke Léger’s own experience as an artist. Like Léger, each of the circus performers was an artist skilled in his or her act; much like the modern artist — bound to his avant-garde calling — each also risked the peril of failure.
When Léger moved to Paris in 1900, his interest in the circus remained. In Montmarte, he frequented the Cirque Médrano — a big top which had captivated a number of the city’s resident artists, appearing in paintings by Degas, Renoir, Seurat, Lautrec, Picasso, van Dongen and Chagall.
When war broke out, Léger fled to New York, becoming a fan of the brilliant three-ring Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus — which still advertises itself as ‘the greatest show on earth’. He painted several circus pictures whilst in America, returning to France at the end of 1945.
In post-war France, the circus had come to signify much more than just dazzling spectacle. After years of conflict, the national tradition offered a defiant symbol of joie de vivre, underlining the nation’s desire to excel. Though a popular form of entertainment, Léger also believed the circus provided a gateway to the wider enjoyment of serious, classical arts.
Fernand Léger (1881-1955), Danseuse au tambourin, 1954. Gouache, India ink and traces of pencil on paper.
27 5/8 x 21½ in. This work is offered in our Paris sale on 25 March: Exceptional works on paper from the Triton Collection Foundation. Estimate: €250,000-350,000
In 1950, Léger joined his works in Cirque, a magnificent folio of 24 colour and 29 black and white lithographs — many of which would be the inspiration for later oil paintings. In the introduction to the work, the artist passionately summarised a lifetime’s interest, instructing readers: ‘Go to the circus. Leave your rectangles, our geometric windows, to the country of circles in action. It is so human to break through restraints, to spread out, to grow toward freedom… To escape from the ground, to leave it, to touch the tip as little as possible, the farthest tip’.
From the unrestrained forms of the circus, Léger pushed towards a new artistic freedom, boldly laying down swathes of colour around graphic black contours. This daring approach hinted at a new era of artistic production: ‘We advance toward the future and it is a collective future,’ Léger declared. ‘We are on the brink of a renaissance of mural art. Monumental art must and can amplify this new conception.’
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