This dynamic composition in black and while gouache is truly a rare work of art--it is a study for Léger's pioneering foray into pure, non-representational painting, his iconic series of Contrastes de formes, which occupied him during 1913 and early 1914. Léger executed only fourteen paintings titled as Contrastes de formes in oil colors on canvas (Bauquier, nos. 42-47 and 49-56); the studies on paper appear to be no more numerous and are rarely seen, even in major exhibition catalogues. This proper Contrastes should not be confused with some studies that resemble it in part, and may have been done concurrently near the conclusion of the series, but mark Léger's return to a figural and objective basis for his pictorial forms. The present work is the only Contrastes study offered at auction during the last two decades or more which was composed in the vertical format that characterizes the most of the classic oil paintings in this series. Moreover, this study is in comparison to others unmatched in its tightly wound tensions and the sheer density of compacted, spinning elements.
The years 1910-1914, those immediately preceding the outbreak of the First World War, marked the ascendancy of Cubism as the unrivaled impetus in progressive modern painting. In the inaugural February 1912 issue of the review Soirées de Paris, the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire drew attention to a new set of issues that were preoccupying a handful of painters: the significance of the subject and the development of pure painting. Cubism had opened the gates to alternative visual realities, and pure painting was now the new frontier. Apollinaire wrote: "Verisimilitude no longer has any importance, for the artist sacrifices everything to the composition of his picture. The subject no longer counts, or if it counts, it counts for very little... An entirely new art is thus being evolved, an art that will be to painting, as painting has hitherto been envisaged, what music is to literature... It will be pure painting, just as music is pure literature ("On the Subject in Modern Painting," reprinted in L.C. Breunig, Apollinaire on Art, Boston, 2001, p. 197).
Apollinaire had witnessed the subject dissolving and becoming nearly indecipherable in the cubist paintings of his friends Braque and Picasso, during what is referred to today as their "high analytical" phase of 1911-1912. In declaring the advent of pure painting Apollinaire also had in mind the works of another artist whom he deeply admired, Léger, whom he described as "one of the gifted artists of his generation. He is a painter, a simple painter, and I rejoice in his simplicity and in the solidity of his judgement" (in "Les Peintres Cubistes," H.C. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art Berkeley, 1968, p. 243).
Léger sought to counter the increasing impact of Italian Futurism, whose attraction stemmed from its use of modern, cosmopolitan subjects, treated in motion. He wished to supplant their illusory dynamism with a true pictorial dynamism. At the same time he also wished to move beyond the influence of Cézanne, whose work had made overwhelming impression on him when he saw the master's memorial retrospective at the 1907 Salon d'Automne. Léger had shared with Cézanne an interest in static subjects and a constructive means of composition, but now felt that the accelerating pulse of modern life required a newer, more radical approach in order to embody these new sensations.
Léger's La femme en bleu (B., no. 39; fig. 1), painted in mid-1912 and shown at the Salon d'Automne that year, was his answer to these issues. He took a stable subject--as in a Cézanne portrait, but unlike that which a Futurist would treat--and invested it with extreme formal contrasts: flatly colored planes opposing modeled tubular, conical and cylindrical forms. He not only visualized his subject as the "cylinder, the cone, the sphere," as Cézanne had once advised in a letter to Emile Bernard (J. Rewald, ed., Paul Cézanne Letters, New York, 1995, p. 301), he painted it as such. "[Cezanne's] grip was so strong," Léger recalled in 1954, "that to get free of it I had to go as far as abstraction" (quoted in C. Green, op. cit., p. 52). The result was an composition that did not render the illusion of motion in the Futurist manner, but was expressive and dynamic through its own invented pictorial forms.
At this stage Léger was on the verge of pure painting--only vestiges of the subject remained--and in early 1913 he took the plunge with his Contrastes de formes (figs. 2 and 3), the series that occupied him for the remainder of the year and into 1914. In a lecture he delivered this critical juncture, he stated that pictorial realism--by which he meant the absolute integrity of the picture as object in and of itself, and not as the representation of something else--was the "simultaneous ordering of three plastic components: Lines, Forms and Colors" (quoted in E. F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger, Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 4). He went on to declare, "From now on, everything can converge toward an intense realism obtained by purely dynamic means. Pictorial contrasts used in their purest sense (complementary colors, lines, and forms) are hence the structural basis of modern pictures" (ibid., p. 7).
In his Contrastes de formes Léger utilized simple geometric volumes composed of cylinders and planar elements, which he rendered into multiple forms by means of line and color. In the black and white studies on tan paper the contrasts are even more starkly apparent. Christopher Green has written, "Decisiveness of effect is matched by speed of execution... His technique is simple, without room for vacillation, and much of the force of these paintings is the result of this simplicity left rough, a comment on the irrelevance of taste, these paintings are hardly the product of timidity (in Léger and Purist Paris, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, 1970, p. 25). Léger fabricated a shifting, tumbling surface in which these forms combine to suggest volume; shapes simultaneously appear to jut out of the picture plane or recede into it. All of the component lines, forms and colors are actively and equally engaged as they play off each other to create a jostling, rhythmic composition. At first glance these surfaces display a helter-skelter appearance; however, there is a visual logic based on the simple aspect of his chosen component forms. In a second lecture that Léger was preparing as he was bringing this series of paintings to a close, and delivered in 1914, he wrote: "Composition takes precedence over all else; to obtain their maximum expressiveness lines, forms, and colors must be employed with the utmost logic. It is the logical spirit that will achieve the greatest result" (ibid., pp. 14-15).
The contrasts in these compositions are on one level "retinal," that is, we view juxtapositions and oppositions in the lines, shapes and colors. On another level the contrasts are conceptual as well, and confront the viewer as contradictory ideas. Léger underscores the traditional opposition of line and color, as each is kept separate from the other; however, they simultaneously oppose and interact to create form. The forms in their startling profusion appear to suggest volume and depth, with one form placed in front of another, yet, in the absence of conventional modeling, the surface looks flat, especially when one examines individual, local sections. While the artist may contradict flatness, he will neither completely affirm nor deny it. Léger delights in setting up a series of dialectical visual arguments, in which he disallows any possibility of resolution. Léger's aim is above all else to create "contrast = dissonance, and hence a maximum expressive effect" (ibid., p. 16).
This is pure painting seen in its most exciting form, bursting with visual and intellectual ideas. Picasso and Braque did not care to theorize and argue in the way that Léger did in his lectures, and of course, in their paintings, they never let the subject slip so dangerously from view. In Léger's Contrastes the subject has virtually disappeared, in keeping with Apollinaire's prediction. At some point during the sequence of Contrastes, Léger nevertheless felt the need to reassert the subject, but without compromising the visual elements that he had developed. He began to work on a group of landscape and still-life paintings, and then adapted the conical forms of the latter, derived from the cylinders of the Contrastes, to fabricate clearly identifiable figures descending a stairway in his L'escalier series, and in portraits such as La femme en rouge et vert (fig. 4). In using these universalized, nearly interchangeable forms for any subject that he chooses, Léger was in effect suppressing the individual significance of his chosen subject. What he paints is largely irrelevant; it is a means to an end. He stated in the 1914 lecture: "I purposely did not take a so-called modern subject because I do not know what is an ancient or a modern subject; all I know is what is a new interpretation... All that is method; the only interesting thing is how it is used" (in Functions of Painting, pp. 16-17).
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, La femme en bleu, 1912. Kunstmuseum, Basel. BARCODE 25003802
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Contrastes de formes, 1913. Sold, Christie's London, 27 November 1989, lot 27. BARCODE 25003796
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Contrastes de formes, 1913. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 25003789
(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, La femme en rouge et vert, 1914. Sold, Christie's New York, 4 Novmber 2003, lot 32. BARCODE 25247770