Painted in 1925, Le compotier rouge (Compotier de poires) dates from one of the most pivotal years in Fernand Ler's career. For it was in 1925 that a succession of events would make him a public figure on the international stage, cementing his status as one of the great innovators of twentieth-century art. At the same time, this was an incredibly important moment in terms of the development of the aesthetic that would lead to this success, as is evident from the fact that so many of his still life compositions from this period, and indeed this year, are now in museum collections throughout the world, including Basle, the Museum of Modern Art, New York or Aberdeen Art Gallery.
This painting is a distinctly Léger-like take on the still life genre, and is redolent with the atmosphere of the 1920s, of Art Deco. In it, the artist has taken the theme of the compotier, such a staple of the still life through the centuries and not least during the highpoint of Cubism, with which he himself had been so intrinsically linked, yet he has granted it a new incarnation by presenting it in an almost mechanical, geometric manner. Léger himself declared, the same year that this picture was painted, that, 'I have made use of the machine as others have the nude body or the still life' (F. Léger, Functions of Painting, ed. E.F. Fry, London, 1973, p. 62). The forms of Le compotier rouge (Compotier de poires) are clearly inspired by the world of industry and manufacture, in short by the modern world, by the Twentieth Century itself.
Léger had been inspired to look at the world with fresh eyes, not least in terms of manufactured objects. In his Ballet mécanique, the revolutionary film he had created the previous year, scored by George Antheil, Léger had explored the ability of the projector to zoom in on the otherwise discarded or ignored details of modern life in the age of manufacture and imbue them with new meaning, exploring their formal beauty from a novel perspective. This would come to be the technique that lay behind his still life compositions such as Le compotier rouge (Compotier de poires), in which a few key objects become the focus of intense contemplation and reappraisal, flourishing under this scrutiny and becoming something novel, a celebration of the everyday, imbuing the modern with a monumentality that is almost classical. This is heightened, in Le compotier rouge (Compotier de poires), by the contrast between the timeless bowl and fruit and the more modern, technological forms that dominate the right-hand side of the canvas. 'Geometric form is dominant,' Léger explained, discussing the same notions clearly at play here. 'It penetrates every area with its visual and psychological influence. The poster shatters the landscape, the electric meter on the wall destroys the calendar' (Léger, op.cit., 1973, p. 64).
By the very nature of its genre, there is a stillness, or static character, in this painting that marks a stunning contrast with the almost exploding dynamism of the machinery-like paintings that characterised his output only a short number of years earlier. Léger himself explained that, having explored the frenetic energy of machinery, he now sought to tap into the atmosphere of the world through more refined and static means. This was in part indicative of his role in the so-called Rappel à l'ordre that came in the wake of the chaos of the First World War, in which Léger himself had served and seen horrors. The paring away of the superficial, which would lead to extremes such as Purism, is evident in Léger's work in his focus on the essential, on only a few key objects such as the compotier and pears in this picture, just as it had been in the reemergence of the human figure in some of the other pictures of the previous few years. As he himself explained, 'After the dynamism of the mechanical period, I felt a need for the staticity of large figures' (Léger, quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh.cat., New York, 1998, p. 188). The lush, organic forms of the pears in Le compotier rouge (Compotier de poires) are a form of substitute for the human figure, allowing the inclusion of life, of nature, albeit in a bowl.
This reintroduction of the organic into such a geometric composition leads to a fascinating, almost tactile contrast in the treatment of forms within this still life. And this contrast heightens the internal rhythms of the picture, lending it a dynamism, albeit far removed from the more vigorous chaos of his earlier paintings. 'Since I seek to give the impression of movement in my canvases, I oppose flat surfaces to volumes that play against them,' he stated (Léger, op.cit., 1973, p. 63).
Overall, Le compotier rouge (Compotier de poires) is marked by an almost architectural rigour. Indeed, during this period, Léger was more involved with the architects of the day than with his fellow artists in the avant garde, and indeed the picture dates from the dawn of one of his most important friendships and collaborations: that with the Swiss-born architect, Le Corbusier. In 1925, Paris hosted the Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs, which featured some of the pinnacles of art, design and architecture of the Art Deco period. Léger was featured in more than one pavilion, and with more than one result. In the pavilion of the Esprit nouveau, Le Corbusier presented an interior furnished with paintings by Léger and other artists including Braque and Picasso which met with acclaim.
Meanwhile, in another pavilion a modern design for the entrance to a French Embassy was created by Robert Mallet-Stevens; this featured a work by Léger, as well as others by Robert Delaunay and Henri Laurens. However, the committee members Fernand David and Paul Léon, the latter being the head of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts so derided by much of the avant garde for its conservative views, demanded the removal of Léger's work. This resulted in public outcry and the reinstatement of Léger's mural, and the strength of this support consolidated his reputation as one of the leading artists of the day. This was soon also reflected by a host of new collectors, and likewise by the organisation, thanks to the Société Anonyme (The Museum of Modern Art), of a significant exhibition in New York.