Léger elevated the commonplace object in a monumental, yet simplified manner in his still-life compositions created during in the mid-1920s. Nature morte presents a definitive example of his style during this time, a disjointed stasis of abstracted lines, volumes and colors. "I group contrary values together; flat surfaces opposed to modeled surfaces; volumetric figures opposed to flat facades of houses; pure, flat tones opposed to gray, modulated tones, or the reverse" (in E. Fry, ed. Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 29).
Along side the return to traditions of classicism, humanism and figuration, artists responded to the new world of machines, manufactured objects and plastic life after the First World War. Léger's artistic 'esprit nouveau' was stimulated not only by Cubism, but the innovative theories of Purism and De Stijl. Having worked as an architectural draftsman as well as an illustrator, Léger was attracted to the ideas of clarity, precision, harmony, order and pictorial flatness that were characteristic of these new schools of thought. Le Corbusier and Ozenfant sought to unite the timeless order of classicism with subjects drawn from everyday life. They believed that, "A work of art should provoke a sensation of mathematical order For man is a geometric animal, animated by a geometric spirit" ('Le Purisme' published in L'Esprit Nouveau, no. 4, January 1921, as quoted in Léger and Purist Paris, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, 1970, p. 18).
This idea was echoed in Léger's own thoughts regarding the mechanical paintings he created in the years immediately following the war, he declared that, "Modern man lives more and more in a preponderantly geometric order. All mechanical and industrial human creation is subject to geometric forces" (in op. cit., p. 52). The spirit of these ideas led Léger to a close friendship with Ozenfant, even opening a painting school with him at 86 Rue Notre-Dame-Des-Champs.
Léger nevertheless saw himself as unique among his contemporaries, "I was the first modern French painter to use the objects of our time as artists of other centuries used theirs" (in K. Kuh, Léger, Urbana-Champaign, 1953, p. 38). To support this statement, Prof. John Golding proposes that, "during the decade of 1918 to 1928, Léger was the most representative artist of his generation" (quoted in Léger and Purist Paris, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, 1970, p. 22). While arguably true, Léger was peripherally involved with many art movements, from Fauvism to Purism, yet he consistently demonstrated his independent will and creative mind by employing elements of contemporary styles as well as art from the past, while simultaneously remaining outside of any particular category.
The mechanical age in Léger's estimation was the balance of instinct and control. He cited as one harmony of contrasts the sight of an advertising billboard set against the backdrop of a natural landscape. Léger declared his love for the machine and modernity by using mechanical forms in his art. He boldly stated in 1924 that, "Now a work of art must bear comparison with a manufactured object" (in Léger and Purist Paris, London, 1970, p. 19). Through his intense and original choices, the elements of Léger's earlier mechanical compositions, while still rendered through various contrasts of form, were now integrated and brought to order within a fundamentally unified conception of the subject.
The present painting conforms to the tradition of Cubist still-life, which takes as its subject matter the common objects of everyday existence. Léger employs rectilinear frames and boldly separated colors to give each area of the composition equal visual importance. Thick, straight lines create multiple and overlapping layers of squares and rectangles against which the curve of the vase and the round apple create a depth of vibrant contrast of shapes and volumes. The flatness of the composition shows the influence of the disciplined balance of pictorial components in Mondrian's De Stijl paintings, which Léger had seen exhibited at Léonce Rosenberg's Galerie de L'Effort Moderne in 1923. Léger's new admiration for the cinema is also evident in the relatively intimate view of the objects in space, set close-up to the viewer.
A demonstration of Léger's conceptual process of abstracting real objects into pictorial can be seen in a preliminary drawing that served as the basis for Nature morte (Nature morte sur la table, 1925; fig. 1). In the masterfully rendered pencil drawing, the first steps towards telescoping the three dimensions of reality can be seen. Within this composition, the architectural features of the interior are distinct and recognizable--the door, the moldings, even a railing. Yet in the finished painting, they are reduced to standardized horizontal and vertical shapes that are reminiscent of cinematic frames. Léger has flattened the forms seen in the drawing and suppressed much of the detail, creating a more streamlined and graphic pictorial reality.
The apple on the right side of the table remains identifiable as such, however, the other piece of fruit on the left becomes a simple spherical form stripped of any identity, which exists to balance the skewed symmetry of the composition. The book in the drawing, laying open as if set on the table in haste, becomes in the painting an abstracted arch intersecting the frame between the vertical forms of the vase and wine bottle. By eliminating the modeling and removing the details, like the patterns on the rug, Léger successfully flattens the view into a mural-like vision. The patches of color are flat, unmodulated and contained within their heavily stylized and outlined frames. The only remnants of shadowing can be found on the table, this effect allows each object in its own spotlight.
The form and composition are stabilized by the selective use of strong colors. The objects do not exist in complete isolation, but are connected on the same plane, which rather than appearing static, creates a rhythmic visual pattern in the viewer's eye. Contrary to Purist doctrine, Léger believed that color was of cardinal, rather than secondary, importance to a painting. He made the observation that the strong and bright colors, which have been incorporated into manufactured objects usually serve no utilitarian function, and render them into works of art. Léger explained, "The manufacturer has become aware of this value judgment and uses it more and more for his commercial ends. We are now witness to an unprecedented invasion of the multicolored utilitarian object Color is such a vital necessity that it is recapturing its rights everywhere" (in op. cit., p. 55).
In 1924, Léger made his first film, Ballet mécanique, which presented a contrast of machines and inanimate objects with fragments of human bodies and mundane activities, using extreme close-ups and a non-narrative format. This experience highly influenced his style and thinking about objects in space. In subsequent still-life compositions, such as Nature morte à la guitarre, 1925 (fig. 2), two new methods emerged, the use of cropping and the cinematic frame, which he employed with increasing frequency. Using a tripartite composition, Léger created three separate and unrelated scenes in the manner of film stills being overlapped side by side. With half of each section hidden, a visual tension of seen and unseen is created. While the frames are used in Nature morte, he allows the objects to exist in space in their entirety rather than cropping them. It is the placement and juxtaposition of objects in relation to other objects, and the ambiguous spatial context that results that destabilizes what could have been a very static composition and generates a visual flow. In Le compotier rouge, 1925 (Bauquier no. 411; fig. 3) of the same year, he employs a similar horizontal bias, with the layering of multiple rectangular frames, with the inclusion of organic forms that balance the composition.
Pictorial elements from his figurative work, which he never abandons, can be seen as well. Just a few years earlier, when Léger was focusing more on figures as primary elements in his compositions, as in Trois personnages devant le jardin, 1922 (Bauquier no. 332; fig. 4), the canvas is filled with the manufactured goods that defined contemporary human life. Yet reflecting his mechanical spirit, the figures themselves become standardized and generic in appearance. Léger created a narrative-free space in which the Object became the symbol of the Modernist attitudes of economy, clarity and order. These qualities were of lesser interest to Léger in the still-life paintings done during the latter half of this decade as the internal frames disappeared and more organic shapes came to predominate, indicating the growing influence of Surrealism on his work.
Léger's natural ability to render diverse and incongruous objects, in contrasting but nevertheless harmonious plasticity defines his position as one of the leading and most influential modern painters. Léger transformed the mundane into a classical, yet contemporary vision. Prof. Christopher Green has summed up the achievement of Léger's mid-1920s still-life paintings: "They bring together all the qualities of his earlier mechanical works; the careful planning, the perfect precision of technique, the clear standardized pictorial forms, the interest in both variations and repetition, the sense of balance between opposing forces; but they do so with an uncluttered simplicity and a controlled mastery of spatial paradox beyond the range of his earlier work... It was now that the common object acquired true monumentality" (in quoted in Léger and Purist Paris, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, 1970, p. 79-80).
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Nature morte sur la table, 1925. Private collection, Paris. BARCODE 25995091
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Nature morte à la guitarre, 1926. Sold, Christie's New York, 2 May 2006, lot 49. BARCODE 25238693
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Le compotier rouge, 1925. Sold, Christie's New York, 9 May 2007, lot 47. BARCODE 24156165
(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, Les trois personnages devant le jardin, 1922. Sold, Christie's New York, 8 November 2006, lot 44. BARCODE 24160254