Fernand Léger painted Nature morte (Composition pour une salle à manger) as a commission for the collector, Dr. Gottlieb Friedrich Reber (1880-1959). This work, as the title suggests, was used to decorate Reber's dining room in his home in Lausanne, the Château de Béthusy. It was one of a group of paintings that Reber commissioned from Léger at this time, having already collected his works extensively over the recent years.
Reber, a German national by this time resident in Switzerland, was a successful industrialist, and first gained prominence as one of the foremost collectors of the works of Paul Cézanne; after the end of the First World War, he diverted his attention towards the avant garde, focussing especially on the Cubists. In part by exchanging the pictures by Cézanne already in his possession, often with dealers such as Paul Rosenberg, he gradually acquired a formidable collection that included many historic works, including around 80 by Juan Gris, 70 by Picasso and 16 by Braque, as well as a group of pictures by Léger from the 1920s and 1930s. Many of these pictures, among which Nature morte (Composition pour une salle à manger) once hung, now grace the walls of museums throughout the world, for instance the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the E.G. Bürhle Foundation, Zurich and the Museo Nacional Reina Sofía, Madrid to name but a few; indeed, many of them entered public collections early on, following the sales that Reber was forced to make over the years following the crash of the stock exchange.
Looking at Nature morte (Composition pour une salle à manger), it is easy to see why Reber, such an enthusiastic supporter of Cubism and the artists associated with the movement (he also collected pre- and post-Cubist works by Picasso, for instance) would have appreciated the work. Léger had earlier been involved and associated with the Cubists, and while he had moved away from the tenets of that movement, developing his own idiosyncratic notions and aesthetic, there is an internal logic to this picture and a sense of the three-dimensional that remains rooted in those early days. Indeed, this picture appears to be a large, quasi-abstract Contraste de formes: the various elements gain a sensual, tactile quality through their juxtaposition on the canvas. However, where some of Léger's works appear to have been influenced by his ideas of art for all, of transparency, and of Purism, here the various forms appear rather to have sprung from the world of Surrealism, a movement of which many of the protagonists ranked among the artist's friends. While the overriding interest in a visual language inspired by the wonders of the logic-based, maths-based, physics-based technology that had come to characterise the modern age is clearly evident in Nature morte (Composition pour une salle à manger), there is thus also a certain absurdity to these strange, sometimes geometrical forms such as the cones, which would appear to have little place in the 'real' world of the viewer.
There is a deliberate playful disjointedness to the composition of this picture, and this heightens the strange and mentally stimulating effect of the various elements that can be perceived to hover on the brink of recognition. Even the conical forms to the right have perhaps been presented as though they were some form of foodstuff; at the same time, they recall magnified images of hair, pointing to the influence that cinema and extreme close-ups had had on Léger's enlarged views of objects from everyday life such as holly leaves, glasses and belts. These, blown up to scales in which they seemed to gain new meanings and new visual potency, are likewise echoed in the corrugated strip that forms the central, vertical divider in Nature morte (Composition pour une salle à manger). In part, it appears to be influenced by his studies of drapery and of modern materials, yet its place within the composition also recalls the hair of the female figures in some of his paintings of the period. Similarly, the amorphous black object in the top right-hand corner of the canvas appears to be a decontextualised fragment of a female coiffure, as is evidenced by comparison with some of the pictures of female figures, even those showing women playing with ribbons, such as the one that forms such meandering, lyrical curlicues here. To the left are two forms that appear almost like radio receivers, telephones or intercoms, yet which also, in the context of the dining room for which this picture was made, may be the receptacles for the salt and the pepper. Meanwhile, the background appears to echo some of the tables in the still life paintings of Cubists such as Braque, Gris and of course Picasso.
Léger has filled Nature morte (Composition pour une salle à manger) with a great sense of visual rhythm and movement. The swirling 'ribbons' add a dynamism to the composition that is perfectly suited to Léger's fascination with speed and motion, and his desire to capture these values in some form in his pictures, as well as his films. This picture, in a sense, can be seen as a strange, distorted, even surreal still image from the Ballet mécanique, his film of 1924. Here, though, the kaleidoscopic combination of elements, while retaining some iconographic link with the mécanique, is less fixed in the rigid systems of that world of engineering. Looking at Nature morte (Composition pour une salle à manger), it is a telling that it was during precisely this period that Léger became a friend of the American artist Alexander Calder, attending one of his legendary performances of Circus, which he saw in the company of Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg and Le Corbusier. Looking at Nature morte (Composition pour une salle à manger), one can see the interest that both artists shared in creating work that was accessible, entertaining, dynamic and even fun.