VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price plus buyer's premium.
The New Gallery (Eugene Thaw), New York.
Harold Diamond, New York.
Private collection, New York (1960-1989).
Acquavella Galleries, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1989.
FERNAND LÉGER'S WORKS ON PAPER
'When I see a painting by Léger, I am truly happy' (G. Apollinaire, Les Peintres cubistes, Paris, 1965, p. 86). This sense of happiness, expressed in 1905 by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, is still our own sense of joy today when we look at Léger's paintings. Amongst the many artists who irrevocably altered the landscape of painting at the beginning of the 20th Century in France, Fernand Léger stands out, with Matisse, as a painter who, without betraying his modernist convictions, could give joy through his art. This happiness is mainly related to the fact that, when looking at Léger's canvases, we are confronted by painting, and nothing else but painting. There are no delicate feelings here, nor refined nuances. There are instead frank, intense colours, and orderly but powerful forms.
Unlike a number of his contemporaries who took part in the radical movement of the avant-garde and tried to break with tradition by rejecting conventions with irony or the force of despair, Léger never made use of sarcasm. He was not a snob; having issued from the countryside, he was sincerely fascinated by the city, its noisy and colourful spectacle, its dynamism and speed. He spent his childwood in peaceful, rustic Normandy, where he developed very early a taste of strong colours and bold contours. Yet, as brutally traced as these edges might appear in his paintings, Léger's reading of reality and space was faithful to what he saw. He never attempted to paint a world different than that into which he lived and worked.
He knew the war in 1914; he was gassed at the front in 1917. The lessons that he took from this experience were not the negative emotions of bitterness or disillusionment that many others felt. He forged instead a faith in sharing, and resolved to never deceive. He met there, in those terrible circumstances, real men, of the most humble kind as well as the proudest. He observed them working incessantly at their day-to-day survival, inventing, repairing, or re-adjusting their circumstances in order to escape the absurdities of life and death. This experience would guide him throughout his life. It would influence his aesthetic theories, which are imbued with a deep respect for man and his labour.
Following the trial of the war, Fernand Léger quickly regained his taste for living. Mired for almost four years in the mud of the trenches, the painter could finally and freely walk through Paris. He again became enthralled with the noise of the street, and mesmerised by the gaudy array of countless lights. The machine and its mechanisms fascinated him; the clever display of advertising posters enchanted him. The rhythms of passing automobiles and optical flashes generated by this bounding spectacle suggested to him all sorts of audacities and movements on canvas. He laid down his colours pure and flat, which he delineated with emphatic contours. He suppressed the refinements of chiaroscuro; he cut away, radically and aggressively, the passages between one object and the next. In this context, mass and depth emerged from coloured contrasts, the juxtaposition of shapes and their acute edges. The distillation of a letter traced au pochoir, the perfect curve of an ellipse, the checkered pattern of facades, the cut-out silhouette of a tree, or a passer-by, and the incessant intersection and overlapping of these forms, all served to translate with matchless efficacy the tremor and excitement of a bustling city.
Léger did not deny his century, as did many artists of his time. He immersed himself in it, easefully, without qualms or reservations. Instead of escaping into the nostalgia of an ancient or fictive past, he accepted the world as he found it, where he felt most alive, and he sought to depict its new appearance, its objects and its architecture. He did not fear the new measures imposed on modern man by the industrial revolution - he tried instead to compete with them, and to wring from them the best possible advantage. Thence, in his work, the great metropolis and its working-class universe have been transcribed with the simplified means of a precise, tough, hard-edged calligraphy. Armed with this simplified syntax, he approached the overly sophisticated, and still extremely aestheticised world of painting. 'I intend to overcome the conventions of taste, the grisailles, the dead surfaces of backgrounds', he said in 1919 to his dealer Léonce Rosenberg. 'My ambition is to get to the maximum of pictorial rendition by every possible mean of contrasts. Forget decorum, taste, known style; if there is any of this in my paintings, one will appreciate it later; I create now' (letter to Léonce Rosenberg, in Valori Plastici, nos. 2-3, Rome, February - March 1919).
Léger, in his profound consciousess as an artist, knew all too well that his role was not to slavishly portray an epoch defined by the machine, but to find the fitting and positive response to the machine's undisputable influence on this reality. He sought this answer within himself, within and through his work. He subjected his passion for the new world surrounding him to the exigencies of his work. The clean beauty of connecting rods, pistons and pullies, the whirling dance of gears and propellers had to obey to the ferocious dictates of organisation that the painter invented and brought to his canvas or sheet of paper. Nonetheless, underlying his fascination with well-oiled mechanisms, the human figure and its sublime stucture remained the absolute reference. Léger believed that the elements in the picture must lead to a functional logic, the expression of an effective articulation, even when his forms strayed as far as possible from familiar figuration. This is why we always breath with full lungs in front of his works.
Although the artist found his inspiration in movement and the energy it liberates, there is, paradoxically, no slower painting that that of Léger. The powerful combination of force, effort and resistance that controls these canvases translates, most of the time, into monumentality, a profound depth of expression - not at all like the frenzied activity of the factory or the street. The agitation of the machine, its noisy scansion, its crazy excesses, as in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, seem governed in his painting by the rule of calm and regulated intensity. Léger employed a superior regime of willfullness and order to tame reality in his pictures. He is like the powerful tugboat which he admired and frequently painted, guiding huge floating barges downriver with slow but steadily applied force.
It is for these reasons that as we stand in front of a painting or drawing by Léger, we feel instinctively that 'it works'. The configurations of pipes and turbines, the brutal contrasts of colour, and the solid black contours outlining these forms, meet with the eye's acceptance before even suggesting the modernity of 20th Century art. If the example of the machine had been beneficial to Léger, this is seen primarily in the impeccable exactitude with which he rendered the elements that compose his pictorial structures, and only to a much lesser extent in the brashness of a new industrial and technical vocabulary that he adapted for his use.
In this context, resorting to drawing was vital for Léger. Drawing allows the artist to better understand the general stucture of his composition, to elucidate the essential idea of an object or a body, and to relate it to a spatial context. Drawing aids in suggesting the distribution of colours on the surface of the composition. Léger, who studied architecture as a young man, did not hesitate to employ to the ruler, compass and square. The pencil begins by isolating shapes, and then refines them carefully one by one. The artist then examines their grouping, tests their initial configuration, replacing, if necessary, elements which seem deficient, eliminating parts that appear extraneous, all the while polishing and perfecting the image. There is an astonishing pleasure of discovery in Léger's drawings, but this excitement is always guided by a rigorous, discerning mind, whose extreme sensitivity finds expression in the careful and delicate handling of the pencil, which always seeks to clarify and refine the artist's conception.
These qualities are everywhere evident in the drawings and watercolours in this catalogue. Observe the artist's sensitively graded application of pressure on the pencil in the subtle shading of the figures and landscape elements in Paysage animé, Deux pêcheurs, and in Personnage dans l'atelier. Léger wielded his brush with similarly accustomed deftness to model the curving forms of the propeller blades and the cylindrical smokestacks in Le remorqueur. Elsewhere Léger used watercolour to create free, coloured shapes in space, where forms emerge in fluid curls and flag-like washes (again in Le remorqueur and Nature morte. Weighty shapes, outlined in charcoal, appear to dissolve in liquid nuances. In later drawings, the artist's pen, alert but firm, draws precise contours overlaid with briskly applied hatching and squiggles of line, as in Profil et feuille. Here he achieves an effect that is solid and substantial, while retaining a freshly spontaneous aspect. The artist obtained similar corporeality and structural integrity in his use of opaque gouache, employing tones that range from delicately tinted hues to resonant blacks, blues and greys, as in the masterly La gare, Projet de décor pur la Création du monde, and the highly important Trois profils.
In every stage of his oeuvre, Léger used the sharpened point of the pencil or the nib of a pen to search out forms, investigate their plastic potential, and set them down, with certitude, in the measured field of his pictorial realities. Elsewhere the brush runs, skips and jumps to cover the course of a sketch, urging the subject toward further realisation in larger compositions on canvas. The practice of drawing for Léger, while serving to facilitate the development of creative ideas, was also a form of invigorating daily exercise. Indeed, we may detect everywhere the pure pleasure that the artist took in the act of drawing, not as means to an end, but as a joy in itself. In addition to many studies for major paintings, there are numerous sheets that bear little or no relation to specific projects. These occasional drawings are often simple reveries based on an object or a coincidence of forms, or they are straightforward observations made in the presence of the spectacle of nature Composition de mer; Silex sur fond jaune. In these drawings, any emotion foreign to the plastic issues at hand appears to have been banished, in order that the artist might locate and set free the pure beauty of inherent form. A sweetly affecting lyricism often emanates from these drawings, in which the artist was fond of postulating associations between sharply contrasting objects and forms, like a leaf with a face or a set of house keys (Profil et feuille and Composition aux clefs. Thanks to the extraordinary dexterity of the artist's hand, these still-life objects spring forth in a lively dance, as if liberated from the surface of the sheet, so that they float freely and lightly, attracting our eye, and filling our imagination.
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
Villeneuve d'Ascq, Musée d'Art Moderne, Fernand Léger, March - June 1990, no. 108.
Paris, Galerie Berggruen & Cie, Fernand Léger, gouaches, aquarelles et dessins, October - November 1996, no. 21 (illustrated).