Landing in Le Havre in December 1945 from his five-year wartime exile in America, Fernand Léger took as his first meal on French soil, all restaurants having closed for the night, some warmed-up stew in the kitchen of a hospitable railway clerk. ‘That little stew was astounding’, the artist wrote. He quickly discovered on his arrival in Paris ‘that the people have made a great advance in France. I assure you that a magnificent evolution has come about. Maybe you who have stayed here don’t feel it. Me, I have faith in France’ (Léger, ‘Art and the People’, 1946, in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 147-148).
Léger set out in his post-war art to declare and describe, as France emerged from the trauma of the wartime Occupation, the creation of a new Arcadia. Three fundamental social themes prevail in the artist’s prolific production of his final decade, each culminating in a definitive, allegorical mural painting in the directly communicative manner of his nouveau réalisme the work of rebuilding (Les constructeurs, 1950; Bauquier no. 1402; Musée national Fernand Léger, Biot), healthy outdoor leisure for the renewal of body, mind, and spirit (La partie de campagne, 1954; Bauquier no. 1604; Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence), and appreciation of the arts, both popular and traditional (La grande parade, 1954; Bauquier no. 1592, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York).
In each of these compositions, Léger extolls the figure, drawn from the vast class of those ordinary, modern men and women whose aspirations and energy impelled the ‘magnificent evolution’ then underway. The pair of attractive young people in Les deux amoureux, 1er état – aptly comprising a Tricolore scheme – would two years later become the centre of attention among numerous figural, mechanical, and landscape elements in La partie de campagne. Taking advantage of a weekend outing away from work and the city, the couple enjoys their leisure amid the abiding natural comforts of a peaceful Île-de-France setting under blue skies and puffy clouds. As a reminder that they are, moreover, the beneficiaries of modern industrial technology, a newly built, lattice work electricity pylon stands behind them in the rolling hills of the pastoral landscape.
The post-war reconsideration of humanist potential, Léger believed, called for new opportunities that must become more egalitarian and accessible to all. Exposure to art should be encouraged as a rewarding use of leisure time. He advocated that museums remain open after the regular work day for evening viewing. ‘It is inexcusable that after five years of war, the hardest war of all’, Léger wrote, ‘men who have been heroic actors in this sad epic should not have their rightful turn in the sanctuaries. The coming peace must open wide for them doors which have remained closed until now. The ascent of the masses to beautiful works of art, to Beauty, will be the sign of a new time’ (Léger, ibid., p. 135)
Taking inspiration from the rise of bicycling as outdoor recreation he had observed in America, practiced by sportily attired young women as well as their male friends, Léger painted Les loisirs, homage à Louis David, in 1948-1949 (Bauquier, no. 1311; Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). Les loisirs announced his intention to foster the cultivation of leisure as one of his primary themes, as well as the manner in which he would depict the subject. In his title the artist honoured the bicentennial of David, whom he regarded as an exemplary antecedent. ‘I love the dryness in his work, also in Ingres. That was my way, and it touched me instantly’, Léger explained. ‘I wanted to proclaim a return to simplicity by way of an immediate art without any subtlety’ (Léger, quoted in Fernand Léger: The Later Years, exh. cat., London, 1987, pp. 15-16). While retaining the abstract means of modern painting – contrasts of form, colour, and content – Léger resolved that his new work always be approachable, readable, and for everyone. His nouveau réalisme was classicist in spirit, popularist in intent.
The charming scene depicted in Les deux amoureux might be that found in any album of family photographs. Many of Léger’s post-war figure compositions possess the impromptu informality of a snapshot, in which the participants seem to randomly congregate, casually pose and gaze toward the viewer, as if the latter were pointing a camera at them. During the years following the end of the Second World War, easy-to-use, inexpensive handheld cameras were mass-produced and widely sold, making an amateur photographer out of anyone who acquired one of the new devices and inevitably discovered an irresistible fondness for recording the people, places, and things in everyday life.
Léger had no wish to remind viewers of Cold War crises and the growing threat of nuclear annihilation. He avoided in his art any fashionable suggestion of existentialist angst or any other philosophical reflection on events or issues of the day. Trusting instead to his innate optimism, Léger sought to reassure an anxious public by positioning his art in the wider context of human history, in which civilization, despite periods of crisis, appeared blessed with the ability to endure, carry on, and renew itself through visionary ideas, while wisely invoking fundamental traditions that had proved tried and true. As the young woman here, bearing two stems of roses, gently and lovingly rests her arm on her boyfriend’s shoulder, she embodies the sustaining mythic spirit of an ancient earth and fertility goddess, a Demeter or Flora. This beneficent femme-fleur also features in the art of Chagall, Matisse, and Picasso.