Léger painted this version of Les Constructeurs as the finalized model for the état définitif, which he also completed in 1950 (Bauquier, no. 1402; fig. 1). The present painting shows every element and detail as it appears in the final version; only the expressions in several of the workers' faces were subsequently altered, and the modeling in their figures further refined. Having completed this painting, Léger then scaled up the composition to more than twice the size--the état définitif measures more than nine feet high and seven feet wide (300 x 200 cm). The basic color layout also remained the same in the final version, with the addition of some yellow bands in the scaffolding in the lower foreground.
Les Constructeurs is Léger's paean to the salt-of-the-earth working man, both as a class within French society and in the industrialized world generally, and as a more universal symbol of homo faber, man the maker and builder. Léger joined the French Communist Party in 1945, almost exactly a year after Picasso, and was eager to make contact with the working-man, and extol his role in society. In a 1946 article published in Arts de France, the artist wrote, "Making contact between the People and the work of art is a problem that is in the air, everywhere; but in order to talk to the people, you must be close to them"... He recalled his experiences with comrades from all walks of life in the trenches during the First World War, "It was there that I truly understood what a man of the people is" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 143). In a statement that Georges Bauquier cited in the catalogue for the 1963 Léger exhibition at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, in which the monumental Les Constructeurs was shown, Léger recalled:
"I got the idea traveling to Chevreuse by road every evening. A factory was under construction in the fields there. I saw the men swaying high up on the steel girders! I saw man like a flea; he seemed lost in the inventions with the sky above him. I wanted to render that; the contrast between man and his inventions, between the worker and all the metal architecture, that hardness, that ironwork, those bolts and rivets. The clouds, too, I arranged technically, but they form a contrast with the girders" (quoted in W. Schmalenbach, Léger, New York, 1985, p. 120).
This construction site was but one of thousands that were cropping up all over France, together with countless many more in the rest of Europe, as the post-war recovery gathered momentum. Léger was likely also considering memories of skyscrapers he had seen going up in Manhattan during his visits there during the 1930s, as well as the famous photographs of such scenes (fig. 2), and later of construction sites in New York and elsewhere while he made cross-country trips in America during his wartime exile.
With this theme in mind, Léger began to make studies for Les Constructeurs. He had recently completed Les Loisirs, hommage à David, 1949 (B., no. 1309; fig. 3). This painting celebrated the end of the Second World War; in it he depicted one of the blessings of peacetime living, the pleasure of enjoying healthy, outdoor leisurely pursuits. Here Léger contrasted the idea of man and work (represented by the men in their suited attire) with relaxation (the women more casually posed in their sport outfits). The subtitle Hommage à David relates this composition to the work of Jacques-Louis David, the leading painter in France during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, specifically his Mars désarmé par Vénus et les Grâces, 1824, which he painted while in exile in Brussels following the restoration of the French monarchy. Léger admired David for engaging in his art the historical events and political issues of his day. As Peter de Francia has observed, "David's painting exactly contained the visible measure of discipline and ideology, a stringency of means and an uncompromising strength that Leger felt could be used as an example" (in Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 198). Léger combined in Les Loisirs the high art and classical ideals of an earlier era with the popular leisure culture of his own time. He was, moreover, declaring his intent to measure his achievement by the benchmarks of the great art of the past, a quest that Picasso would soon undertake in his appropriation and reworking of imagery from the paintings of Delacroix, Velázquez, Manet, Rembrandt, Ingres and Degas.
Léger aimed to create an even more epic tribute to the aspirations and endeavors of modern society in Les Constructeurs. This new painting would both contrast and complement the easeful bourgeois repose of Les Loisirs by exalting the value of dynamic and effortful proletarian labor. It also expressed Léger's interest, as was customary in his work, in the mechanical and geometrical aspect in the human environment, which is largely absent in Les Loisirs. In addition to showing basic and heartfelt respect for the heavy lifting of simple manual labor, the spirit of Les Constructeurs embraces the visionary dimension inherent in man the builder, and praises the constructs of the mind, the carefully wrought and coolly beautiful plans of man as architect and engineer. Les Loisirs is both a masculine and feminine world, composed in equal measure from nature and human culture. Léger created a very different environment in Les Constructeurs; it is exclusively masculine, muscular and sweaty, a place where the rigid mental geometry of hard steel supplanted the congenial trappings of organic nature.
One of the earliest studies for Les Constructeurs, dated 1947, showed the contrast between clouds or smoke and the metal architecture of girders and braces (J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Leger Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, no. 267). Most of the many studies that followed, however, depict the workers, ranging from drawings of a hand, arm, and leg, to partial and full figures, usually seen singly, and then in more advanced stages, there are gouaches of groups of men positioned within a fully realized architectural setting (fig. 4). Léger rendered these figure studies with precisely observed hatching and shading, employing naturalistic means that were rarely seen in his figures previously. His purpose was clear: the workers were at the center of this enterprise. Schmalenbach has written:
"When Léger took up theme of construction workers in 1950, it looked as if he was reverting to the technical, mechanical world of his youth. Then he celebrated the glory of modern technology, which he placed above humanity; now, in the Constructor series, man asserts his freedom even in the face of technological constraint. The technoid, robot-like puppets of 1920 have become natural human beings, and the artist has gone so far as to bestow on them some individual features. Man no longer obeys the laws of technology but only the less strict, more relaxed law of the picture" (op. cit.).
"The law of the picture" at work here is the idea of contrast, the governing principle in Léger's painting from the great Contrastes de formes of 1913 onward (see lot 43). Léger described the application of contrasts in Les Constructeurs: "If I have stressed the figures of my workers more, if they are depicted with greater individualization, it is because the violent contrast between them and the metallic geometry surrounding them is of maximum intensity. Contemporary subjects, whether they be social ones or otherwise, will be apparent according to the degree to which the law of contrasts is adhered to. Modern life consists of daily contrasts. These must form part of our present outlook" (quoted in P. de Francia, op. cit., p. 199).
Léger sought to make it clear that while man provided the design and physical effort for the erection of this structure, he was but one among other plastic elements within the pictorial composition. In this regard he was the "object" of the picture, and not its paramount "subject." "When I built Les Constructeurs," the artist stated, "I did not make a single plastic concession... no concession to sentimentality, even if my figures are more varied and individual. I try to do something new without leaving aside the problem. In my work humanity has evolved like the sky. I set more store on the existence of people but at the same time I control their actions and their passions. I think that in this way truth is expressed better, more directly, more durably" (quoted in W. Schmalenbach, op. cit., p. 120).
Georges Bauquier's catalogue of Léger's paintings (op. cit.) includes three grisaille studies for Les Constructeurs (B., nos. 1391-1393), three horizontal compositions (nos. 1394-1396), and four vertical canvases that experiment with various arrangements of figural and architectural components (nos. 1397-1400; no. 1398, fig. 5), all of which appear to precede the present version. It is here that the artist seems to have finally settled on the balance and proportions he was seeking in the size and placement of the figures within the architectural framework, so that man was "object" and not "subject," and integrated as a distinctive plastic element among the steel girders, ladders, cordage, scaffolding and clouds. While there some studies on paper that show a plausible architectural structure, the perspective here is all askew, and the engineering entirely faulty; the fabrication of elements that would constitute serious and indeed catastrophic shortcomings in real construction create an enjoyably dizzying and bustling composition in pictorial terms. The most peculiar inclusion is the presence of the broken tree trunk on the scaffold platform, which serves no apparent purpose, and there is no clue how it got there. Léger appears to have intended to be a reminder to man that the absolute deficit of nature, or a world in which the natural order of things has been broken asunder, is an unsteady foundation on which to build such towering structures of human pride and ambition.
Léger continued to painted Constructeurs compositions into 1951, adding at least another eight paintings to this series (B., nos. 1403-1410), some of which reprise earlier treatments. A final painting, L'Equipe au repos (B., no. 1411), is not really a Constructeurs, but provides an ironically humorous coda to the group. While on a break from their labor, the workers sit and lay resting on the ground in front of two large green trees, while behind them it appears as if the building has collapsed into a heap of twisted steel. Was this the warning contained within the broken tree on the scaffold?
The état définitif of Les Constructeurs was shown with related works and the artist's recent polychrome sculptures at the Maison de la Pensée Française, Paris during June-October 1951. Léger wrote that "In The Builders I tried to get the most violent contrasts by opposing human figures with scrupulous realism to the clouds and the metallic structures. I don't know whether I succeeded, but I think anyway that it was a quarrel to provoke" (in "New Conceptions in Space," XXe Siècle, Paris, 1952; E. F. Fry, ed., Fernand Leger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 182). A quarrel he got--Les Constructeurs provoked more controversy than any of Léger's major post-war paintings. The new generation of abstract painters decried Léger's figuration, and among his fellow members in the Communist party, the social realists criticized his seemingly detached and even undignified treatment of workers and their labor. Eager to escape the haranguing of these petty idealogues, and to "make contact between the people and his art," Léger turned to actual workers for their response to his Constructeurs. Following the close of the exhibition, Léger installed some of the paintings in the canteen at the Renault automobile factory in Boulogne-Billancourt. In order to observe the response of workers to his paintings, the artist sat in the canteen, eating his lunch:
"The men arrived at noon. They looked at the pictures while they ate. Some of them laughed. 'Look at those guys, they'll never be able to work with hands like that! In a word, they judged by comparison. They found my pictures funny. They didn't understand them. I listened to them and gulped down my soup sadly. A week later I went back to the canteen for a meal. The atmosphere had changed. The men didn't laugh any more, they no longer bothered about the pictures. But quite a few of them, as they ate, looked up at my pictures for a moment and they lowered their eyes again to their plates. Maybe the pictures puzzled them? As I was leaving, one of the men said to me: 'You're the a painter, aren't you? You'll see, when your pictures are taken away and they are faced with a blank wall, my buddies will realize what's in your colors.' That sort of thing is gratifying" (quoted in ibid.).
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Lec Constructeurs, état définitif, 1950. Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot. BARCODE 25010534
(fig. 2) Lewis W. Hine, Connectors placing a girder, Empire State Building, New York, 1931. Photograph courtesy Empire State Building Archive, Columbia University, New York. BARCODE 25010510
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Le Loisirs, hommage à David, 1948-1949. Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE 25010503
(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, Les Constructeurs au velo, 1950. Sold, Christie's New York, 14 November 1996, lot 325. BARCODE 25010480
(fig. 5) Fernand Léger, Les Constructeurs au cordage, 1950. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. BARCODE 25010527
Fernand Léger in his studio with studies for Les Constructeurs. Photograph by Willy Maywald. BARCODE 25010497