James Johnson Sweeney (1900-1986) was a passionate champion of modernism from the very beginning of his career in the arts. He curated his first notable exhibitions of twentieth century art during the 1930s. Having developed a close association with the The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Sweeney became head of its department of painting and sculpture in 1945. He later served as the second director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, succeeding Hilla Rebay. From these prestigious positions Sweeney wielded enormous influence throughout the art world. He had been writing extensively about art since the mid-1920s, while seeking out artists in America and Europe to better know their work. Léger's first visit to America in the fall of 1931 marked the beginning of a close friendship between the two men; Sweeney traveled with Léger on the artist's return voyage to France. It was some time thereafter in the painter's studio that Sweeney acquired Nature morte, not for his own collection, but for his father. This painting has for many decades remained the property of the larger Sweeney family, and for this reason was not included in the estate sale of James Sweeney's personal collection at Sotheby's New York in November 1986, which featured another important Léger painting, Composition no. 1, 1925 (Bauquier, no. 422; fig. 1). Sweeney also owned a third major Léger from this period, Le trois figures, 1926 (Bauquier, no. 458; fig. 3).
The Sweeney Légers share the superlative qualities that characterize the artist's important still-life compositions of the mid-1920s. These paintings are Léger's most radically purist creations: they display the fully fledged maturity of the artist's postwar classicizing process. In these canvases Léger achieved a consummate balance and poise among numerous and varied compositional elements, while creating strikingly dramatic contrasts through the calculated juxtaposition of everyday objects. The artist has subjected these objects and architectural motifs to intensive simplification, eliminating any and all extraneous detail, yielding forms that appear incapable of further reduction without unduly obscuring their identity or disregarding their function. These objects have not been reduced to mere signs or signifiers. Instead Léger has reinvented them in a painted dimension that constitutes a reality all its own, apart from any kind of conventional representation. Imbued with an incorruptible and enduring permanence that exempts them from the transience of everyday reality as we normally experience it, Léger's objects are ideal forms rendered visible. To underscore their autonomous and unassailable existence, Léger has imparted to these very ordinary objects an impressive monumentality.
A vertical divide bisects the canvas of Nature morte into two unequally sized sections. The presence of two objects dominates the composition: a squat red pot of flowers on the right hand side, offset on the left by the visible portion of a tall black vase. There is a related version of this composition, painted in 1926, in which the objects and their respective environments appear in reverse (Bauquier, no. 447). The flowers are ostensibly the only organic element in the present composition, yet they appear artificial; like everything else in the painting, their material substance has been reduced and purified, as if tooled and polished by means of a high-tech industrial process. Léger has reinforced the chosen vertical format of this composition by employing numerous straight up-and-down elements, using the curved lines and contours in the flowers, pot and vase to counteract and mitigate the overall geometric rigidity of the composition. By suggesting the presence of a floor or table-top in the foreground, Léger has created an illusion of receding space, into which the graphically flat rectilinear forms that comprise the setting fall into place, establishing the spatial schematic of an interior, with a mirror over a mantelpiece on the right, and a window at left. Contrasting objects both large and small, Léger has affixed his images of two French postage stamps to the axial column near the center of the composition. The painter has emphasized the hardness of his forms by rendering them in an austere palette based on the stark opposition of red and black, mediated in places by pale yellow, supplemented with two diagonally opposed patches of an earthy mauve tone. There are tensions of all kinds within this canvas--nonetheless, the architectural grandeur of Léger's overall conception steadies the composition and expresses a transcendent vision of stasis and serenity.
It was only a decade earlier, on the eve of the First World War, that the vortical abstracted elements in Léger's now famous contrastes de formes paintings, and just after the war, the kinetic bustle in his mechanical pictures, represented modernism in its most extreme pictorial dynamic, in which dissonance and implied motion disallowed the possibility of stasis, and any perception of equilibrium seemed tenuous or passing at best. These paintings proved to be unpalatable to viewers at that time, and were practically unsalable, as Léger's dealer Léonce Rosenberg frequently reminded the artist. In the early 1920s, Léger responded by stages to the rappel à l'ordre, the humanistic "call to order" that had been taken up by the Paris avant-garde during the post-war period. Léger turned away from the brashly mechanical manner of his earlier work, and began to imbue his paintings with a calmer, more balanced, and deliberately calibrated classical demeanor. He remained steadfast to his basic principle of seeking out and exploiting contrasts in forms, but he now pursued these ideas toward a different end, in which the creation of an overriding harmony and order supplanted the willful and passing effects of dissonance. In a 1924 article he published in Rosenberg's Bulletin de l'Effort Moderne, Léger advocated "A society without frenzy, calm, ordered, knowing how to live naturally within the Beautiful without exclamation or romanticism. That is where we are going, very simply. It is a religion like any other. I think it is useful and beautiful" (E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 47).
These ideas were definitely in the air at the time. Léger was attracted to ideal of order in Le Corbusier's and Ozenfant's theories on Purism--L'Esprit nouveau--and the disciplined balance of pictorial elements in Mondrian's recent Die Stijl paintings, which Rosenberg exhibited at his Galerie de l'Effort Moderne in 1923. Léger was now convinced that he should strive in his art to create order and permanence, where previously there had been relatively little of either. To this end he looked toward the classical, humanistic ideals that informed the great and enduring art of the past. He was keen on making his own momentous statement, in which he would unite the timeless order of classicism with subjects taken from everyday modern life, presented in the conventional and respected genres of still-life, landscape and figure painting.
The pictorial elements in Léger's earlier mechanical compositions, as well as in the paintings of increasingly classicized figures in domestic interiors (see lot 39), while rendered through various contrasts of form, were integrated and brought to order within a fundamentally unified conception of the subject. Léger now turned to another approach, in which he focused on the various aspects of individual objects. The artist wrote, "The subject in painting had already been destroyed, just as avant-garde film had destroyed the story line. I thought that the object, which had been neglected and poorly exploited, was the thing to replace the subject" (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger Drawings and Gouaches, New York, 1973, p. 87).
Léger was drawn to the beauty of the manufactured object, from the most technically advanced airplane engine to the simplest everyday household fitting. As seen in the present painting, an elegantly shaped vase and a simple pot would suffice as objects for painting, things of little or no significance in themselves, apart from the potential they provided for contrasts vis-à-vis other objects. In the prosperity that followed the war, consumer goods filled the stores, and were shown off in cleverly designed advertisements and enticing window displays. Painting could achieve results with these same resources that were more insightful and profound, connecting them in ways that an illustrator would not.
The moving images of film, which by now had gained mass-appeal, also suggested to Léger new ways of looking at things. The artist had done work in avant-garde cinema with his friend the poet Blaise Cendrars, who introduced him in 1921 to the famed director Abel Gance. In 1924 Léger collaborated with Dudley Murphy, an American cameraman and film-maker, to produce the film accompaniment to composer George Antheil's Le Ballet mécanique. The moving images concentrated on objects, without a scenario or narrative. This experience was instrumental to the new approach Léger took in his painting. He wrote: "Contrasting objects, slow and rapid passages, rest and intensity--the whole film was constructed on that. I used the close-up, which is the only cinematic invention. Fragments of objects were also useful; by isolating a thing you give it personality. All this led me to consider the event of objectivity as a very new contemporary value... We are living through the advent of the object that is thrust on us in all those shops that decorate the streets" (from an unpublished article, "Ballet mécanique," circa 1924, in Functions of Painting, p. 50).
Léger placed his objects in a flattened Die Stijl-like space, organized in abutting or overlapping rectangular sections; it was in this manner that he had composed his first large mural paintings, compositions without objects, in late 1924 (Bauquier, no. 391; fig. 3). The large scale of these canvases, together with the suggestion that they established a spatial context that would work well with objects, with the perception of depth reinstated, set the stage for Léger's monumental still-life paintings of 1925-1927. Christopher Green has observed that these new pictures "combine this new expansiveness and control with a sense of spatial drama far beyond the range or brief of the mural paintings. Léger considered perspective alien to the mural; but in these works it is used in shallow yet undisguised form, combined with the activities of colour and overlapping planes" (Léger and Purist Paris, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1970, p. 79).
Nature morte and other still-lifes of the mid-1920s represent the culminating stage in Léger's classicism, a phase that would yield within a few years to new kinds of objects generating new contrasts, no longer derived from commercial products exclusively but from organic motifs as well, reflecting the growing influence of Surrealism on Léger's pictorial forms. Prof. Green has summed up the artist's impressive achievement of this period: "The breadth, the confident sense of breathing space that we find in the mural paintings, is carried over into the still-lifes and the object paintings of 1925-1927 [Bauquier, no. 506; fig. 4]. 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" (Léger and Purist Paris, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, 1970, pp. 77, 79 and 80).
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Composition No. 1, 1925. Formerly in the collection of James Johnson Sweeney.
Barcode: 2800 1911
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Les trois figures, 1926. Formerly in the collection of James Johnson Sweeney.
Barcode: 2800 1904
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Peinture murale, 1924. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 2523 8709
Barcode: 2523 8709
(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, Nature morte, 1927. Kunstmuseum Bern. Barcode: 2800 1898