'1918: Peace. Man, exasperated, tensed, depersonalised for four years, finally raised his head, opened his eyes, looked around, relaxed, and rediscovered his taste for life. A frenzy of dancing, of spending... able at last to walk upright, to shout, to fight, to waste... Living forces, now unleashed, filled the world.
'The yellow canary and the red flower are still there, but one no longer sees them: through the open window, the wall across the street, violently coloured, comes into your house. Enormous letters, figures twelve feet high, are hurled into the apartment. Colour takes over. It is going to dominate everyday life. One will have to adjust to it' (F. Léger, Functions of Painting, ed. E.F. Fry, London, 1973, p. 120).
Dating from one of the most important watershed moments in Fernand Léger's career, Les cylindres colorés was painted in 1918, at the end of the First World War. That conflict, which had seen Léger exposed to great danger at the Front, had provided the artist with new ideas and new subject matter. The end of the war brought a period of immense release for Léger, as was reflected in a string of works that he created during that time, many of which are now in museums throughout the world. Les cylindres colorés belongs to a distinguished group of pictures which share compositional details and which take the form of playful yet daring variations upon details that derive from his 1917 masterpiece, La partie de cartes, now in the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Thus the shapes in Les cylindres colorés and in related pictures in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow and the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, amongst others, can be seen to relate to the soldiers with whom Léger had served. It is a mark of the importance of Les cylindres colorés that it featured in several important exhibitions of his work, including the large-scale posthumous survey held in Paris the year after his death. For many years, it was owned by Louis Carré, the celebrated art dealer who was closely associated with Léger and his career, and who had a number of his works in his own home, which had been designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, another friend of the artist.
By the time the First World War broke out a century ago, Léger had become one of the leading protagonists of Cubism, although his version of that aesthetic had several marked differences from those of his contemporaries Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso. Léger was continuing to explore movement as well as plastic contrast in his images of people on staircases, forests or smoke curling above houses. Many of these compositions featured forms reduced down to geometric essentials with a deliberately limited palette, often comprising only red, white, blue and black. This would form the basis for a number of his pictures, and indeed there are strong links between the armature of those works and Les cylindres colorés.
During that period, Léger's interest in form had been predominant. However, the War served as a colossal epiphany. Despite already being in his thirties, Léger signed up and was made a sapper, working partly as a forester but partly within forests where incredibly ferocious fighting took place. Léger, despite his initial fear, found his exposure to people from all sorts of walks of life at the Front incredibly invigorating, as he recalled:
'The war was a major event for me. There was a supra-poetic atmosphere at the front. It excited me to the core. Good God! What faces! And then there was the mud, the corpses, the artillery. I had never sketched a cannon before, but I had them right in front of my eyes. The war allowed me to sink my feet into the dirt... I had left Paris in the throes of abstraction, a period of pictorial liberation. Without any transition I was suddenly among the whole French people; my new buddies were miners, labourers of the earth, artisans of wood and iron' (Léger, quoted in G. Néret, F. Léger, trans. S.D. Resnick, London, 1993, p. 66).
Léger began to create works that were inspired by his colleagues on the Front, and also that were more relevant to the immediacy of their world. It was a mark of the importance of this experience that, having served as a sapper and a forester, he would later volunteer as a stretcher bearer at the Front, serving at Verdun, even declining the opportunity of a 'softer' role painting camouflage under the auspices of fellow artist André Dunoyer de Segonzac. For Léger, it was the combination of the people at the Front and the technology to which he was exposed that would provide his inspiration. This would come into evidence in his Soldat à la pipe of 1916, now in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen, Dusseldorf, where he used a largely grisaille assemblage of cylinders and circles to create the form of a soldier puffing on his pipe; this work already serves as a clear precursor to Les cylindres colorés.
Later, while away from the Front convalescing, this new tendency would increase when Léger painted one of his wartime masterpieces, La partie de cartes of 1917 (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo). In that work, more colour had been introduced in order to capture the forms of the various characters shown. Discussing his new-found brothers-in-arms, he explained: 'I wanted my work as a painter and the imagery which would emerge from that work to be as tough as their slang, to have the same direct precision, to be as healthy... It was in the trenches that I really seized the reality of objects. I thought back again on my first abstract studies, and a quite different idea concerning the means, the use and the application of art took root in my mind' (Léger, quoted in P. de Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven & London, 1983, p. 31).
Once he was away from the Front in 1918, Léger retained his new attitudes, yet applied a brighter, more vigorous palette to them, taking advantage of the readier access to painterly materials. This resulted in a sequence of important pictures that blurred the geometry that hints at technology with subject matter that is, albeit sometimes discreetly, organic, even human. As he explained, 'I try to create a beautiful object with mechanical elements' (Léger, op. cit., 1973, p. 62). Thus his study for La partie de cartes, dated 1919 but ascribed by Christopher Green to 1918 and now in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, shows a resemblance to one of the figures in the larger 1917 composition, not least with the spine-like assemblage of red triangles, a detail echoed in Les cylindres colorés (regarding the date, see C. Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven & London, 1976, pp. 137 & 141). Indeed, much of the composition of the Stuttgart picture is reflected in Les cylindres colorés, ensuring that the viewer realises that this is an image of body, arms, and even, in the form of parallel pipes, fingers. Looking at the Stuttgart work, which has a cartoonish distillation of a face at the top, the viewer perceives the extra radicalism of Les cylindres colorés, where those same features have evolved into protuberances reminiscent of camera lenses.
Intriguingly, the basic compositional framework that underpins both the Stuttgart study for La partie de cartes and Les cylindres colorés, with many of the discs and cylinders in similar placement on the canvas, is echoed in another painting from 1918, Composition, now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. In that work, Léger had pared back any sense of modelling in order to create a 'flatter', less illusionistic impression that in fact serves as a prelude to the Purism that would increasingly come to the fore in the years following the turmoil of the First World War. Indeed, it is doubtless no coincidence that it was in 1918, the year that Composition and Les cylindres colorés were both painted, that Le Corbusier and Amedée Ozenfant would publish their seminal text, Après le Cubisme, which served as a clarion call for many artists of the day and helped to launch Purism.
Léger would be reluctant to throw himself fully into the realm of science. Instead, his mechanical aesthetic served as a prelude to an exploration of the world around him. Léger rooted himself loosely in the visual language of science and sought a pictorial harmony therein. He also radically distilled his forms: Léger's search for directness and simplicity in his pictures, which is so in evidence in Les cylindres colorés, where the shapes of the figure are conveyed through a construction of circles, tubes and triangles. This increasing tendency towards reduction of form was reflected in his friendship with Constantin Brancusi, which began during precisely this period. Echoing Brancusi, whose works often celebrate nature and humanity, in Les cylindres colorés, the figurative content anchors the picture, albeit loosely, in the realm of the organic.
This was a link that varied over the coming years, oscillating from the extremes of pictures such as Le marinier, for instance, where the protagonist is shown absorbed within a landscape of circles, rectangles and cylinders, or the more abstract ensemble of machinery that is Les disques dans la ville of 1920, now in the Centre Pompidou, where there are mere traces and silhouettes of figures. Indeed, some of his pictures comprised machine parts with the merest traces, if any, of the human figure: increasingly, he allowed the whirring chaos and colour of the modern world to erupt in a clattering landscape of geometrical devices that teetered towards abstraction. During this period, the human element was often absorbed or even expunged, eventually culminating in works that contained agglomerations of mechanical elements without a trace of the human, for instance in the pictures titled Eléments mécaniques. With its focus on the human subject, Les cylindres colorés shares some of the characteristics of one of the pictures at the opposite end of the spectrum in Léger's output of the period, Le mécanicien of 1918, in the Musée de Villeneuve-d'Ascq (a 1920 version is in the National Gallery of Canada). Les cylindres colorés combines both tendencies, serving as an intriguing parallel both to the landscape of technology in which he occasionally immersed fragmented or tiny human figures in the coming two years and also to the insistence upon human content of Le mécanicien. Looking at Les cylindres colorés, one can understand Kazimir Malevich's praise for Léger's pictures from this time:
'we see that the sensation of metal brought Léger to metal itself, to the very elements of Futurism. He is already painting screws, motors and man himself, treating them as iron, as mechanical apparatus; his man has lost his bones, flesh and soul, instead of which Léger has invested him with his own feeling and soul, thanks to which the motor, screws and man in amongst them have been dissolved into a new order, created by the artist's sensation. Thus we cannot say that all these works are soulless or that they only have a formal side, since they have been created by the spirit and soul of the artist' (Malevich, quoted in de Francia, op. cit., 1983, p. 50).
Le mécanicien serves as an intriguing foil to Les cylindres colorés in part because of their shared use of a background partially reminiscent of the paintings of Piet Mondrian, who had in fact not yet returned to Paris but with whom Léger was friends. In Les cylindres colorés, the use of colour in the background is contained largely within panes with black boundaries, thrusting them into relief. At the same time, in the foreground, he has used the combination of blue, purple, red, yellow and green to describe the metallic forms that comprise the figure and composition, with its stretching arms and torso. Indeed, the focus on the circular forms of the discs and cylinders recalls another artist of the time whom Léger knew: Robert Delaunay. 'It was with Robert Delaunay that we fought the battle for the liberation of colour,' Léger would recall. 'Before us green was a tree, blue was the sky, and so on. After us, colour has become an object in its own right' (Léger, quoted in de Francia, op. cit., 1983, p. 26). But where Delaunay liberated colour in its entirety, Léger was determined to keep it tethered to subject matter, to the world of machines and technology. He himself would discuss this:
'When I was discharged I could benefit from these hard years. I reached a decision; without compromising in any way, I would model in pure and local colour, using large volumes. I could do without tasteful arrangements, delicate shading, and dead backgrounds. I was no longer fumbling for the key. I had it. The war matured me and I am not afraid to say so. It is my ambition to achieve the maximum pictorial realisation by means of plastic contrasts' (Léger, quoted in ibid., p. 42).
It is that sense of plastic contrast that lies at the heart of Les cylindres colorés, with its perspectival focus on the machine-parts that comprise the human form. They have disintegrated enough that they appear to have their own dynamism, yet are clearly connected, harking back to the vision of the comrade-in-arms, the Soldat à la pipe and the card-players, resulting in an image that taps into Léger's profound sensitivity to humanity and also to his visceral awareness of technology, forged in part on the battlefields of France.