Léger painted Le corsage rouge as he pursued his aim during the early 1920s to radically recast the aesthetic conception of beauty in the art of his time. To this end he combined elements drawn from classical traditions of the past with the increasingly mechanical realities of contemporary living, to create a sleekly polished and gleaming vision of the essential forms that comprise the human presence in the modern world. More than ninety years later, in our present digital age, the style he forged then still appears strikingly futuristic. The twin peaks of this period are Le grand déjeuner, 1921 (the last and largest of three closely related canvases; Bauquier, nos. 309-311), and nearly as sizable, Le femme et l’enfant, 1922 (Bauquier, no. 335). The artist considered Le grande déjeuner to be one of the finest works of his career; it has indeed become a 20th century icon, a consummate emblem of l’esprit nouveau in its own day, and no less definitive and prescient in our own.
Painted roughly mid-way between these two masterworks, Le corsage rouge possesses an engaging intimacy and immediacy that stands out among Léger’s women-in-an-interior paintings of 1921-1922. The artist painted this composition of a reclining nude and her clothed companion close-up, as if the viewer had entered their space and were conversing with them. Having concentrated in his paintings of the late ‘teens on the brashly mechanical–that is, “masculine”–aspect of modern life in the city, Léger thereafter transferred in the déjeuner paintings and related works his mise-en-scène to the domestic interior, the gentler and more amiable world of women and the family. From this series henceforth, the presence of the figure, and that of woman-as-muse especially, assumed a central place in Léger's work for the remainder of his career.
In his painting early, middle and late, Léger made contrasts of all kinds the essential impetus that drove his art. From the pioneering series of virtually abstract Contrastes de formes of 1913-1914 onward, Léger remained dedicated to his fundamental tenets of pictorial composition: “I apply the law of contrasts... I organize the opposition of contrasting values, lines, and curves. I oppose curves to straight lines, flat surfaces to molded forms, pure local colors to nuances of gray. These initial plastic forms are either superimposed on objective elements or not, it makes no difference to me. There is only a question of variety" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 24-25).
The cataclysm of the First World War was an irrefutable sign, Léger believed, that society had broken with the past and cast aside outworn values, and was now entering a new and genuinely modern reality. In 1924 he famously proclaimed: "Modern man lives more and more in a preponderantly geometric order. All mechanical and industrial human creation is subject to geometric forces" (quoted in ibid., p. 52). Employing mechanical elements as his pictorial stock in trade, together with other objects drawn from everyday life–the more diverse and dissimilar in aspect the better–Léger applied “the law of contrasts,” bringing them together “towards the realization of a state of plastically realized intensity” (quoted in ibid., p. 25).
The déjeuner and related figure compositions of 1921-1922 mark a significant turning point in the evolution of Léger’s style during the years immediately following the end of the Great War, as the artist had been investigating, testing and syncretizing various pictorial ideas he observed around him as he navigated the many cross-currents of post-war modernism. As Christopher Green has pointed out, "Le grand déjeuner is at once traditional and new, a complex fusion of contradictory elements and conflicting pictorial effects” (Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 232). Léger, to a degree surpassing any other painter of his time, successfully articulated in these figure paintings a grandly formal design, a clear, concise and strongly projected synthesis of ostensibly divergent strands culled from modernist syntax. Picasso had achieved his multivalent style by alternating between classicism and cubism as it suited him and the subject at hand. Léger instead created from as many sources a single unified approach he could apply to any theme in his painting, whether treating the figure, still life or land- and cityscape.
The lively play of figural and architectural elements in Le corsage rouge, rendered in abruptly abutting forms, proceeded from Léger’s calculated merging of three distinct but overlapping stylistic imperatives. Late Cubism, of course, guided Léger’s formal analysis of the two figures; each is a construction of distinct parts rather than a single melded form, and as such Léger has integrated them into the flattened aspect and grid-like spatial architecture of the interior setting. The artist rendered these elements in a kind of modernist “primitivism,” in a minimally modeled simplification of form, using local color, which he gleaned from the Purism of Le Corbusier and Ozenfant, and also carried forward from his own mechanical style of the late ‘teens.
The unifying factor in Léger’s overall conception, and the most notable recent transformation in his outlook generally, is the new classicizing tendency–le rappel à l’ordre (“the call to order”)–the message which had been promulgated through all the arts in the wake of the First World War. Humanist in outlook, proudly Gallic in inspiration, the new classicism was intended as a balm on the great wound left by the most catastrophic war in all history until that time. To this end, Léger consciously imparted to all the elements in Le corsage rouge, as in Le déjeuner and others of this series, the discipline of order, a palliative assertion of balance and equilibrium, which is as much the purposeful theme of these paintings as any of the actual contents that comprise them.
During the late ‘teens Léger had been in his mechanical paintings swimming against the tide. He insisted on countering the increasingly escapist Arcadian classicism of the post-war Paris avant-garde with his own message of wholly contemporary and cosmopolitan subject matter, which he cast in uncompromisingly dissonant and dynamic pictorial forms. He simply painted–as he put it–“what was going on around me” (quoted in D. Kosinki, ed., Fernand Léger: The Rhythm of Modern Life, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Wolfsberg, 1994, p. 68). During the years 1918-1924 there was no other major painter in Paris who stood so resolutely and unapologetically for modernity in its popular, everyday reality.
By 1920, Léger nevertheless sensed there was probably merit in adapting his outlook to the “call to order.” The Louvre and other Paris museums were taking their master paintings out of protective wartime storage and placing them back on view. Especially impressive, as Léger discovered, were the 15th century portraits of Jean Fouquet, and the 17th century genre paintings of the Le Nain brothers. The very image of the human form was, of course, the signal theme by which all past European artists of stature had staked their claim to posterity, and so it must be, Léger and his colleagues realized, for the generation of modern painters now coming of age.
The new, genuinely modern conception of the figure must be massive and monumental, possess substance and solidity, Léger decided, so that it might properly assume and hold its place in the mechanical environment. Cézanne in his late bathers had provided a persuasive model for a modern construct of the figure, and the late nudes of Renoir, too, in their imposing volumetric presence–these were two artists who had summoned to the modernist table the classicism of Poussin, Rubens and Titian. Most importantly, Léger turned to the paintings of Seurat, not to study the latter’s Neo-Impressionist technique, but rather his use of horizontal and vertical elements to stabilize a composition. Léger put these devices to good use in the déjeuner paintings, and Le corsage rouge is an excellent case in point; observe how he breaks up the horizontal orientation of the reclining nude and the divan on which she rests by placing the standing clothed figure front and center before them. The balance of vertical and horizontal elements in the recent De Stijl paintings of Mondrian–Rosenberg showed the latter’s work and published his text Néo-Plasticisme in 1921–were instructive to this end as well.
Léger resolved to feature the human figure, "not as a sentimental element, but solely as a plastic element" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 46). Using this detached point-of-view empowered Léger to transform and revitalize, moreover, any traditional subject or pictorial convention he lit upon, and thereby imbue it with contemporary relevance. The female nude was an especially hot and loaded topic; the odalisque of the orientalists, for instance, needed to be divested of its 19th century exoticism before assuming a true modernist guise, and even Matisse at this time was not yet prepared to forego a lingering nostalgia for this convention in his Nice figure paintings. Here was a theme that would put Léger’s attitude of cool, formal detachment fully to the test, while offering him some relief from the rigors of the mechanical style. “I needed a rest, to breathe a little,” he stated. “After the dynamism of the mechanical phase, I felt, as it were, a need for the static quality of the large forms that were to follow. Earlier I had broken up the human body. Now I began to put it together again. Since then I have always used the human form” (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47).
The figure and interior paintings moreover provided Léger the opportunity to devise new contrasts of form, in this case placing a recognizably more curvilinear feminine subject against the rigid masculine geometry of her surroundings, a conception that underscores the figure-ground relationship in Le corsage rouge. There are also contrasts that arise between the two women themselves: nude versus clothed, reclining versus standing postures, grisaille tones versus pure local color, even bobbed versus long hair styles, and so on. "A contemporary fashionable party contrasts the men's severe, crisp black clothes with the prettier and more delicately colored dresses of the women,” Léger observed. “An epoch of contrasts... So I am consistent with my own time" (quoted in E.F. Fry, op. cit., 1973, p. 30).
Léger did not hesitate to couch his conception of the domestic interior in mechanical, grid-like terms, and he likewise conceived the contemporary female nude not as the fleshy, sensual object of desire that artists are wont to depict, but on the contrary, he rendered her in the present painting and her sisters in the déjeuners as hard-edged mechanical assemblages of aero-dynamic curvilinear forms and cylindrical parts. This was excitingly novel and uncharted territory in French painting during the early 1920s. Paintings such as Le corsage rouge were indeed striking in their time; they wear the vital, adventurous, and edgy look of an authentically contemporary art. Having fabricated these figures as if from indestructible steel and burnished chromium, Léger made them to last. And thusly these women aspire to the ultimate classical ideal–they are timeless and eternal.
Fernand Léger seated beside Le grand déjeuner.
Fernand Léger, Le grand déjeuner, 1921. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Fernand Léger, La femme et l’enfant, 1922. Kunstmuseum, Basel.
Fernand Léger, Femmes dans un intérieur, 1922. Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.
Fernand Léger, Les trois personnages devant le jardin, 1922. Sold, Christie’s, New York, 8 November 2006, lot 44.