Fernand Lger (1881-1955)
Fernand Lger (1881-1955)

Femme tenant un livre

Fernand Lger (1881-1955)
Femme tenant un livre
signed and dated 'F. LGER/24' (lower right); signed, titled and dated 'Femme tenant un livre 1er tat 1924 F. LGER' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
19 3/4 x 23 5/8in. (50 x 65cm.)
Painted in 1924
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owners in the late 1920s
C. Laugier & M. Richet, Lger, oeuvres de Fernand Lger (1881-1955), Collections du Muse National d'Art Moderne, Paris, Paris 1981, figs. e-f (illustrated p. 53).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Lger, catalogue raisonn 1920-1924, Paris 1992, no. 362 (illustrated p. 282).

Lot Essay

Executed by Lger in the spring of 1924 as part of his preparation for his celebrated masterpiece La lecture now in the Muse d'Art Moderne, Paris, Femme tenant un livre is a highly refined work that exemplifies the statuesque precision and modern classicism with which the artist sought to render the objective nature of the world. It demonstrates the full potential of the ideas first expressed by Lger in his seminal work, Le grand djeuner (Museum of Modern Art, New York).

Behind the seamless execution of La lecture lay the artist's most exacting and painstaking preparational development to date. Lger's aim was to create a painting that was as prefect as a machine. Towards this end, he repeatedly worked out each figure of the painting in numerous pencil studies and in a number of independent oils. Femme tenant un livre is one of two outstanding canvases that Lger executed as he worked towards the final realisation of this intense project. Along with Etude pour la lecture in the Barbier Mller Collection, Femme tenant un livre represents the final phase in Lger's extensive preparation for the left hand figure of La lecture.

Depicting a woman reclining on a sofa in front of a Mondrianesque background, each detail of Femme tenant un livre is delineated with the same consummate degree of cool accuracy. Quite intentionally, the effect of the overall image appears as a composite of equally important constituent parts. Lger's aim was to represent an archetypally classical subject, such as the female nude, in harmonious union with a distinctly modern environment. He was inspired in part by the work of Poussin, which had been reinstalled in the Louvre in 1921, as well as an exhibition of late nudes by Renoir that had been exhibited at Galerie Durand-Ruel. He combined this with the machine-purism then being explored in the geometric abstraction of the De Stijl artists.
Lger was greatly influenced in his approach by the relatively new medium of the cinema, and in particular the set work he had done on Marcel L'Herbier's L'Inhumaine in 1923 and indeed his own film of 1924, Ballet Mechanique. He was especially impressed by the cinematic technique of the extreme close-up, which highlighted the importance of detail and precision. As a result, Lger began to experiment with distortion and with the magnification of the details of his paintings in order to stress the strangeness of objects out of their normal proportional context and in order to depict the equal importance of all things. In this way he began to pay particular attention to minor and often overlooked details of the human figure. "I photograph the fingernail of a modern woman very precisely under a very strong light," he explained. "This extremely well tended nail is treated with no less care than her eye or her mouth. It is an object that has an intrinsic value. Now I project this nail onto the screen magnified a hundred times and say to one person: 'Look, this is a fragment of a nascent planet.' To another: 'This is an abstract form.' They take my word for it. In the end I shall tell them: "No, what you have just seen is the nail of the little finger of my wife's left hand." They will be annoyed but will never ask again the famous question: "What does it represent?". (Lger cited in W. Schmalenbach, Fernand Lger, London 1976, p. 116.)

In the present work, the scale of the various parts of the woman's body has been distorted and the metal-like surfaces are rendered as if they were pieces of machinery. The sensuous quality of flesh, which Lger believed had led so many painters down a false path towards sentimentality, is here replaced with a texture that is closer to polished steel.

The drawing of the woman's face is quite exceptional and is actually a finer rendition than that of La lecture. In Femme tenant un livre, Lger has rendered the woman's features with the precise elegance of an engineer and in a way that bestows a benign serenity and a sense of grace upon this otherwise mechanical woman. This, despite the fact that, as he claimed, "The human face and the human figure are no more important to me than keys or bicycles. They are valid three dimensional objects to be used according to my choice. ... The object has replaced the subject, abstract art has given me complete freedom and therefore one thinks of the human face not in terms of its sentimental value but purely in terms of its three-dimensional value. That is why the human face remains voluntarily inexpressive in the evolution of my work." (Lger quoted in P. Descargues, Fernand Lger, Paris 1955, p. 61.)

The simplified elegance of Femme tenant un livre perfectly defines Lger's 'purist' aesthetic . Each aspect of the painter's art - the colour, forms, composition, subject and textural qualities of the work - are fused into an unique but harmoniously united balance that powerfully expresses the simple beauty of Lger's utopian brand of objective realism.

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