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Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
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Fernand Léger (1881-1955)

Dessin pour l'Escalier

Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Dessin pour l'Escalier
signed with initials and dated 'F.L. 13 Dessin pour l'escalier' (lower right)
gouache and bodycolour on buff paper
19½ x 25½in. (49.6 x 64.3cm.)
Executed in 1913
Carlo Frua de Angeli, Milan.
Galerie Beyeler, Basel.
Galerie Baukunst, Cologne, from whom purchased by the present owner in 1972.
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VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price plus buyer's premium.

Lot Essay

In the years immediately preceding the First World War, Fernand Léger focussed his art on several key subjects, investigating the potential of his medium to analyse the forms in the modern world around him. Foremost in these series were his images of smoke rising from the city's rooftops, and the staircase. These subjects involved the depiction of both movement and varied textures. Dessin pour L'Escalier, executed in 1913, belongs to the latter series. The use of colour is deliberately subdued so as to increase the awareness of the contrasts between the volume and movement at play in the scene. Although Léger himself referred to this work as a 'Dessin', and while several finished oils of the subject do exist with notable similarities to the present work, the artist himself considered all of these to be striving towards a masterpiece that was never actually painted. In a letter to Nils de Dardel, written only two years after Dessin pour L'Escalier was executed, Léger wrote that his works before the War were 'attempts at something rather abstract (Contrasts of forms and colours) that I was trying to carry out in a large painting that would have been called L'Escalier' (Léger, quoted in Fernand Léger 1911-1924: The Rhythm of Modern Life, ed. Dorothy Kosinski, exh. cat., Munich & New York, 1994, p.67).

Regardless of whether or not Léger considered the ultimate project completed, the investigations into contrast and form that he had carried out in the years immediately prior to the War were the formative basis for his entire oeuvre, and set the tone of his interest in movement and dynamism. It is no coincidence that this charcoal dates from only the year after Marcel Duchamp's scandalous but pioneering Nu descendant un escalier. Duchamp's great painting caused huge uproar in the momentous 1913 Armory Show in New York, which also featured works by Léger. The staircase as a subject was a fantastic source of inspiration for these modern painters, who were interested in movement itself, living as they were in an age in which air travel and film gave movement such limitless potential. To some extent movement itself, as an abstract value, characterised these increasingly mechanised years. Duchamp's image showed the defracted image of a figure descending a staircase, the painting shattering the traditional limitations of time in art and linking the narrative of the image to film rather than the ephemeral moment captured in photography. Duchamp's Nu descendant un escalier was to prove, essentially, his swansong to figurative art, as he confronted the limitations of his medium and decided that they were relatively insurmountable, instead going on to create and tackle more intellectual forms of conceptual art. However, Léger found that the results of his pictorial investigations into movement and form opened up whole vistas of potential in art. He began to formulate a new mode of art that was suited to the visual vocabulary of the modern world.

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