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Fernand Leger (1881-1955)
Property from the Collection of Max Palevsky
Fernand Leger (1881-1955)

Composition à la clarinette et au banjo

Fernand Leger (1881-1955)
Composition à la clarinette et au banjo
signed with initials and dated 'FL. 25' (lower right)
watercolor and pencil on paper
Image size: 10¾ x 7¾ in. (27.3 x 19.7 cm.)
Sheet size: 12½ x 9½ in. (32 x 24.1 cm.)
Executed in 1925
Douglas Cooper, London.
Dr. G.F. Reber, Lausanne (acquired from the above, 1939).
Galerie Berggruen et Cie., Paris.
Eugene Istomin, Washington, D.C. (acquired from the above, circa 1974); sale, Sotheby's, New York, 4 May 2005, lot 207.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner.

Lot Essay

In a lecture delivered before students at the Sorbonne in 1925, Léger declared: "In 1923-1924, I completed paintings whose important elements were objects set right outside any kind of atmosphere and unconnected with anything normal--objects isolated from the subjects I had abandoned. 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). In praise of the object in all its modern diversity--most frequently wares of the ordinary sort that he found in department store catalogues--Léger during the mid-1920s created magisterial paintings in his fully-fledged modern classical style. These compositions are serenely harmonious, displaying the artist's "law of plastic contrasts" in "the weight of masses, the relationship of lines, the balance of colors--all things that require an absolute order" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 28).

Drawings, as beautiful and refined as Léger ever made, preceded many of these paintings: on these sheets Léger carefully laid out nearly all of the elements that later appear on the canvas, making only minor alterations as he painted. Other drawings, such the present work, are unrelated to any known oil painting, and as such are the only surviving evidence of an interesting idea that became an independent end in itself. Léger executed his classical drawings with a compass, ruler and other draftsman's tools, which themselves appear in some of the compositions they aided in rendering (Cassou and Leymarie, no. 122; fig. 1), as well as in the related oil paintings, recast on a monumental scale. Pencil was at this time Léger's favorite implement for drawing. He contrasted areas modeled in delicately applied shading with sections left untouched and white. He would then proceed to heighten select parts of the composition with watercolor, creating stronger contrasts of dark and light, using the pencil-shaded areas as neutral half-tones.

Musical instruments--the favorite still-life objects of his great peers Picasso, Braque and Gris--did not appear in Léger's cubist work before the First World War, and had to wait until the mature classical pictures of the mid-1920s to make their debut. Like the draftsman's tools, musical instruments relate directly to the creation of art; indeed, instruments as a subject have traditionally been emblematic of the very idea of the art to which all other arts are said to aspire. In Léger's paintings, however, in which the artist wanted to displace the traditional idea of the subject, he would claim that he treated the instruments purely as objects for their inherent plastic potential.

Léger's favorite instrument was the accordion, as played in the streets of Paris and in the neighborhood dance halls he loved to frequent; it appears in two large paintings and a related gouache (Bauquier, nos. 453-454; Cassou and Leymarie, no. 132). Elsewhere he depicted guitars and a saxophone in its case. A clarinet and a banjo are a most unusual combination. During a visit to a Montmartre "hot club," Léger may have seen a New Orleans-style jazz ensemble using these instruments. Darius Milhaud featured the clarinet in a movement of his 1923 jazz ballet La Création du monde, for which Léger designed the costumes and sets. The artist, however, was primarily interested here in the contrasts of form between the two instruments: the slender silhouette of the clarinet versus the thicker neck and circular body of the banjo. The addition of various interior decorative ornaments and a wall molding contributes to the preponderance of vertical and horizontal elements in this composition. Against this rigid, grid-like structure, the flared shape of the clarinet, and the moon-like disc of the banjo's body create a satisfying sense of rounded completion. Léger wrote: "every object that has the circle as its basic form is always sought as an attractive force... roundness satisfies the human eye: it is complete, there is no break in continuity. The ball, the sphere are enormous plastic values" (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, op. cit., p. 88).

(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Composition with Compasses, pencil, 1925. Private collection.
BARCODE 2724 9321

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