Fernand Leger (1881-1955)
Fernand Leger (1881-1955)

Le Compotier (Nature morte)

Fernand Leger (1881-1955)
Le Compotier (Nature morte)
signed and dated 'F.LÉGER 25' (lower right); signed and dated again and titled 'F.LÉGER 25 NATURE-MORTE' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
23¾ x 36 in. (60 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted in 1925
Paul Rosenberg & Co., New York (1949).
Heinz Berggruen, Paris (by 1960).
James J. Shapiro, New York (by 1971).
Michelle Rosenfeld Gallery, New York.
Anon. sale, Christie's, New York, 9 November 1999, lot 525.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
D. Cooper, Fernand Léger et le nouvel espace, Geneva, 1949 (illustrated, p. 97).
K. Kuh, Léger, Urbane, Illinois, 1953, p. 41 (illustrated, p. 40).
C. Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 308 (illustrated).
W. Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, New York, 1976, p. 126, no. 29 (illustrated, p. 31).
P. de Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 103 (illustrated, fig. 5.22).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger, Catalogue raisonné, 1925-1928, Paris, 1993, vol. III, p. 40, no. 414 (illustrated in color).
The Art Institute of Chicago, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Léger, April 1953-January 1954, no. 30 (illustrated, p. 40).
Geneva, Musée de l'Athénée, Exposition Ort, July-September 1960.
London, Tate Gallery, Léger and Purist Paris, November 1970-January 1971, no. 55 (illustrated, p. 78).
Paris, Grand Palais, Fernand Léger, October 1971-January 1972, p. 18, no. 91 (illustrated, p. 82).

Lot Essay

The still-life compositions that Léger painted in the mid-1920s have been classed among the key artworks of that decade; these pictures incorporate the most positive elements of both the modernist and classicizing tendencies that were then current, and indeed they represent a significantly successful synthesis of these very different traditions. In these still-lifes Léger achieved a consummate balance and poise in his structural forms, while creating novel and arresting contrasts through the calculated juxtaposition of ordinary, everyday objects, to which Léger imparted an impressive monumentality, a grandly conceived pictorial reality all their own.

In 1925 Léger painted Le Compotier as one in a series of five still-life compositions, all of which contain as a central element a compotier holding pears or apples the others are Bauquier, nos. 410-413; figs. 1-4). The artist added a bunch of grapes to the compotier in the present picture. Four of these still-lifes, including the present work, were executed in a horizontal format, only Nature morte (Bauquier 410) is a vertical canvas. All except one (Bauquier 412, the smaller first state of the subject that became Les Pommes, Bauquier 413) are approximately the same large, easel-size dimensions. All five moreover share a basic palette of red, ochre and black, set against pale neutral tones.

The Compotier compositions have as their structural foundation a series of stacked and overlapping flat rectangular planes, giving rise to an architecture of frames within frames, which suggest a shallow but nonetheless ambiguous spatial dimension, while also imparting to the composition a bearing of stasis and stability. Within this framework Léger sets up approximately symmetrical balances but of dissimilar things, most of which have been cropped and appear as fragments of the original whole objects, perceived as if seen by the eye in a darting gaze. These contrasts in content may appear to contend with their structural environment. But all such forces within the painting strike a balance and fall into place, subject to the greater order which Léger has imposed upon the composition--the rectangular regularity of the architectural elements in the background anchors the composition and enforces an overall aspect of classical simplicity, clarity and permanence.

It was only a decade earlier, on the eve of the First World War, that the vortical abstracted elements in Léger's now famous contrastes de formes paintings, and just after the war, the kinetic bustle in his mechanical pictures, represented modern pictorialism in its most extreme form. These paintings were virtually unpalatable to viewers and mostly unsalable as well, at a time when even vintage cubist paintings could find buyers only among a relatively small circle of initiated collectors. During the early 1920s, Léger responded by stages to the le rappel à l'ordre, the humanistic "call to order" first advocated by Jean Cocteau and quickly taken up by the Paris avant-garde during the post-war period. Léger turned away from the brashly dynamic, mechanical manner of his earlier work, and his paintings began to assume a more calm, balanced, and consciously classical appearance. He remained steadfast to his basic principle of seeking contrasts in forms, but he now pursued these ideas in an altered context, in which the pursuit of harmony and order supplanted his erstwhile preference for dissonant effects. In a 1924 article he published in his dealer Léonce Rosenberg's Bulletin de l'Effort Moderne, Léger advocated "A society without frenzy, calm, ordered, knowing how to live naturally within the Beautiful without exclamation or romanticism. That is where we are going, very simply. It is a religion like any other. I think it is useful and beautiful" (quoted in E. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 47).

The classical imperatives of harmony and order dominated the art of the day, only the Dadaists and the nascent Surrrealist movement turned a deaf ear to le rappel à l'ordre. Léger was drawn to the orderly simplicity and clarity in the paintings of Le Corbusier's and Ozenfant, and their theories on Purism--L'Esprit nouveau. He also admired the disciplined balance of pictorial elements in Mondrian's recent Die Stijl paintings, which Léonce Rosenberg exhibited at his Galerie de l'Effort Moderne in 1923. Léger was now convinced that he should strive to create in his art the transcendent order and permanence of the classical and humanistic ideals that informed the great and enduring art of the past. He was keen on making his own significant contribution to this trend; employing the conventional and accepted genres of figure-painting, still-life and landscape, he would unite the timeless values of classicism with subjects drawn from everyday modern life. As viewers witnessed in the recent exhibition Chaos and Classicism at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, most artists who delved into classicism during the 1920s retreated into the dream of an illusionary distant past. Léger, on the other hand, resolutely declared his allegiance to modernity, the reality of his time, the life of the moment.

The pictorial elements in Léger's earlier mechanical compositions, as well as in his recent paintings of classicized figures in domestic interiors, while rendered through various contrasts of form, were integrated and brought to order within a fundamentally unified conception of the artist's overall subject. Léger now turned to another approach, in which he focused on the various aspects of individual objects. The artist wrote, "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).

Léger was drawn to the beauty of the manufactured object, from the most technically advanced airplane engine to everyday house wares. In the prosperity that followed the end of the war, consumer goods filled the stores, and were shown off in cleverly graphic advertisements and enticing window displays. The moving image of the film now had mass-appeal. Léger had done work in avant-garde cinema with his friend the poet Blaise Cendrars, who introduced him in 1921 to the famed director Abel Gance. In 1924 Léger collaborated with Dudley Murphy, an American cameraman and film-maker, to produce the film accompaniment to composer George Antheil's Le ballet mécanique. The moving images concentrated on objects, without relying on a scenario. This experience was instrumental to the new approach Léger took in his painting. He wrote, "Contrasting objects, slow and rapid passages, rest and intensity--the whole film was constructed on that. I used the close-up, which is the only cinematic invention. Fragments of objects were also useful; by isolating a thing you give it personality. All this led me to consider the event of objectivity as a very new contemporary value... We are living through the advent of the object that is thrust on us in all those shops that decorate the streets" (from an unpublished article, "Ballet mécanique," circa 1924, in Functions of Painting, p. 50).

Taking his classicizing, clarifying approach, Léger has rendered in Le Compotier commonplace table-top objects, none of which would seem out-of-place in a traditional still-life. Only the organic shapes of the fruits run counter to the industrial geometry of the surrounding environment; they provide the most striking contrasts of object and form within this composition. Léger placed these still-life objects in a flattened, Die Stijl-like space, organized in abutting and overlapping rectangular sections. He used a wide format, like a movie screen, as a backdrop. Configured as frames within frames, the various horizontal and vertical wall moldings enfold and unite the objects, or more precisely, the enlarged fractional views that Léger has extracted and isolated from these objects, as if they were being viewed in a cinematic close-up. Christopher Green has observed, "...Léger brings together the products of his new cinematic approach to the figurative fragment and the manufactured object, an approach which ensured the survival of the unexpected, the personal in his painting, however stable, however classical it became" (op. cit., 1976, p. 313).

Le Compotier and other still-lifes of the mid-1920s represent the culminating stage in Léger's classicism, a phase that would yield in a few years to new contrasts, cast in different forms, then more often derived from organic objects, that reflect the growing influence of surrealism. Christopher Green has summed up Léger's stunningly impressive achievement during this period: "The breadth, the confident sense of breathing space that we find in the mural paintings, is carried over into the still-lifes and the object paintings of 1925-1927. They bring together all the qualities of his earlier mechanical works; the careful planning, the perfect precision of technique, the clear, standardized pictorial forms, the interest in both variations and repetition, the sense of balance between opposing forces; but they do so with an uncluttered simplicity and a controlled mastery of spatial paradox beyond the range of his earlier work... It was now that the common object acquired true monumentality" (in Léger and Purist Paris, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, 1970, pp. 77, 79 and 80).

(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Nature morte (Le compotier de poires), 1925. Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe.

(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Le compotier rouge, 1925. Sold, Christie's 9 May 2007, lot 47.

(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Nature morte, 1er état, 1925. The Menil Collection, Houston.

(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, Les Pommes, 1925. Sold, Christie's, New York, 12 May 1998, lot 13.

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