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

Les deux soeurs

Fernand Leger (1881-1955)
Les deux soeurs
signed and dated 'F. LEGER 32' (lower right); signed and dated again and titled 'F. LEGER 32 Les deux soeurs' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
24½ x 21½ in. (62.5 x 54.5 cm.)
Painted in 1932
Galerie Daniel Malingue, Paris.
Perls Galleries, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner, October 1984.
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger, Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, 1932-1937, Paris, 1996, vol. V, p. 42, no. 813 (illustrated in color, p. 43).
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Lot Essay

Léger's quintessential works of the 1920s are the magisterial still-life compositions he painted during the middle years of that decade; these pictures manifest the classical qualities of clarity, balance and order which were then in vogue but are also decidedly modern in their content. By the beginning of the 1930s, however, the spirit of classicism was on the wane, as it yielded to the widening impact of surrealism, whose precepts urged artists to delve beneath the external order of civilization to probe the darkly vital, organic forces that acted inexorably on the processes of the inner mind. Always attentive to the latest ideas in circulation, Léger began to remove the hard classical shell in which he encased his art to explore the softer, more pliable and sensual forms found in nature and in the human body, especially the female figure, which now became a frequent and dominant presence in his work.

In some paintings Léger's women share the pictorial space with landscape elements, another of the artist's newfound natural interests (e.g., Bauquier, no. 762), but more often he filled the canvas almost to the edge with the feminine figure or visage, or the images of two or even three women, seen in full or partial length. The present Les deux soeurs gives the impression of having been casually posed, as if in a snapshot, or captured within a close-up frame of a motion picture reel--Léger can take credit for having introduced the cinema-style close-up into modern painting from his experience in film-making during the early 1920s. During his classical period Léger would have insisted on using a geometrical grid of horizontal and vertical elements to structure the objects within a composition, but by this time he had dismantled and removed from his work all evidence of a supporting architecture, and instead he here allows the simplified, relaxed contours of the two women, whose forms are essentially flat albeit with some shallow modeling, to float across the vacant backdrop of an indeterminate interior space.

Compared to the high formal art of his classical phase, Léger has created in Les deux soeurs an altogether more relaxed and informal brand of modern portraiture; he had now made it his purpose to create appealing and accessible pictures, whose content might appear new and unusual, but was actually very readable and should be directly communicative. Paintings of this kind, he believed, would constitute a genuinely popular art. Within a few years Léger's leftist politics would bring him into alignment with the agenda of the Front Populaire and the government of Léon Blum, and he was excited at the prospect that he and fellow artists might finally, as he stated, "create and realize a new collective social art; we are merely awaiting for social evolution to permit it. Free the masses of people, give them the possibility of thinking of seeing, of self-cultivation--that is all we ask; they will then be in a position to enjoy to the utmost the plastic novelties that modern art has to offer" (E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 115 and 116).

During the 1920s Léger had directed his efforts at exalting the integrity of ordinary, everyday objects and elevating them to a monumental status in his paintings. He wanted to break what he felt was the tyranny of the subject as it had existed in the art of painting since the Renaissance. The subject was obsolete in modern painting, he argued, and it was time to emphasize the presence and character of the individual object, not as a means to an end--as in the traditional subject--but as the end in itself. Now it was time to accomplish the same for the figure, releasing it from all the superfluous, extra-visual connotations that have accrued to it over the centuries, so the human body might finally be seen in all its inherent beauty as pure plastic form. To accomplish this liberation of the figure Léger had in mind what he called the creation of the "grand subject." By this term he was not suggesting a return to conventional subject painting, it was instead his aim to paint monumental compositions that included the figure and objects as pictorial equals; he declared, "I am taking up a grand subject, but my painting is still object-painting. My figures continue to grow more human but I keep to the plastic fact, no eloquence, no romanticism" (quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 227).

Léger would indeed make it his rule to keep to "the plastic fact," for he reasoned that "as long as the human body is considered a sentimental or expressive value in painting, no new evolution in pictures of people will be possible. Its development has been hindered by the domination of the subject through the centuries... In contemporary painting the object must become the leading character and dethrone the subject. Then, in turn, if the person, the face, and the human body will be become objects, the modern artist will be offered considerable freedom. At this moment, it is possible for him to use the law of contrasts, which is the constructive law, with all its breadth" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., p. 132).

The evolution of the figure in Léger's work had been a radical and drastic process from the beginning. As he stated, "Earlier I had broken up the body"--during his cubist and mechanical phases before 1923--and "thereafter I began to put it together again"--during his classical phase in the mid-1920s (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Leger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47). With the figure now fully reconstituted in its organic wholeness and distinctive continuum of form, the plastic beauty of the human body must be seen "to be completely independent from sentimental, descriptive and imitative values" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., p. 52). Léger once described an attractive girl he had met as being "as beautiful as a gasometer" (quoted in P. de Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 116). Once the human body is understood to exist as one object among many, Léger concluded that "everything is of equal interest... the human face or the human body is of no weightier plastic interest than a tree, a plant, a piece of rock, or a pile of rope. It is enough to compose a picture with these objects, being careful to choose those that may best create a composition" (quoted in ibid., p. 111). Léger noted that "the human figure remains purposely inexpressive in the evolution of my work from 1905 until now. I know that this very radical concept of the figure shocks a great many people," he admitted, "but I can't help it" (quoted in ibid., p. 155).

The single female figure normally appears in Léger's paintings only in a context where he has juxtaposed it with other sufficiently weighty objects that enable him to create a dynamic composition of inter-active contrasts. He was more often inclined to depict pairs of women, or even three figures arranged in a close grouping, which allowed him to generate multiple contrasts of form and character among the figures themselves. The two sisters in the present painting have as their antecedents a pair of dancers who appear in various paintings of 1929-1930, as in La Danse, 1929 (Bauquier, no. 654; fig. 1). In a related painting, Léger referred to the young women as Les deux grâces, a reference to the mythical goddesses who inspired joy, charm and beauty in the world (Bauquier, no. 653). With this precedent in mind, the presence of the vase in Les deux soeurs (even if it has a modern appearance), as well as the exotic necklaces that adorn the two girls, may suggest residual allusions to antiquity.

The presence of the single flower, Léger's rendering of a long-stemmed rose, thorns and all, is the primary prop and visual accent in Les deux soeurs. The form of the rose provides a point of visual contrast with the figures, but it is also emblematic of the girls' feminine beauty: the two young women in essence represent a contemporary, popularized embodiment of female vegetation and fertility myths drawn from humankind's deepest past. "It is the great order of antiquity that I wish to see reappear," Léger declared (quoted in Y. Brunhammer, Fernand Léger: The Monumental Art, Paris, 2005, p. 147). The figures in Léger's female portraits are often seen bearing flowers or in close proximity to floral motifs. Similar treatment of the feminine image may be observed in the work of other important French painters during this period, who also created images of the femme-fleur. Matisse painted women in interiors that were often decorated with vases of flowers and large houseplants. Picasso associated his young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter with the potted philodedron that she liked to keep, and he included the leaves of this plant and vases of flowers in the famous series of paintings he made of her in early 1932.

The image of woman as a modern Demeter or Flora, resembling in her pure lines the goddesses and nymphs of antiquity who might be found on an Attic vase, emerged as a recent development in Léger art, and is no doubt related to his campaign to create "the grand subject." Léger might well claim that he had inserted a floral motif purely as an item of visual contrast, and that its inclusion possessed no sentimental or expressive value, but the symbolism here should not be disregarded or overlooked. The presence of "flower-power" heralds the coming of peace, fertility and abundance, and tells of the capacity of the human body and spirit to regenerate and replenish itself in a violent and destructive century.

From easel-sized dual portraits such as Les deux soeurs, Léger went on to paint his multi-figure compositions in ever larger dimensions (Bauquier, no. 817; fig. 2), culminating with two paintings he completed in 1939, Adam et Eve (Bauquier, no. 880; fig. 3) and the artist's monumental masterwork of the 1930s Composition aux deux perroquets (Bauquier, no. 881; fig. 4). In these paintings Léger achieved his aim of creating the "grand subject," while laying the groundwork for his late style and the ultimate achievement of his final years, the mural La grande parade, 1994 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York).

(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, La Danse, 1929. Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture, Grenoble.
Barcode: 29176083

(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Composition aux trois figures, 1932. Musée national d'Art Moderne, Paris.
Barcode: 29176076

(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Adam et Eve, 1935-1939. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.
BARCODE 2601 5972

(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, Composition aux deux perroquets. Musée national d'Art Moderne, Paris. BARCODE: 26025989

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