Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Fernand Léger (1881-1955)

Composition au compas et à la coquille

Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Composition au compas et à la coquille
signed and dated 'F.LÉGER.29' (lower right); signed and dated again and titled 'NATURE-MORTE F.LEGER.29' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
36 ¼ x 25 ¾ in. (92 x 65.3 cm.)
Painted in 1929
Paul Rosenberg, New York.
Berggruen et Cie., Paris.
Private collection, Paris (acquired from the above, circa 1975).
Private collection, London (acquired from the above).
E. Tériade, "Documentaire sur la jeune peinture" in Cahiers d'Art, vol. IV, no. 2, 1930, p. 74 (illustrated).
W. George, "Grandeurs et misères d'une victoire: Fernand Legér" in Formes, July 1930, no. 7, fig. 1 (illustrated).
F. Léger, "Sur la peinture" in L'exposition 1937 et les artistes a Paris: Éditions Art Sciences Lettres, 1937 (illustrated).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue raisonné, 1929-1931, Paris, 1995, vol. IV, p. 44, no. 622 (illustrated in color, p. 45).
Paris, Berggruen & Cie., F. Léger: huiles, aquarelles & dessins, May 1975, no. 22 (illustrated in color).

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Brooke Lampley
Brooke Lampley

Lot Essay

The appearance of a solitary, commonplace, but larger-than-life holly leaf, seen front-and-center in Léger’s Composition au compas et à la croquille, ironically upstages the two title objects—the compass and sea-shell. This interloping leaf moreover signifies the crucial transformation that occurred in Léger’s art during the late 1920s. Until then, the painter had displayed an unshakable commitment to a machine aesthetic; he believed that the depiction of mechanical elements constituted an irrefutable historical imperative that serious artists must heed if they wished to create an iconography that truthfully reflected the modern era. Léger’s taste for the manufactured and machine-like object led to his creation of the sleekly metallic nudes in Le grand déjeuner, 1921 (Bauquier, no. 311; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), the utilitarian architecture of urban, portside and industrial landscapes during 1923-1924, and since 1925 the monumentalized objects, mostly of industrial origin, that he placed within elaborately constructed architectural settings, to proclaim the high classical ideal he sought to project in his art.
The holly leaf then appeared, first in 1926, and then frequently thereafter through the end of the decade and beyond. It proved to be a harbinger of things to come. The prominence of organic elements in the present Composition—the irregular outline of the leaf, the seashell’s scalloped contour and the twisting shape of a vine—heightens the visual contrast with the geometry of the picture plane, the summary architecture of a few moldings and the tooled shape of the compass. During the late 1920s Léger was in fact undertaking in his art “a decisive change,” as Jean Leymarie stated, “the abrupt turning from a static, frontal, solemn order to a fluid and playful freedom” (J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, Greenwich, Conn., 1973, p. 99).
This metamorphosis would utterly transform Léger’s painting by the end of the decade. The artist scaled back and eventually eliminated from his still-lifes the hieratic, architectonic structures of classicism he had employed during the mid-twenties, and opted instead to depict more inclusively selected, often organic objects, which he arranged freely in space. The concept of the “object in space” became the foundation for his program. While retaining elements of the “Machine Aesthetic” he had promulgated in essays written in 1924-1925, Léger opened even wider the door on modern reality, in regard to form as well as content, with his new agenda, the practice of the "New Realism."
In this new phase, compositional freedom becomes unlimited. A total freedom, permitting compositions from the imagination in which creative fantasy can emerge and develop. This object, which was encased in the subject matter, becomes free; pure color that could not be asserted independently is going to emerge. It becomes the leading character in the new pictorial works” (Léger, “The New Realism,” in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 111).
The individual leaves that began to appear in Leger’s paintings of the late 1920s, as well as other natural objects such as flowers, sea shells, and stones, are of casually mundane origin. While spending summers in his native Normandy, on the family farm he inherited on the death of his mother, the artist drew and painted objects he found there “as a naturalist would have,” Pierre Courthion wrote, “without realizing that he was following, after three centuries, another Norman, Nicolas Poussin, who used to bring back from his walks around Rome a stock of pebbles and leaves to make his rocks and trees” (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, op. cit., 1973, p. 116).
“I adore trees,” Léger declared. I cant rest when there are trees around me. Im enormously tempted to paint them, but I know that I shall never be able to paint them as I see them. How could I ever give them more expressiveness then they have? I know I am beaten before I start” (quoted in ibid., p. 115).
The solution to this dilemma came to Léger from the work he had done in the cinema during the early 1920s, most recently his collaboration with Dudley Murphy on Ballet mécanique in 1924, a film with music by George Antheil. As the artist described in his essay “The New Realism,” he had “set out to prove it was possible to find a new life on screen without a scenario, through making use of simple objects, fragments, of a mechanical element, of rhythmic repetitions copied from certain objects of a commonplace nature and ‘artistic’ in the least possible degree. Montage is purposeful contrast through slow motion and speed-up.” Léger found the technique of the cinematic close-up, which attracted film-goers to “an interest in the isolated object on the screen,” to be especially useful; he believed this effect would work in painting as well (in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 110).
The objects in Léger’s paintings are generally rendered in this cinematic manner, divorced from their normal context and isolated in the composition, in conjunction with other objects similarly featured, seen close-up and often greatly enlarged.
Magnifying an object, or a small part of an object, gives it an identity which it has never had before, and so it becomes the vehicle for an entirely new kind of lyrical power” (Léger, in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, op. cit., 1973, p. 116).
The artist painted an earlier, smaller version of the present Composition, which he titled Nature morte, 1er état, 1929 (Bauquier, no. 621). Both versions share the presence of the holly leaf and compass; an out-size fragment of a woman’s hand, however, probably appropriated from an advertisement, occupies the place given over to the sea-shell in Composition au compas et à la croquille.
The switch from hand to shell is instructive, demonstrating the degree of freedom that Léger’s new emphasis on the object in space brought to the possibilities of composition. Such unexpected combinations of imagery in Léger’s paintings from this point onward bring to mind the now famous statement that Comte de Lautréamont (the pen-name of Isidore Ducasse, 1846-1870) made in his hallucinatory and visionary book Les Chants du Maldoror, in which he described “the random encounter between an umbrella and a sewing-machine upon a dissecting-table” (A. Lykiard, trans., Cambridge, Mass., 1994, p. 193). The surrealists made this their mantra; there is understandably the temptation to view Léger’s growing tendency to compose such unexpected and inexplicable juxtapositions of objects as having stemmed, at least in part, from the impact of Surrealism on the Paris art scene during this period.
“Léger’s use of certain pictorial devices associated with Surrealism, such as free-floating objects suspended in apparently limitless space, has been commented on by many critics,” Peter de Francia acknowledged. “Léger repudiated any surreal intent... Incongruity or illogicality in Léger’s work is never intended as a violation of the subconscious” (Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 114). As Leymarie reminded us, “It is easy but pointless to delve into the Freudian implications of such combinations; Léger’s reactions were stimulated only by the physical reality of objects, and he was influenced only by plastic requirements, by the laws of rhythm and contrast in his self-ordained world” (J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, op. cit., 1973, p. 101).
"In this new phase, compositional freedom becomes unlimited,” Léger declared.A total freedom permits compositions from the imagination in which creative fantasy can emerge and develop. This object, which was encased in subject matter, becomes free; pure color that could not be asserted independently is going to emerge. It becomes the leading character in the new pictorial works" (“The New Realism,” in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 110).

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