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Camille Claudel (1864-1943)
Fernand Léger (1881-1955)

Nature morte

Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Nature morte
signed 'F. LÉGER' (lower right); signed again, dated and titled 'F.LEGER.28 NATURE-MORTE' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
36 ¼ x 25 ½ in. (92 x 64.7 cm.)
Painted in 1928
Galerie l'Effort Moderne (Léonce Rosenberg), Paris.
Galerie D. Benador, Geneva.
Saidenberg Gallery, New York (by 1953).
Mr. and Mrs. Edgar B. Miller, Chicago (by 1966).
Anon. sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet, Inc., New York, 17 May 1978, lot 66.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 11 November 1987, lot 65.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, 1925-1928, Paris, 1993, vol. III, p. 308, no. 578 (illustrated).
New York, Saidenberg Gallery, Exhibition of Paintings, 1953, no. 9.
Chicago, International Galleries, Contemporary French Masters, 1959, no. 27.
Chicago, International Galleries, Fernand Léger: Retrospective Exhibition, November-December 1966, p. 59, no. 23 (illustrated, p. 28; titled Profile).

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Brooke Lampley
Brooke Lampley

Lot Essay

Léger introduced an idealized half-profile of a male head as a central element in various still-life paintings during 1926-1928. This shape may be absolutely flat and of uniform color, like a paper cut-out, or—as seen in the present Nature morte—rendered in shadow to imply volume and spatial depth. Léger had employed the representation, modelled in a sculptural manner, of an antique Greco-Roman head in Nature morte, 1924 (formerly in the collection of Douglas Cooper; sold, Christie’s New York, 12 November 2015, lot 59C), to assert the neo-classical program of his art during the mid-1920s. He subsequently featured profile images to underscore the humanist aspect he sought to project in these paintings, in response to the rappel à lordre, the “call to order” promulgated in the arts following the First World War, which advocated a return to traditionally French classical values in peacetime society. The emblematic heads interacted, by way of contrast, with the schematic shapes in which Léger typically described other objects, as well as the planar and grid-like architecture he used to structure his mid-1920s compositions.
The profile Léger painted in the present Nature morte appears to suggest another, more complex dimension that the artist sought to explore in 1928. He normally represented various objects, chosen not for any particular symbolic or narrative purpose, but simply for the contrasts of form that they generated within the composition. There is, nevertheless, an underlying affinity among the various interlocking forms floating here in empty space, notwithstanding the outwardly abstract manner in which Léger treated them. The top edge of a clothbound book that runs along the left edge counter-balances on the right side a box shape with a game-board-like cover. The profile of the head, Léger’s thinker, rhymes loosely with the curving contours of the vertically split vase shape on the left. Superimposed on the central axis of this configuration, the visage unites both sides of this composition as twin constructs of the mind—the depth of learning and knowledge on the left, and the delight of play on the right. The looping string may be likened to the strand of thought that connects these conceptual phenomena within the mind.
Léger composed this statement of ideas solely by means of objects, removed from any ordinary context, which he sectioned and rejoined. He made it his aim in painting during the mid- and late 1920s to draw attention to the object, to foster what he called “The New Realism.”
"In painting the strongest restraint had been that of subject matter upon composition, imposed by the Italian Renaissance. This effort toward freedom began with the Impressionists and has continued to express itself until our day... The feeling for the object is already in primitive pictures--in works of the high periods of Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman and Gothic art. The moderns are going to develop it, isolate it, and extract every possible result from it" (Léger, in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 109).
"The subject in painting has already been destroyed, just as avant-garde film destroyed the story line. I thought that the object, which had been neglected, was the thing to replace the subject" (Léger quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, New York, 1973, p. 87).
Léger's still-life paintings of the mid-1920s achieved the exaltation of the individual object—in and of itself, as well as in relation to other objects in the composition—on a truly monumental scale, set within the larger context of the culminating stage of his engagement with classicism, in which he emphasized the values of balance and order in his pictures. Towards the end of the 1920s, however, Léger felt that the discipline of classicism had become more of a stricture than a strength, and that the imposition of order—insofar as he had made it a virtue for its own sake—had begun to encumber him in his efforts to maximize the expression of contrasts in both object and form in his paintings, which had always been and should remain, he believed, the primary impetus in his art. During 1928 he began to divest his work of the classical structure that had underpinned the grand still-life compositions he painted in recent years. He discarded the rigid geometric grid that had enforced the “call to order” in his paintings, and then cut loose the object from its accustomed formal moorings and allowed it to float freely across the canvas. His latest compositions displayed a sense of randomness and spontaneity that was entirely new in his work.
I felt that I could not place an object on a table with diminishing its value... I selected an object, chucked the table away. I put the object in space, minus perspective. Minus anything to hold it there. I then had to liberate color to an even greater extent” (Léger quoted in P. de Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 111).
"Léger’s objects have escaped from the domination of the subject," Jean Leymarie has observed, "as they have from the pull of gravity; they invert or reject perspective, loom up and recede in the air, with the power and mystery of pictures in slow motion. This decisive change, the abrupt turning from a static, frontal, solemn order to a fluid and playful freedom, corresponds to the painter’s internal dialectic" (J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, op. cit., 1973, p. 99)
The pre-eminence of the pensive head and the undulating forms of the vase in the present painting suggest the significant sea-change in Léger’s work during the late 1920s, as he combined objects that display natural and organic form with the mechanical and architectural elements he had previously emphasized. The serpentine, tendril-like arabesques of the string that circumscribe the disparate elements in the composition are all that remains of the heavy framing devices that Léger had formerly employed in the classical still-lifes of the mid-1920s.
One understands that everything is of equal interest, that the human face or the human body is of no weightier plastic interest than a tree, a plant, 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... Is it an abstract picture? No, it is a representational picture. What we call an abstract picture does not exist. There is neither an abstract picture nor a concrete one. There is a beautiful picture and a bad picture. There is the picture that moves you and the one that leaves you indifferent” (Léger, in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 111).

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