‘In contemporary modern painting, the object must become the leading character and dethrone the subject. Then, in turn, if the person, the face, and the human body become objects, the modern artist will be offered considerable freedom.’
(Léger, ‘The Human Body Considered as an Object’, in E. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting: Fernand Léger, London, 1973, p. 132)
Painted in 1929, Fernand Léger’s Deux figures dates from a pivotal moment in the artist’s career as he left behind the austere mechanical aesthetic that had defined his immediate post-war work, and began to depict a more natural and organic conception of the world. Female figures, as well as natural objects, dominate his art of the late 1920s, as his paintings became freed from the rigid, geometric stasis that governed his earlier work and infused with a new rhythm and heightened sense of life. Against a vibrant yellow background, in Deux figures, an amorphous blue form frames two statuesque, frontally posed women. Standing side by side, their arms are interlinked as they gaze calmly out of the picture plane, appearing like timeless Classical goddesses, stately and majestic. Gone are the mechanical, geometric forms with which Léger had constructed the human figure at the beginning of the 1920s; instead, the women’s bodies are depicted with a greater sense of naturalism, their undulating forms created with soft tonal gradations. It is these monumental women who would come to dominate Léger’s large-scale paintings of the 1930s and beyond.
The female figure had boldly entered Léger’s art in the early 1920s. Like many of his contemporaries in post-war Europe, the artist had responded to the ‘rappel à l’ordre’ or ‘return to order’ – an artistic movement that embodied the aesthetics of Classicism in response to the catastrophic chaos and devastation wrought by the war – and had begun to introduce reclining odalisques and nudes into his art. In works such as Le grand déjeuner of 1921 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), women are placed within a modern setting, their bodies constructed from geometric forms as Léger created a radically new and unequivocally modern conception of the female nude. As the decade progressed, however, Léger’s compositions loosened: objects floated and hovered, while his depictions of the human form became softer and less mechanised. Though the women in Deux figures are depicted with tubular, cylindrical forms that have an almost metallic gleam to them, they are no longer composed of distinct facets, and are undoubtedly softer and more human than their earlier robotic antecedents. In this painting, the figure on the left appears like a Classical statue, her smooth white skin reminiscent of polished marble. Yet, she is bejewelled in a red beaded necklace, an undoubtedly modern accoutrement that distorts her ancient association. By contrast the right hand woman appears more life-like and contemporary, but she is clothed in white drapery that transforms her body into an ancient column: a modern-day caryatid. Simultaneously modern and ancient, these two figures defy identification, remaining mysteriously enigmatic as they silently embrace one another.
The enigma that surrounds these two women is heightened by the lack of a contextual background or setting. As well as the gradual softening of Léger’s handling of the human form, over the course of the 1920s, he also ceased to depict the female figure within a recognisable spatial or architectural setting. Instead, he placed women, as well as objects from nature – leaves, stones and shells, amongst others – within abstract, highly coloured spaces, such as can be seen in Deux figures. Isolated against planes of bright colour, the figure ceases to have a contextual meaning. In removing the human figure from a spatial context, Léger transformed it from an artistic subject, rich with pictorial allusions, meanings and associated narratives, into a ‘figure-object’ that referred only unto itself. For Léger, this isolation of the object was a central aim of his art in the late 1920s; he stated later in 1945, ‘As long as the human body is considered a sentimental or expressive value in painting, no new evolution in pictures will be possible. Its development has been hindered by the domination of the subject over the ages… In contemporary modern painting, the object must become the leading character and dethrone the subject. Then, in turn, if the person, the face, and the human body become objects, the modern artist will be offered considerable freedom’ (Léger, ‘The Human Body Considered as an Object’, quoted in E. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting: Fernand Léger, London, 1973, p. 132). By liberating the female nude from all its superfluous contextual connotations and meanings, Léger transformed this artistic subject into a purely plastic pictorial object, and therefore forged a bold new conception of the human form in art.
The simplified and stylised rendering of the two women in Deux figures also reflects the artist’s concurrent interest in Romanesque and Ancient art. Léger, who called himself ‘the primitive of modern art’ (Léger, quoted in Fernand Léger: The Later Years, exh. cat., London, 1987-88, p. 14), believed that artists needed to free themselves from the artistic conventions that had been in existence since the Renaissance and instead look to the art of the centuries preceding this for inspiration. These artists he felt were truly revolutionary in their approach to art making: ‘I was attracted to Romanesque sculptures,’ he explained, ‘to the completely reinvented figures and the freedom with which the Romanesque artist constructed them. He does not copy, he creates, in a totally anti-Renaissance fashion. I can say that in Romanesque sculpture I have found a starting point for distortion’ (Léger, quoted in C. Lanchner, ed., Fernand Léger, exh. cat., New York, 1998, p. 226). He revered the simplified, direct and stylised depictions of the human figure that he found in pre-Renaissance art. These forms he felt were truly innovative and inventive, unhindered by the weight of symbolic meaning that surrounded Renaissance art. He used these distortions in his own work, as exemplified by Deux figures, depicting the human form with a deliberate naivety and striking stylisation.
Deux figures is presently offered from the collection of Roxanne Rosoman, wife of late the British artist, Leonard Rosoman O.B.E. RA. A painter, illustrator, printmaker and muralist, Rosoman began his career when his depictions of wartime London caught the attention of Kenneth Clark, the then director of the National Gallery and the War Artists Advisory Committee. Clark appointed Rosoman as an official war artist, and he was posted to the Royal Marines in 1945. Just as Léger had been fascinated by the new technological and mechanical warfare of the First World War, Rosoman was similarly struck by the relationship between man and machine in modern warfare, intrigued by ‘all sorts of strange devices like radar indicators, pom-poms and planes with wings that fold up like a moth’s’. On his return to London, he taught at the Chelsea School of Art and then at the Royal College of Art, where David Hockney was one of his students.