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Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Fernand Léger (1881-1955)

Les pommes

Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Les pommes
signed and dated 'F. LEGER. 25' (lower right); signed and dated again and inscribed 'F. LÉGER. 25 NATURE. MORTE' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
23 ¾ x 36 1/8 in. (60.3 x 91.8 cm.)
Painted in 1925
Galerie Louise Leiris (Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler), Paris.
Dr. G.F. Reber, Lausanne (by 1928).
Private collection, Hong Kong (acquired from the above by the family of the owner, circa 1935); sale, Christie's, New York, 12 May 1998, lot 13.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
G. Waldemar, "Fernand Leger" in L'Amour de l'Art, 1926, vol. 7, p. 261, no. 8.
E. Tériade, "Fernand Léger" in Cahiers d'Art, December 1928, no. 74 (illustrated).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, 1925-1928, Paris, 1993, vol. III, p. 38, no. 413 (illustrated, p. 39).
Sale Room Notice
Please note that this work is displayed with a loaner frame for the exhibition, which is available for purchase.
Please note that the catalogue image for this work is cropped. Contact the Impressionist and Modern Department for an updated image.

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Jessica Fertig
Jessica Fertig

Lot Essay

The still-life compositions that Léger painted during the mid-1920s have been classed among the key, definitive artworks of the decade following the end of the First World War. These pictures incorporate the salient, positive elements of the radical modernist and conservative classicizing tendencies that were then shaping the arts; indeed, they represent a significant, successful convergence of these contending traditions. In these compositions Léger realized a consummate balance and poise in his structural design, while creating novel and arresting contrasts through the calculated juxtaposition of ordinary, everyday objects, to which the artist imparted an impressive aspect of presence and scale. The achievement of this grandly conceived pictorial reality marks this period as a peak phase in Léger’s art.
In 1925 Léger painted Les pommes as one in a series of five still-life compositions, all of which feature as their central motif a compotier holding apples or pears. The others are Bauquier, nos. 410-412 and 414, illustrated here. All but the two pictures in museum collections have been sold at Christie’s New York, the present Les pommes last appearing nearly two decades ago. Four of these still-lifes, including the present work, were executed in a horizontal format; only Nature morte (Bauquier, no. 410) is a vertical canvas. All except one (Bauquier, no. 412), the smaller first state of the subject that culminated in Les pommes, are approximately the same easel-size dimensions. The five paintings moreover share a basic palette of red, ochre, and black, set against pale neutral tones.
This sequence of still-life compositions has as its structural foundation a series of stacked, abutting, and overlapping rectangular and cut-out planes, generating an architecture of frames within frames, which suggests a shallow but still ambiguous spatial dimension, while instilling the composition with stasis and stability. Within this virtually abstract context, Léger arranged commonplace table-top objects—a large vase, some vertically stacked books, the compotier with apples or pears—none of which would have been out of place in a traditional still-life. Only the organic shapes of the fruit, modeled to assert their volumetric presence, run counter to the flattened geometry of the surrounding environment, thus providing the most striking contrasts of object and form within the composition. “We live in a geometric world,” Léger wrote in 1923, “and also in a state of frequent contrasts” (E. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 30).
Only a decade earlier, on the eve of the First World War, the gyre-like, abstracted elements in Léger’s pioneering 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 incomprehensible to viewers then, and proved unsalable. During the early 1920s, Léger responded by stages to le rappel à lordre, 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 demeanor. He nevertheless held steadfast to his fundamental principle of seeking contrasts in forms, but now pursued this aim in a modified context, in which the realization of an overall sense of harmony and order supplanted his accustomed preference for dissonant effects. In a 1924 article published in his dealer Léonce Rosenberg’s Bulletin de lEffort 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” (ibid., p. 47).
Léger became convinced that he should strive to imbue his art with 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 tradition. 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. Many artists who delved into classicism during the 1920s retreated into the dream of an illusory, distant golden age. Léger, on the other hand, retained an allegiance to modernity, the reality of his time, that “state of frequent contrasts.” From the most technically advanced airplane engine to everyday house wares, Léger was drawn to the beauty of the manufactured object. In the prosperity that followed the end of the war, stores brimmed with new consumer goods that retailers advertised in clever, bold graphics and enticing window displays.
The moving image of the cinema had by then also attained mass appeal, and held special interest for Léger. In 1924 the artist collaborated with Dudley Murphy, an American cameraman and film-maker, to produce the motion picture accompaniment to composer George Antheil’s Le ballet mécanique. They dispensed with a conventional narrative scenario and instead concentrated on objects alone as the source of their moving images, edited to generate a propulsive effect. “Contrasting objects, slow and rapid passages, rest and intensity--the whole film was constructed on that,” Léger wrote. “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” (ibid., p. 50).
Translating these practices into his still-life painting during 1925, “Léger brought together the products of his new cinematic approach to the figurative fragment and the manufactured object,” Christopher Green wrote, “an approach which ensured the survival of the unexpected, the personal in his painting, however stable, however classical it became” (ger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 313).
Les pommes and the related still-lifes Léger painted in 1925 represent his initial efforts in a culminating, landmark phase of high classicism. This manner would give way in a few years to new contrasts, cast in different forms, more frequently derived from organic objects, in choices that reflect the growing influence of Surrealism. “The still-lifes and the object paintings of 1925-1927,” Green wrote, “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” (ger and Purist Paris, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1970, pp. 77, 79, and 80).

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