Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Property from a Distinguished Private Collection
Fernand Léger (1881-1955)

Contraste de formes

Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Contraste de formes
signed with initials and dated 'F.L 13' (lower right)
gouache and brush and black ink on paper
20 1/8 x 25 ¼ in. (51 x 64 cm.)
Painted in 1913
Galerie Kahnweiler, Paris.
Galerie de l'Effort Moderne (Léonce Rosenberg), Paris.
Galerie Percier, Paris.
Alfred Richet, Paris (acquired from the above, 1936); Estate sale, Sotheby's, London, 29 November 1994, lot 7.
Jan Krugier, Geneva (acquired at the above sale); Estate sale, Sotheby's, London, 5 February 2014, lot 12.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger, Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 30, no. 18 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Louise Leiris, F. Léger, dessins et gouaches, 1909-1955, February-March 1958, no. 5 (illustrated; titled Composition).
Paris, Galerie Louise Leiris, F. Léger, 55 oeuvres 1913-1953, April-June 1985, p. 9, no. 1 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou; Madrid, Museo nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Fernand Léger, May 1997-May 1998, p. 51, no. 5 (illustrated in color).
Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preussischer Kulturbesitz; Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection; Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and Geneva, Musée d'art et d'histoire; Linie, Licht und Schatten: Meisterzeichnungen und Skulpturen der Sammlung Jan und Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski, May 1999-Fall 2000, p. 308, no. 146 (illustrated in color, p. 309); p. 326, no. 156 (illustrated in color, p. 327) and p. 406, no. 186 (illustrated in color, p. 407) respectively.
Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, La passion du dessin: Collection Jan et Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski, March-June 2002, p. 352, no. 164 (illustrated in color, p. 353).
Vienna, The Albertina Museum, Goya bis Picasso: Meisterwerke der Sammlung Jan Krugier und Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski, April-August 2005, p. 316, no. 136 (illustrated in color, p. 317).
Munich, Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Das Ewige AugeVon Rembrandt bis Picasso. Meisterwerke aus der Sammlung Jan Krugier und Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski, July-October 2007, p. 354, no. 169 (illustrated in color, p. 355).

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Max Carter
Max Carter

Lot Essay

Fernand Léger created this dynamic essay in stark, black and white oppositions of cylindrical, spherical, and cubic shapes to guide his pioneering initiative toward the realization of pure, non-representational painting, his iconic series of Contraste de formes canvases, which occupied him during 1913 and into early 1914, on the eve of the First World War. Léger executed only fifteen works titled as such in oil colors (Bauquier, nos. 42-43, 45-47, 49-56 and 67-68); several more works under alternate titles share similar characteristics. The studies on paper appear to be no more numerous and are rarely seen, usually as an example or two in major exhibition catalogues.
This Contraste study stands apart from other Léger works on paper that resemble it in part, which were completed concurrently and soon thereafter, and relate to oil paintings which clearly display a figural subject composed within a recognizably interior setting (Bauquier, nos. 58ff). The present gouache, like the larger Contraste oils, is an astonishing tour-de-force of expeditious conception and execution. Analysis of the composition reveals further complexities in formal contrast, contradiction, and paradox. Modeled in light and shadow—as if in sculptural relief—the welter of densely compacted, spinning elements is summarily flat, respecting the twin dimensions of the sheet in the true modernist mode. The forms appear, however, to tumble and collide, thrust forward or recede, within a deep, indefinite space, which retains its own sense of perspectival distance.
The conceptual, analytical impetus within Cubism had opened the door to alternative visual realities. In the inaugural February 1912 issue of the review Soirées de Paris, the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire drew attention to an idea that had begun to intrigue artists in the avant-garde; questioning the significance of the subject, they were considering the possibilities in developing an unprecedented, non-representational approach to painting. “Verisimilitude no longer has any importance, for the artist sacrifices everything to the composition of his picture,” Apollinaire wrote. “The subject no longer counts, or if it counts, it counts for very little... An entirely new art is thus being evolved, an art that will be to painting, as painting has hitherto been envisaged, what music is to literature. It will be pure painting, just as music is pure literature” ("On the Subject in Modern Painting" in L.C. Breunig, ed., Apollinaire on Art, Boston, 2001, p. 197).
In his independent approach to Cubism, Léger sought to counter the increasing impact of the Italian Futurists, whose appeal stemmed from their use of modern, cosmopolitan subjects projected in motion. He wished to supplant their illusory representation of movement with a truly pictorial dynamism. Léger had retained from his study of Cézanne an interest in static subjects and a constructive means of composition, but now felt that the accelerating pulse of modern life required a more radical and dynamic approach to convey these new sensations. As early as 1909-1910, in Nus dans la forêt (Bauquier, no. 20), Léger visualized both figure and landscape forms in terms of the “cylinder, the sphere, and the cone," as Cézanne had famously advised Émile Bernard (A. Danchev, ed., The Letters of Paul Cézanne, Los Angeles, 2013, no. 233, p. 334). "[Cézanne's] grip was so strong," Léger recalled in 1954, "that to get free of it I had to go as far as abstraction" (quoted in C. Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 52). He arrived at an integral formal means that did not render the illusion of motion—as in the Futurist manner—but was expressive and dynamic in its own invention and deployment of pictorial forms.
In early 1913, Léger was on the verge of pure painting—only vestigial references to the subject yet remained, as stated in the artist’s titles for various pictures during this period. He then took the plunge in his Contrastes de formes. In a lecture he delivered before the Académie Marie Wassiliev, he stated that pictorial realism—the absolute integrity of the picture as an object in and of itself, and not as the representation of something else—was the "simultaneous ordering of three plastic components: Lines, Forms and Colors… From now on, everything can converge toward an intense realism obtained by purely dynamic means. Pictorial contrasts used in their purest sense (complementary colors, lines, and forms) are hence the structural basis of modern pictures" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 4 and 7).
In his Contraste de formes oil paintings, Léger utilized simple geometric volumes composed of cylindrical and planar elements, contoured in straight and curving black lines, the enclosed forms heightened with primary and complementary hues. The effects are even more explicit in the black and white studies on tan paper. The radical works of 1913-1914 demonstrate the “pure painting of contrasts,” Christopher Green has written, “with no subject at all” (op. cit., 1976, p. 56).
In common with most of the Contrastes on canvas, the present gouache incorporates a feature to which Green has referred as the “kite device”—an “elongated diamond shape, split in two down the middle, which seems to shove apart two converging cylinders… the very structure of the ‘kite device’ has strong figurative overtones” (ibid., pp. 66 and 68). One may visualize in this tripartite structure the shoulder/chest/shoulder of the upper human body, as in Leonardo’s Vitruvian man. In the present gouache, the sequence of spherical shapes that descend from this “kite” motif, diverging at the bottom into adjoining cylinders, may suggest the torso and spread legs of a seated figure. “Yet,” Green has pointed out, “neither the landscape origins of the Contrastes nor their strong figurative flavor should detract from the simple pictorial immediacy of their impact… Léger does achieve in them the purest possible statement of his dynamic and dissonant view” (ibid., p. 69).
“Contrast=dissonance,” Léger declared in his second lecture at the Académie Wassiliev in 1914, “and hence a maximum expressive effect” (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 16).

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