‘This was the situation at the beginning of the 1930s, as I discovered for myself when I first began to be deeply involved with twentieth-century art, and in particular with the painting of the true cubists… The pursuit became for me the adventure of a lifetime and led to my coming to know not only the artists concerned…but also a great many of the dealers and collectors.’
‘Twenty years of admiration have taught me that it's the first shock that counts.’
Douglas Cooper to Léger, 1949
There exists a photograph of a lavish, candle lit dinner at the home of the legendary Cubist scholar, patron, and collector, Douglas Cooper. Taken around 1955, it shows Cooper presiding over his table of guests that included Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Michel and Zette Leiris, and John Richardson, among a number of others. A vivid snapshot of heady days of friendship and artistic camaraderie, this photograph also features Cooper’s legendary collection of Légers hung on the wall of his dining room at the Château de Castille in Argilliers, in the south of France. At the lower left hand side, the striking composition of Deux femmes couchées, a rare gouache belonging to the artist’s groundbreaking Contrastes de formes series, can be seen, taking its place amid this celebrated collection.
Cooper ranks as one of the greatest collectors of the twentieth century. By the outbreak of the Second World War, after a period of just under a decade, his collection of Cubism was unparalleled; his deep knowledge of the four ‘essential’ cubists, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso, the latter two with whom he was also friends, as well as his acquaintance with many of the leading proponents of this movement – Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Alfred Flechtheim, Dr. Gottlieb Reber, and Léonce Rosenberg – enabling him to carefully acquire exceptional pieces by these artists. Executed in 1913, Deux femmes couchées is one such work. Cooper acquired it from Rosenberg in January 1936, along with four other important works on paper by the artist that would form the heart of his prized collection of Léger’s Contrastes de formes. A second, closely related work, also titled Deux femmes couchées resides in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, along with a number of other examples from Cooper’s collection.
Just as the Contrastes de formes occupied a central position in Cooper’s collection, so they stand at the apex of Léger’s oeuvre, arguably serving as the artist’s most important contribution to early twentieth-century art. Created between 1913 and 1914, the exuberant, halcyon years of pre-war artistic experimentation, this group saw Léger venture beyond the formal and intellectual daring of Cubism to reach a new and unprecedented form of abstract art that embodied the cacophonous fragmented frenzy of modernity. Using a formal language based solely upon colour, line and form, he turned the tools of illusionism into the mechanics of abstraction, expunging mimesis and in so doing, fundamentally altering the course of art in the opening decades of the twentieth century.
Based upon powerful contrasts of black and white oppositions of forms, Deux femmes couchées sees Léger radically reconfigure the hallowed tradition of the female nude in art, reimagining this subject as a near abstract amalgamation of line and monochrome colour. Here, two women are pictured reclining side by side, propping themselves up on their arms. Their bodies have been transformed into an interlocking series of cylindrical, spherical, and cubic forms, which, together with the monochrome palette, makes them seem like mechanical robots constructed from metal, the white gouache acting as the gleam of light refracting from the polished surface. As with the rest of this series, Léger harnessed the raw materiality of his medium and support – in this case gouache and ink on paper – to create an image of impressive visual power. It is the contrast of the luminous white and black pigment of the rich, opaque gouache, with the neutral warmth of the ground that serves as the essential constructing elements of his work, the reclining figures modelled in light and shadow, as if in sculptural relief.
Paradoxically perhaps, it was through the female nude that Léger was able to move away from any reliance upon a subject in his art. At the beginning of 1913, he finished Le Modèle nu dans l’atelier (Bauquier, no. 40; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), a painting in which the typical identifying or recognisable features of a nude amid a studio are gone, translated instead into a spiraling, interlocking construction of abstract, rather than descriptive, forms. Once he had reached the climax of his pictorial endeavour – the purely abstract, eponymous Contrastes de formes – Léger evidently felt the need to reassert the subject. Yet he did this without compromising the visual elements that he had developed. He began to work on a group of landscapes, still lifes, and figure works, adapting the conical forms derived from the cylinders of the Contrastes, to fabricate clearly identifiable figures, such as those in the present work.
In using these universalised, nearly interchangeable forms for any subject that he chose, Léger was in effect suppressing the individual significance of his chosen subject. His depiction of the figure was, as Deux femmes couchées demonstrates, not due to any dependence on this subject, but was used to assert the very irrelevance he believed that it held in art. No longer was the figurative idea, or what the artist painted the ultimate goal; rather, it was how he painted it that served as the impetus for a work of art. Léger stated in a lecture in 1914: ‘I purposely did not take a so-called modern subject because I do not know what is an ancient or a modern subject; all I know is what is a new interpretation... All that is method; the only interesting thing is how it is used’ (in E. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting, London, 1965, pp. 16-17).