FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)
FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)
FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERY FROM THE VOLKART FOUNDATION, SWITZERLAND
FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)


FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)
signed and dated 'F LEGER 20' (lower right); signed again, dated and inscribed 'F. LEGER 20 Composition' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
25 5⁄8 x 21 1⁄4 in. (65 x 54.1 cm.)
Painted in 1920
Galerie Simon [Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler], Paris.
Dr Fritz Nathan & Dr Peter Nathan, Zurich.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1960.
C. Zervos, ed., 'Fernand Léger au Kunsthaus de Zurich', in Cahiers d'Art, vol. 8, nos. 3-4, Paris, 1933, n.p. (illustrated; dated ‘1919’).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger, Catalogue raisonné, 1920-1924, Paris, 1992, no. 238, p. 80 (illustrated p. 81).
(Probably) Zurich, Kunsthaus, Fernand Léger, April - May 1933, n.p. (illustrated; dated ‘1919’).
Mechelen, Cultureel Centrum Burgemeester Antoon Spinoy, Fernand Léger, October - December 1979, no. 9, p. 53 (with inverted dimensions).
Winterthur, Kunstmuseum, Experiment Sammlung II, Fünf Sammlungen für das Museum, June - August 1984, p. 44.
Winterthur, Kunstmuseum, Das gloriose Jahrzehnt, Französische Kunst 1910-1920 aus Winterthurer Besitz, January - April 1991, p. 157 (illustrated p. 156).
Wolfsburg, Kunstmuseum, Fernand Léger 1911-1924, Le rythme de la vie moderne, May - August 1994, no. 56, p. 245 (illustrated p. 127); this exhibition later travelled to Basel, Kunstmuseum, September - November 1994.
Winterthur, Kunstmuseum, Blühendes, Ein Blick auf die Sammlung, August - November 2007.
Bonn, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Gipfeltreffen der Moderne: Das Kunstmuseum Winterthur, April - August 2009, no. 97, p. 122 (illustrated p. 132); this exhibition later travelled to Rovereto, MART Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, September 2009 - January 2010; and Salzburg, Museum der Moderne, Ferbruary - May 2010.
Tochigi, Utsunomiya Museum of Art, Masterpieces from the Collection of the Kunstmuseum Winterthur, June - July 2010, no. 7-6, pp. 110 & 165 (illustrated p. 111); this exhibition later travelled to Tokyo, Setagaya Art Museum, August - October 2010; Kobe, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, October - December 2010; and Nagasaki, Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum, January - March 2011.
Winterthur, Kunstmuseum, on long term loan, 1960 - 2021.
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent. This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

Brought to you by

Keith Gill
Keith Gill Head of Department

Lot Essay

Painted in 1920, Composition is a dazzling and dynamic work that encapsulates Fernand Léger’s renowned ‘mechanical period.’ Among the most important works of Léger’s career, this series of mechanically inspired paintings served as a potent visual manifesto of the artist’s post-war beliefs and aims as an artist. After serving at the Front for four years, Léger returned to painting with a radically new artistic outlook: leaving behind the non-representational abstraction of his pre-war Contraste des formes, he embraced modern life in his art, deifying the machine and mechanical elements. At once filled with a sense of depth while at the same time a flattened composition of abstract forms, the present work is rich with gleaming tones of red, orange and yellow. Carefully constructed, these mechanical elements exist within the composition in perfect accord, interlocking and coexisting as if the inner realm of a high functioning machine.

‘1918: Peace. Man, exasperated, tense, depersonalised for four years, finally raised his head, opened his eyes, looked around, relaxed, and rediscovered his taste for life. A frenzy of dancing, of spending…able at last to walk upright, to shout, to fight, to waste… Living forces, now unleashed, filled the world’ (‘Colour in the World,’ in E. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting: Fernand Léger, London, 1973, p. 120). Léger’s recollections of life after his years serving at the Front line in the First World War illustrate one of the most important themes of his post-war work: the modern city. Awed by the bright lights, colour-filled advertisements and dynamic frenzy of the metropolis, Léger found in this motif the defiantly modern subject matter he desired, as well as a renewed inspiration for the language of pictorial contrasts that served as the basis of his art.

Above all, it was the machine, both as subject and stylistic idiom, that stood for Léger as the ultimate embodiment of this new post-war era. In many ways, the artist’s obsession with this motif was born from his experience fighting in the war. Like Georges Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Derain, Jean Metzinger, and many other members of the avant-garde, at the outbreak of war, Léger enlisted. By October 1914, he was serving at the Front, first as a sapper, whose job was to dig down beneath ‘no man’s land’ in order to conduct surprise attacks on the Germans, and subsequently as a stretcher-bearer. As a result, Léger was a firsthand observer of the immense and deadly power of the machine, playing witness to the shining terror of machine guns, the sleek air craft that flew into battle above him, and the rumbling aggression of tanks, all of which were the symbols of this new mechanised warfare.

This constant immersion in mechanical destruction awakened and reinforced in Léger the realisation that the machine age had truly begun. The power of technology, he found, was inseparable from modern life, and it is this concept that would underpin his art in the years immediately following his discharge from the army. ‘Those four years threw me suddenly into a blinding reality that was entirely new to me… I was suddenly stunned by the sight of the open breech of a .75 cannon in full sight, confronted with the play of light on white metal. It needed nothing more than this for me to forget the abstract art of 1912-13. It came as a total revelation for me, both as a man and a painter… It was in the trenches that I really seized the reality of objects’ (Léger, quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, New York, 2010, p. 12).

Léger finally returned to Paris in 1918. ‘Suddenly after the war, walls, roads, objects became brilliantly coloured,’ he described. ‘Houses were decked out in blue, yellow, red. Enormous letters were inscribed on them. It is modern life, shattering and brutal’ (quoted in op. cit., 1973, p. 119). Modern life exploded into his painting, bringing colour and compositions filled with dynamic, often complex networks of propellers and cylinders, geometric forms, lines, and discs. Motors, factories, and mechanics, as well as factories and the circus became the artist’s subjects.

Composition epitomises this so-called ‘mechanical period.’ Here, Léger has taken a machine as a starting point and transformed it into an abstract configuration of interlocking planes and forms. The composite parts of the composition are rendered as if with a metallic gleam, reminiscent, though not direct representations of the cogs, pistons, rods and ratchets of an engine. ‘I have never enjoyed copying a machine,’ the artist stated, ‘I invent images from machines, as others have made landscapes from their imagination. For me, the mechanical element is not a fixed position, an attitude, but a means of succeeding in conveying a feeling of strength and power… It is necessary to retain what is useful in the subject and to extract from it the best possible part. I try to create a beautiful object with mechanical elements’ (‘The Machine Aesthetic: Geometric Order and Truth,’ in ibid., p. 62).

By 1920, the year he painted Composition, Léger had begun to consider his art in relation to the prevailing aesthetic tendency of the time, the ‘Return to Order’. This ideological movement was conceived as a reaction to the destruction and horror that the war had wrought – in many ways, the very aspects of the conflict that had so directly and powerfully inspired Léger. The ‘Return to Order’ called for a renewed and wholly overt embrace of classical and traditional subjects and styles. Stability, harmony, rationality and discipline were the aesthetic ideals of this tendency, which artists interpreted and incorporated into their art in myriad ways.

For Léger, the ‘Return to Order’ did not immediately prompt a new direction in his art. Yet, the overriding sentiments made their way into his painting, particularly from 1920 onwards. Not only did he start to focus upon traditional subjects, such as the nude and the landscape, but he also began to introduce a greater compositional balance and harmony into his compositions.

Unlike many of his artistic colleagues, however, in particular those who practiced the so-called ‘classical’ or ‘crystal’ Cubism, creating often static and lifeless works, Léger maintained a vibrant sense of life and movement in his paintings. While he remained true to his basic underlying principle of exploiting contrasts of form, he now did this with a different aim: to create an overriding sense of unity and order in his compositions. As Christopher Green has explained, ‘when Léger initiated his “call to order” in 1920, it was not towards a sustained unification of style that he moved, but rather towards a simpler, more coordinated presentation of stylistic contradictions, in which a more unified and more clear-cut planar architecture provided the setting for a more unified and more clear-cut presentation of the machine-man figure’ (ger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 197).

This gradual shift can be seen in Composition. While composed of the colour-filled discs and geometric facets of his earlier works, there is a sense of structural balance underlying the tight formation of multipartite planes. In addition, there is sleek austerity of forms that sets this composition apart from others of the time. With an abiding palette of blacks and greys, interspersed with dazzling primary tones, works such as Composition have a distinctly Minimalist aesthetic.
Composition has remained in the same collection for over sixty years. It was initially acquired by the Galerie Simon, the gallery that the legendary cubist dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler had established in 1920, not long after he had returned to Paris following his exile in Switzerland. Just as he had with his pre-war eponymously named gallery, Kahnweiler continued to support the Cubism of Braque, Gris, Léger, and Picasso, whom he had represented prior to the war, as well as other artists including Paul Klee, Henri Laurens, and André Masson.

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