FERNAND LEGER (1881-1955)
FERNAND LEGER (1881-1955)
FERNAND LEGER (1881-1955)
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FERNAND LEGER (1881-1955)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE WEST COAST COLLECTION
FERNAND LEGER (1881-1955)

Les deux acrobates

FERNAND LEGER (1881-1955)
Les deux acrobates
signed ‘F LÉGER’ (lower right); signed again, dated and titled ‘LES ACROBATES F LÉGER 1918’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
35 1⁄8 x 22 7⁄8 in. (89.3 x 58.3 cm.)
Painted in 1918
Galerie de l'Effort Moderne (Léonce Rosenberg), Paris (acquired from the artist, 11 October 1918).
Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Paris and Tours (by 1927).
Confiscated from the above following the Nazi occupation of France (May 1940).
Restituted to Paul Rosenberg, New York (after 1945, until at least 1954).
E.V. Thaw & Co., New York.
Heinz Berggruen, Paris.
Norman and Grete Granz, Geneva (acquired from the above, by 1970); sale, Christie’s, New York, 6 November 2002, lot 41.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Bulletin de l’Effort Moderne, April 1927, no. 34 (illustrated).
E. Tériade, Fernand Léger, Paris, 1928 (illustrated, pl. 22; titled Etude pour les acrobates).
Cahiers d'Art, 1933, no. 3-4, pp. 16-17 (illustrated).
D. Cooper, Fernand Léger et le nouvel espace, Geneva, 1949, p. 84 (illustrated; dated 1920).
R. Füglister, "F. Léger, Akrobaten im Zirkus" in Jahresberichte der öffentlichen Kunstammlung, Basel, 1966, pp. 167-186.
W. Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, New York, 1976, p. 22, no. 18 (illustrated).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, 1903-1919, Paris, 1990, vol. I, p. 206, no. 113 (illustrated, p. 207).
C. Derouet, Correspondances Fernand Léger–Léonce Rosenberg 1917-1937, New York, 1996, p. 42, letter 39, note 5, no. 5990, and pp. 261 and 286.
Paris, Galerie de l’Effort Moderne (Léonce Rosenberg), Fernand Léger, February 1919, no. 28.
Paris, Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Léger, February 1937, no. 2.
Paris, Petit Palais, Les maîtres de l'art indépendant, 1895-1937, June-October 1937, p. 102, no. 5 (dated 1919).
The Art Institute of Chicago; San Francisco, Museum of Art and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Léger, April 1953-January 1954, p. 85, no. 15.
London, The Tate Gallery, Léger and Purist Paris, November 1970-January 1971, p. 98, no. 10 (illustrated on the frontispiece).
Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Fernand Léger, October 1971-January 1972, p. 9, no. 34 (illustrated, pl. XVIII).
London, The Tate Gallery (on extended loan, 1990-1995).
Basel, Kunstmuseum, Fernand Léger 1911-1924: Le rhythme de la vie moderne, September-November 1994, p. 245, no. 32 (illustrated in color, p. 155).
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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Dating from one of the most important periods of Fernand Léger’s career, Les deux acrobates explores one of the great themes that threads its way through his entire oeuvre: the spectacle of le cirque. The circus represented for Léger more than just commercial entertainment—it was a dynamic display of spectacular feats, rich humor and popular culture that absorbed and inspired him. As the artist wrote in 1924: “The ‘Big Top’ of the New Circus is an absolutely marvelous world. When I am lost in this astonishing metallic planet with its dazzling spotlights and the tiny acrobat who risks his life every night, I am distracted... There are more ‘plastic passages’ in ten minutes of an acrobatic spectacle than there are in many scenes of ballet” (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 39-40). It was here in this dazzling, yet familiar, environment that Léger began to explore new routes in his art following the end of his military service during the First World War, creating a series of seven paintings that focused on the rich world of the circus.
When the Great War broke out in August 1914, Léger was, along with Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris, one of the leading protagonists of Cubism. He quickly enlisted in the army, and began serving in the trenches from the early months of the conflict. He was present at the killing fields of Verdun, and remained in the thick of the action until he was gassed near Aisne and hospitalized in the spring of 1917. Formally discharged for medical reasons early the following year, Léger continued to convalesce in and out of Paris hospitals for much of 1918, and was only able to resume painting full time at the beginning of that summer. He quickly revived the cylindrical, mechanical elements that he had introduced into his paintings before 1914, most notably seen in his famous series of Contrastes de formes. Modern life and modern subjects, including man himself, explosively reappeared in Léger’s post-war painting as the artist sought to defy convention and tradition and instead capture the dynamic energy, speed and pulse of the new age. “I’ve reached a decision,” he wrote to his dealer Léonce Rosenberg, “and I’m modeling in pure, local color and on a large scale without making any concessions... The war made me what I am, I’m not afraid to say so” (quoted in D. Kosinski, ed., exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 68).
Then and henceforth, throughout his career, Léger would make contrasts in content and form the driving impetus in his art. He aimed to take ordinary and often dissimilar source materials, contradictory formal elements, and even seemingly incompatible pictorial effects into his painting and attain through them “a state of plastically organized intensity" (E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 25). During the years 1918-1920 there was no other major painter in Paris who stood so resolutely and unapologetically for such an extreme vision of modernity. Léger simply painted—as he put it—“what was going on around me” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 68). He sought to create an art that was authentically contemporary and cosmopolitan in every respect, keeping pace with the drastic changes that were transforming the modern world at an unprecedented, ever accelerating pace.
For Léger, the circus stood as the epitome of modern spectacle and public entertainment, a most suitable subject to celebrate a return to ordinary leisure pursuits in the aftermath of the war. In the concentrated series of works on this theme which emerged over the course of 1918, the setting was the fabled Cirque Médrano in Montmartre, a favorite attraction for Léger and his friends Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars and Max Jacob during the pre-war years, and which had drawn the attention of other notable modern artists, from Edgar Degas to Georges Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to Picasso, Kees van Dongen, and Marc Chagall over the decades.
The Cirque Médrano had opened in 1873 as a travelling circus. At that time it was known as the Cirque Fernando, named after its proprietor Ferdinand Beert (a bareback rider), who built a permanent structure for the troupe in 1875 at the corner of the boulevard Rochechouart and the avenue des Martyrs in Montmartre. In 1879 Degas used the newly completed building as the setting for his Miss La La au Cirque Fernando (The National Gallery, London), Toulouse-Lautrec was a frequent visitor through the 1880s, inspiring such works including Au Cirque Fernando: Ecuyère, 1887-1888 (The Art Institute of Chicago), while the Cirque Fernando also provided the setting for Seurat’s final masterpiece, Le Cirque, 1890-1891 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Several years later it was refurbished to attract a better clientele, and within a decade Beert was charging the same price for the house’s best seats as the huge upscale Hippodrome near the Champs-Elysées. It was taken over and renamed in 1897 by the clown Médrano, whose family ran it until 1943, and it was in this iteration that Léger became a frequent patron.
Léger commenced his 1918 series of circus paintings with two “widescreen” views of the big top: Le Cirque Médrano (Esquisse) (Bauquier, no. 108) and Le Cirque (Bauquier, no. 109). He felt that these were perhaps too broadly illustrative, and their unity, bracketed by opposing Delaunay-like color discs, was necessarily somewhat forced. He then turned to a series on the theme of a pair of acrobats (Bauquier, nos. 110, 111 and the present painting), cutting in closely to his subjects and condensing the imagery, but using even larger canvases than in the previous overviews of the circus spectacle, before moving on to two paintings of clowns (Bauquier, nos. 112 and 114). Of the three acrobat compositions the present work is the only version in a vertical format, concentrating on the figures’ bodies as they stretch towards one another, their torsos and limbs described in a complex network of geometric lines and volumetric planes.
In many ways, the paintings in Léger’s series are indebted to Seurat’s Le Cirque; they share with it an interest in integrating the figure within a grid-like architectural setting, and they similarly contrast the movement of curvilinear forms against the static geometry of emphatic vertical and horizontal lines. Though Léger had criticized Seurat’s pointillist technique in 1914 as “a last stage and an ending” he was nonetheless drawn to the cylindrical, full-bodied volumes in the artist’s figures, rendered with only minimal modeling (quoted in E.F. Fry., ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 17). He was also fascinated by the coolly deliberate and rigorous manner in which Seurat constructed his compositions, where the shape and placement of each straight and curved contour appeared to have been carefully orchestrated in relation to the picture as a whole. In their approach to such subjects, both Seurat and Léger juxtapose a random, unpredictable human element—the spontaneous activity of the acrobats and riders—with the timeless rigidity of their settings, and impose upon the figure a mechanical aspect which places it in a larger, more ordered and rationalistic universe.
In Les deux acrobates Léger draws us into the very heart of the action, emphasizing the connection and trust between the performers, as the two acrobats lock eyes with one another at the center of the canvas, their actions perfectly timed and in-sync as they complete a complicated move. Despite their central role in the composition, Léger has not hesitated here to fragment the acrobats’ forms and identify their figures only in terms of partial signs, such as an ear here and fingers there, the bend of an elbow, the curve of a cheek. Instead, their lithe bodies are subsumed into the over-all play of geometric, abstract form that describes the wider scene, giving hints at the bright lights, scenery and signage that makes up the circus. Indeed, Léger piled one form on top of another to create the riotous effect of simultaneity, a concept developed by the philosopher Henri Bergson, which suggested that our consciousness is caught up in a constant flux of memories, thoughts and sensations which spontaneously interweave and dissolve within shifting modulations of space and time.
Les deux acrobates was acquired from the artist almost immediately after its completion by the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, with whom Léger had negotiated a contract over the course of 1918. In a letter to Rosenberg on 23 August 1918, Léger described, “I am working a lot and my finished works are close. My ‘acrobats’ fascinate me” (quoted in C. Derouet, op. cit., 1996, p. 42). The painting was included in Léger’s first post-war exhibition in February 1919, staged at Rosenberg’s Galerie de l’Effort Moderne in Paris, which was accompanied by a poetry reading by Blaise Cendrars, and a concert by Erik Satie.

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