FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)
FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)
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FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)

Portrait du fils Bignou

FERNAND LÉGER (1881-1955)
Portrait du fils Bignou
signed and dated 'F. LÉGER 33' (lower right); signed and dated 'F. LÉGER 33' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
36 3⁄8 x 25 5⁄8 in. (92.3 x 65 cm.)
Painted in 1933
Étienne Bignou, Paris, by whom acquired from the artist.
Galerie Bignou, Paris.
Galerie Daniel Varenne, Geneva.
Galerie Clos de Sierne, Geneva.
Anonymous sale, Galerie Motte, Geneva, 7 June 1974, lot 135.
Anonymous sale, Sotheby's, New York, 19 May 1983, lot 340.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner.
R. Cogniat, "Visites d'atelier. Chez Fernand Léger" in Beaux-Arts, 21 April 1933 (illustrated).
R. Cogniat, "Le Cubisme méthodique: Léger et L'Effort Moderne" in L'Amour de l'Art, 1933, vol. 14-15, p. 234 (illustrated fig. 296; dated '1932').
C. Derouet, "Léger 1934: La tentation du réalisme" in Fernand Léger, La poésie de l'objet 1928-1934, exh. cat., Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1981, p. 13 (illustrated; titled 'Portrait de M.B.').
P. Descargues, Fernand Léger, Paris, 1995, p. 141 (illustrated p. 140).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger, Catalogue raisonné, vol. V, 1932-1937, Paris, 1996, no. 831, p. 72 (illustrated p. 73).
Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Fernand Leger: la poesie de l'object, May - June 1981, p. 13 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

"I am taking up a grand subject, but my painting is still object-painting. My figures continue to grow more human but I keep to the plastic fact, no eloquence, no romanticism."
—Fernand Léger

Léger's quintessential works of the 1920s are the magisterial still-life compositions he painted during the middle years of that decade; these pictures manifest the classical qualities of clarity, balance and order which were then in vogue but are also decidedly modern in their content. By the beginning of the 1930s, however, the spirit of classicism was on the wane, as it yielded to the widening impact of surrealism, whose precepts urged artists to delve beneath the external order of civilization to probe the darkly vital, organic forces that acted inexorably on the processes of the inner mind. Always attentive to the latest ideas in circulation, Léger began to remove the hard classical shell in which he encased his art to explore the softer, more pliable forms found in nature and in the human body.
The present painting depicts the son of Étienne Bignou, famed gallery owner and active dealer of Léger’s works. Executed in 1933, the work coincides with a great shift in the family business—with the closing of the Galerie Georges Petit in 1932, jointly owned with the Bernheim brothers, Bignou expanded his own gallery by opening up a branch in New York. This portrait exemplifies the artist’s distancing from the classical interest of the retour à l’ordre. Bignou fils is depicted casually seated, his arm nonchalantly posed on the back of the chair. While wearing a vest and tie, he has removed his jacket, and his shirt is loosely painted with wavy brushwork, further emphasizing a sense of informality.
Léger can take credit for having introduced the cinema-style close-up into modern painting from his experience in film-making during the early 1920s. During his classical period Léger would have insisted on using a geometrical grid of horizontal and vertical elements to structure the objects within a composition, but by this time he had dismantled and removed from his work all evidence of a supporting architecture, and instead he here sets the young boy against a backdrop of simplified forms—checkered wallpaper and green circles and rectangles—with just the back of a chair and hints of a wall molding as indications of an interior space.
Compared to the high formal art of his classical phase, Léger has created in Portrait du fils Bignou an altogether more relaxed and informal brand of modern portraiture; he had now made it his purpose to create appealing and accessible pictures, whose content might appear new and unusual, but was actually very readable and should be directly communicative. Paintings of this kind, he believed, would constitute a genuinely popular art. Within a few years Léger's leftist politics would bring him into alignment with the agenda of the Front Populaire and the government of Léon Blum, and he was excited at the prospect that he and fellow artists might finally, as he stated, "create and realize a new collective social art; we are merely awaiting for social evolution to permit it. Free the masses of people, give them the possibility of thinking of seeing, of self-cultivation—that is all we ask; they will then be in a position to enjoy to the utmost the plastic novelties that modern art has to offer" (E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 115 and 116).
During the 1920s Léger had directed his efforts at exalting the integrity of ordinary, everyday objects and elevating them to a monumental status in his paintings. He wanted to break what he felt was the tyranny of the subject as it had existed in the art of painting since the Renaissance. The subject was obsolete in modern painting, he argued, and it was time to emphasize the presence and character of the individual object, not as a means to an end—as in the traditional subject—but as the end in itself. Now it was time to accomplish the same for the figure, releasing it from all the superfluous, extra-visual connotations that have accrued to it over the centuries, so the human body might finally be seen in all its inherent beauty as pure plastic form. To accomplish this liberation of the figure Léger had in mind what he called the creation of the "grand subject." By this term he was not suggesting a return to conventional subject painting, it was instead his aim to paint monumental compositions that included the figure and objects as pictorial equals.

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