Offered for the first time at auction, a groundbreaking painting of the early 20th century that marks a departure from the purely figurative and the advance towards abstract art
Painted by Fernand Léger in 1913, Contraste de formes belongs to a series of paintings that changed for ever the way we look at art. Across the course of just a few months, in a sequence of some 14 canvases, Léger advanced beyond Cubism into a visual language that abandoned the representational concerns of his contemporaries, Picasso and Braque. Instead, his only subject was pure, abstract shapes and colours, hinged on a network of forceful lines.
‘It's like a punch to the solar plexus,’ says Conor Jordan, Deputy Chairman, Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘The rhythm that bursts out of it is palpable and exciting to be in the presence of. To stand just inches away is a great thrill — it gives you a sense of the beautiful rawness of the surface.’
The Contrastes de formes have long been considered cornerstones of important collections of modern art, and thus nearly all examples from the series are today housed in major institutions. This exquisite picture, offered in New York on 13 November, comes from the property of the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, and proceeds from its sale will go towards the foundation’s philanthropic mission.
‘This is pure painting seen in its most exciting form, bursting with visual and intellectual ideas,’ adds Jordan. ‘Contraste de formes, among the greatest Léger paintings still in private hands, has a startling intensity.’
The work of Léger during 1912-1914 is the story of the push towards pure or non-representational painting in France. The artist authored two lectures on his ideas, which were delivered at the Académie Marie Wassilieff, an art school in Paris. The first was given in May 1913 and the second in June 1914. Together they provide fascinating insights into the mind of a groundbreaking painter, struggling to give verbal expression to the visual problems that he faced in the studio.
Léger wished to replace the illusory dynamism of Italian Futurism, with its use of modern, cosmopolitan subjects treated in motion, with a true pictorial dynamism. He also sought to move beyond the influence of Cézanne, whose work had made an overwhelming impression on him when he saw the master’s memorial retrospective at the 1907 Salon d’Automne. Léger felt that the accelerating pulse of modern living required a more radical approach in order to reflect its new sensations.
La femme en bleu, painted in mid-1912 and shown at the Salon d’Automne that year, was his answer to these issues. Léger took a stable subject — as in a Cézanne portrait — and invested it with extreme formal contrasts: flatly coloured planes opposing modelled tubular, conical and cylindrical forms.
He was by now on the verge of pure painting — only vestiges of the subject remained — and in early 1913 he took the plunge with his Contrastes de formes, the series that occupied him for the remainder of the year and into 1914. Léger fabricated a tumbling surface in which shapes simultaneously appear to project out of the picture plane or recede into it, thereby suggesting volume. All the component lines, forms and colours are actively engaged as they play off each other to create a jolting, rhythmic composition.
‘To obtain their maximum expressiveness lines, forms, and colours must be employed with the utmost logic’ — Fernand Léger
In his second Académie Wassilieff lecture — prepared as he was bringing this series of paintings to a close — Léger declared, ‘Composition takes precedence over all else; to obtain their maximum expressiveness lines, forms, and colours must be employed with the utmost logic. It is the logical spirit that will achieve the greatest result.’
‘His technique is simple, without room for vacillation, and much of the force of these paintings is the result of its simplicity,’ writes Christopher Green, an authority on the artist. ‘It leads invariably to the clear separation of line from colour patch so that, not only is the entire picture surface animated by the movement of volumes, but every surface contains its own arsenal of contrasts out of which it is built.’
Conor Jordan states that the Contraste de formes series show Léger ‘synthesising a lot of influences’, including Analytical Cubism and Italian Futurism, whose artists had exhibited just a year earlier in Paris. ‘[Léger] went at these paintings as though he was a sculptor,’ says the specialist.
It’s an unlined canvas that also hasn’t been varnished, so its physical condition is as close as is possible to the state it was when it left Léger’s easel
The work was originally acquired from Léger at the end of 1913 by his dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, with whom Léger had signed an exclusive three-year contract. Kahnweiler did not put on one-man shows and never allowed a picture to be seen in the Paris salons, preferring to send Léger’s paintings for inclusion in group exhibitions outside of the country. He had similar arrangements with Picasso, Braque, Derain and Gris.
‘It’s an unlined canvas that hasn’t been varnished,’ explains Jordan of the work, ‘so its physical condition is as close as is possible to the state it was when it left Léger’s easel.’
Contraste de formes was bought in 1956 from Galerie Rosengart in Lucerne by Ludmilla and Hans Arnhold, an international banker and art collector. The painting was later bequeathed to their daughter and son-in law, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen.
Mr. Kellen was the longtime CEO of the highly respected investment banking firm Arnhold and S. Bleichroeder, Inc. (now First Eagle Holdings, Inc.), and he and his wife were both passionate collectors and philanthropists. The Kellens were captivated by Léger and his work, often visiting the Musée National Fernand-Léger in Biot, France, with their children, and eventually their grandchildren. Contraste de formes was a cherished highlight of the Kellens’ collection, and it enriched their New York home for more than 40 years.
The work will be toured to Christie’s in Hong Kong (24-26 October), before going on display in New York (3-13 November).