In 1913, the French aviator Roland Garros made the first ever, non-stop flight across the Mediterranean; the premiere of The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky’s avant-garde ballet, caused a riot among Parisians; and France was producing more cars than any country on Earth.
It is in such a context of modernity that we should see Fernand Léger’s Femme dans un fauteuil, which is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s London on 18 June.
‘It’s a work that perfectly encapsulates the energy, innovation and dynamism of Paris at that time,’ confirms Jason Carey, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in London. ‘This was forward-looking art for a forward-looking era.’
Femme dans un fauteuil is a dramatic composition, marked by a tumbling array of lines, colours and forms. It veers very close to abstraction. The subject is far from easy to spot at first glance — it turns out to be a female sitting in a chair (possibly Léger’s future wife, Jeanne).
Seated women had been appearing in paintings as far back as the Renaissance, but never in the way Léger depicts this example. She’s essentially a series of interlocking forms rather than a seamless whole, her colour a mix of fiery oranges and reds with passages of unspoiled, white ground.
‘The subject is so abstract,’ says Carey, ‘you might even say she is not fully human. Many of her body parts are cylindrical, giving the sense she is part machine.’ Léger, who had moved to Paris from rural Normandy in 1900 at the age of 19, was fascinated by the modern metropolis, and that is what is being evoked in Femme dans un fauteuil.
The painting is one of five seated women that the artist produced in 1913. Three are now the part of museum collections — at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, and the Sprengel Museum in Hannover — with the location of the final work unknown.
The five canvases belong to what was probably the most groundbreaking series of Léger’s career, ‘Contrastes de formes’. Venturing beyond the pioneering Cubist work that he, Picasso and Braque had been making up to that point, he steps into what Carey calls ‘a new and unprecedented realm of abstraction’.
In some cases, the results were completely abstract, such as the painting, Contrastes de formes, which set the world-record price for a Léger at auction, when it sold for $70,062,500 at Christie’s New York in 2017. In other cases, such as Femme dans un fauteuil, the artist maintained hints of figures, though largely dissolved them in an abstract combination of colour, line and form.
The forms in question — cones, tubes, cubes or variants thereof — all jostle for attention. They seem, simultaneously, to project out of the picture frame and recede into it.
As for Léger’s colours, they appear in bold, unmodulated streaks. In Femme dans un fauteuil, along with the aforementioned red and orange, it’s worth noting the blue arms of the chair — and the yellow patches at the end of them.
The painting is little short of a visual assault on Léger’s part. The subject at its centre, though, is totally calm. She’s caught in a moment of introspection, resting her head on her right hand. There is even a cup of tea placed on a table in front of her.
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Léger worked on his ‘Contrastes de formes’ series for just a brief time, between 1913 and 1914. The outbreak of the First World War would cut short his heady days of artistic experimentation for soon he would be serving on the Western Front, as a sapper in the engineering corps.
‘The war meant an abrupt break in Léger’s career, as it would for so many artists,’ explains Carey. ‘It makes what came just before it even more treasured. Femme dans un fauteuil is among the works that fundamentally changed the course of art at the start of the 20th century.’