Fernand Léger — the life and art of a Modernist master
An introduction to the shifting styles of the pioneering French artist — featuring a work currently offered for private sale
Born in 1881 into a cattle-farming family in Normandy, Fernand Léger went on to become one of the most important artists of the early 20th century. He was associated with a host of avant-garde styles — from Cubism and Futurism to Purism and de Stijl — but never too closely, always maintaining his artistic individuality.
Paintings such as The Card Players (1917), The City (1919) and Le grand déjeuner from 1921 are now universally regarded as masterpieces of Modernism.
Among his peers, only Pablo Picasso could match Léger’s versatility, curiosity and outright refusal to stand still. After moving to Paris at the turn of the century, he developed an idiosyncratic form of Cubism, combining that movement’s analytical dissection of form with a vocabulary of curved shapes such as cylinders, spheres and cones. The art critic Louis Vauxcelles dubbed this work ‘Tubist’; it was Léger’s first mature style.
In the years immediately preceding the First World War, Léger’s practice moved increasingly towards abstraction. His work in this style is considered by some to have peaked in 1913 with Contraste de Formes. Described as ‘a punch to the solar plexus’ by Conor Jordan, Christie’s Deputy Chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art, the work realised a world auction record for the artist when it sold for $70,062,500 at Christie’s in New York in November 2017.
In the First World War, Léger served as a sapper in the engineering corps, and was posted to Argonne and Verdun. He claimed to be ‘utterly dazzled by the breech of a 75 millimetre gun’, as well as by the tanks, planes and other technological innovations he was brought into contact with.
In due course Léger’s art would come to reflect this influence, taking on an increasingly machine-like aesthetic (industrial and mechanical forms in city settings were frequent subjects at this time). According to art critic John Russell, Léger ‘may well be the only painter who made major art (as distinct from arresting illustration) out of World War I’.
Fast forward to the 1920s, and Léger started to restore figures to his imagery, rendering his scenes a little gentler and more amiable. He often chose to focus on women and families in domestic settings — a prime example being the three reclining nudes drinking tea or coffee in Le grand déjeuner, from 1921. Though set in a chic, contemporary apartment, the figures boast simplified volumes that (typical of Léger in this period) hark back to neoclassicism.
The painting is the final of three preliminary versions Léger did of a masterwork, also called Three Women (Le grand déjeuner), that today ranks among the jewels of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. On 15 May 2018, the work sold for $19,437,500 in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York.
Towards the end of the decade, Léger started to move away from the rigid, mechanical aesthetic that had dominated his work since the end of the war, and instead began to depict a looser, more playful vision of the world around him. He turned to the natural world for inspiration, delighting in this new realm of visual sources: ‘There are microbes, fish, submarines, astronomy… When I think that there are not two similar ears in the world’.
With its combination of organic and geometric forms, Nature morte of 1927 (illustrated above, and available for private sale now) encapsulates this dramatic new artistic direction. Strange and unexpected combinations of boldly coloured objects, both abstract and recognisable, float within the seemingly endless black picture plane in this new kind of surreal still-life.
It is rare to sell one masterwork from the 1920s in a season but in 2018 we offered two, with the inclusion of Les trois femmes au bouquet (1922), another classic depiction of women in a domestic interior that saw Léger choosing to meld tradition with modernity.
In 1931 Léger made the first of three trips to the United States, having been commissioned to decorate the New York apartment of Nelson Rockefeller. He returned in 1935 and 1938 to complete a similar project for Wallace K. Harrison’s Consolidated Edison Building at the 1939-40 World’s Fair.
In 1932 he resumed teaching at the Académie Moderne, a free school he had co-founded with Amédée Ozenfant in 1924. In 1935, just four years after his initial visit, he was given a major show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
The latter half of the decade saw the completion of the monumental mural paintings Adam and Eve and Composition aux deux perroquets, a work he considered to be one of his most important. He also produced murals for expositions in Brussels and Paris, and set and costume designs for the Paris Opera.
Léger’s murals of the late 1930s were inspired by his belief that modern art could be an agent of change, a means of communicating an optimistic vision of a forward-looking socialist society.
In 1935 a coalition of leftist and centrist parties, organised labour and intellectuals formed the Front Populaire in France. Léger believed this represented the dawn of a new and potentially transformational social consciousness — precisely the opportunity that would allow him to bring modern art out of the studio and into the everyday sensibility of the public.
He spent the war in America, where he made a series of paintings inspired by the neon lights of New York. He returned to France December 1945 and, like Picasso, joined the French Communist Party. The optimism Léger felt at returning to his homeland was reflected in his painting — there is an easygoing vitality and an athletic physicality in the artist’s late works.
Léger believed that an essential part of peacetime reconstruction was to bring a sense of enjoyment to the lives of citizens from all walks of life, and, for him, the circus represented the public spectacle par excellence — a genuine art of the people. His final masterwork, La Grande parade, état définitif (1954) capped a long line of circus scenes that he executed throughout his career.
Interest in Léger’s work is ‘very strong right now’, says Jessica Fertig, Senior Vice President for Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in New York. Demand is particularly robust for pieces executed during two periods of his career: ‘Just before the First World War, and the work featuring female figures from the early 1920s.’
‘The works from before the War — both Cubist and those moving beyond Cubism — have always done well at auction,’ Fertig says. ‘What's interesting is that the early 1920s pieces are now widely considered in the same rank.’
Beyond the auction room, Léger’s unique style has been on view in a number of recent museum shows: in Brussels in 2018, a retrospective of his work went on display at BOZAR, while a second retrospective went to Tate Liverpool in November of the same year.