FERNAND LEGER (1881-1955)
FERNAND LEGER (1881-1955)
FERNAND LEGER (1881-1955)
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FERNAND LEGER (1881-1955)
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The Artistic Journey – A Distinguished West Coast Collection
FERNAND LEGER (1881-1955)

Femme portant une statuette

FERNAND LEGER (1881-1955)
Femme portant une statuette
signed and dated 'F. LÉGER 25' (lower right); signed and dated again and titled 'F. LEGER 25 Femme portant une statuette' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
25 1/2 x 19 3/4 in. (64.8 x 50.4 cm.)
Painted in 1925
Galerie de l'Effort Moderne (Léonce Rosenberg), Paris (acquired from the artist).
Yvonne Zervos, Paris (acquired from the above).
Perls Galleries, New York (acquired from the above, June 1952).
Elizabeth B. Blake, Dallas (probably acquired from the above, by 1957, until at least 1969).
Janie C. Lee Gallery, Dallas and Houston (possibly acquired from the above, 1977).
Katherine Kaim Kitchen, Houston (acquired from the above, by 1978); sale, Christie's, New York, 16 November 2016, lot 6B.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owners.
C. Zervos, "Fernand Léger: Œuvres de 1905 à 1952" in Cahiers d'Art, 1952, p. 23 (illustrated in color).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue raisonné de l'œuvre peint, 1925-1928, Paris, 1993, vol. III, p. 78, no. 435 (illustrated in color, p. 79; illustrated in color again on the cover).
New York, Perls Galleries, Fernand Léger, October-November 1952, no. 7 (illustrated).
Houston, Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Léger: Our Contemporary, April-June 1978, p. 29, no. 13 (illustrated).
Houston, The Menil Collection, Byzantine Things in the World, May-August 2013.
Houston, The Menil Collection (on extended loan, 2004-2016).

Brought to you by

Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

Painted in 1925, Femme portant une statuette marks the beginning of what Werner Schmalenbach referred to as Fernand Léger’s “grand, figurative style” (Léger, trans. R. Allen, New York, 1976, p. 26). In the wake of the First World War, Léger fundamentally altered his aesthetic idiom, merging elements drawn from classical traditions with those of the increasingly mechanized reality of contemporary life. Befitting the radical worlds he was now painting, Léger introduced a new protagonist into his canvases: that of the woman, strong, steadfast, remote, and commanding, who stood, amazon like, in theatrical scenes fashioned by the artist. These were daring, visionary paintings, and the works produced between 1925 and 1927 are, Christopher Green has noted, “masterpieces.”: “They were large, stable, utterly self-assured and marked the final maturity of the ordered classical approach which he developed from the last months of 1920. They are the product of a pictorial idea of the figure or object whose brutal ‘plastic’ simplicity is personal, but which is the product of an approach to the realities of modern life... Even now, in a decade which seems profoundly out of tune with the optimism that greeted accelerating technological progress during the 1920s, the grand classical qualities of these paintings remain convincing” (Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 310).
Although long dedicated to Cubism, following his discharge from the French army during the First World War, Léger’s art shifted profoundly both in appearance and purpose. As he himself explained, “I discovered the people of France. And at the same time I was suddenly stunned by the sight of the open breech of a .75 cannon in full sunlight, confronted with the play of light on white metal. It needed nothing more than this for me to forget the abstract art of 1912-1913” (quoted in R. Chickering, ed., Great War, Total War, Cambridge, 2000, p. 509). He sought to establish a more comprehensive idiom, one which drew upon material culture—in particular film—as well as contemporary movements including Purism and De Stijl. But even as he found the spare compositions of Piet Mondrian and Amédée Ozenfant (with whom he shared an atelier) influential, Léger continued to prioritize figuration. The resulting works are geometric but inviting, replete with figures and objects that, although taken from his world, nevertheless appear timeless.
Indeed, the crisp lines and flat planar colors of Femme portant une statuette exemplify Léger’s postwar period. Whereas geometrical elements had previously been consigned to the background, now they were as much the subject of the composition as the figures themselves. He found himself particularly invested in the relationship between horizontality and verticality, and these became key structural elements in his images. In Femme portant une statuette, the woman’s columnar stance is mirrored in the sharp profile of the statue. Such vertical momentum is countered, however, by the horizontal flow of the arm bangles, purple bars, and bodily curvatures.
The moving images of film, which by this juncture were widely beloved, also suggested to Léger new ways of seeing the world. The artist himself had worked on avant-garde films including George Antheil's Le ballet mécanique and for a period he even considered giving up painting in favor of the new medium. Cinema’s montages, juxtapositions, and novel vantage points were revelatory, particularly the close-up which allowed one to zoom in on and fragment the every day. “These new means have given us a new mentality,” Léger wrote in 1928. “Composite wholes are no longer enough for us—we want to feel and grasp the details of those wholes—and we realize that these details, these fragments, if seen in isolation, have a complete and particular life of their own. Close-ups in the cinema are the consecration of this new vision” (“Actualités,” in Variétés, no. 1, 1928 reprinted in J. Freeman, “L’Evénement d’Objectivité Plastique: Léger’s Shift from the Mechanical to the Figurative 1926-1933,” Fernand Léger: The Later Years, exh. cat., Whitechapel, London, 1987, pp. 22-23). The influence of film is at play in the present work, evident not only in the collage aesthetic that unifies the pictorial space but also in the figure’s formulaic, mask-like visage which conjures images of the automatons and robots that populated the movies of these years.
Film gave Léger new ways for understanding an individual object, and objecthood in general. For the artist, the women of his paintings were considered “not for [their] sentimental value, but solely for [their] plastic value,” and he would directly equate the human body to constructed forms throughout this period, notably in Femme tenant un vase [état définitif], 1927 (Bauquier, no. 527) now held in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (Léger quoted in E. Fry, ed., The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 155). Such purposeful objectification is underscored in Femme portant une statuette by the gleaming silver of her flesh. Accordingly, it was not that Léger abandoned his mechanical aesthetic but rather transferred the methodology, allowing the female figure to be the site onto which he tested ideas of formal detachment. “I needed a rest, to breathe a little,” he stated. “After the dynamism of the mechanical phase, I felt, as it were, a need for the static quality of the large forms that were to follow. Earlier I had broken up the human body. Now I began to put it together again. Since then I have always used the human form” (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47).
Though this was a revolutionary understanding of the body, Léger nevertheless wanted his figures to be in dialogue with those of his art historical predecessors. Following the armistice, the Louvre along with other Parisian museums and galleries had started to reexhibit works that had been put in storage during the Great War, and exposure to these paintings encouraged Léger to contend with the long history of figural representation. Even as Paul Cezanne’s bathers and Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s volumetric nudes provided a persuasive model for a modern depiction of the body, Léger cast his eye further back, and his women became sculptural and caryatid-like. The protagonist of Femme portant une statuette is heavily modelled and has been presented frontally to resemble the figures populating ancient Roman mosaics, which Léger would have seen illustrated in Ozenfant and Le Corbuiser’s periodical, L’espirt Nouveau (C. Green, “‘Mass-Produced’ Classics, 1920-1930,” in Modern Antiquity: Picasso, De Chirico, Léger, Picabia, exh. cat., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2011, p. 95). Likewise, the vivid yellow statue his protagonist holds directly references portrait busts from antiquity. Together, the two appear to have been carved directly from the same stone block.
Despite his time traveling eye, Léger’s loyalty remained to the present world, its machines and developments, hardships and great delights. Drawn to the elegance of the manufactured object, he made this the lens through which he gazed upon his surroundings and transformed what he saw. “The subject in painting had already been destroyed, just as avant-garde film had destroyed the story line,” he said. “I thought that the object, which had been neglected and poorly exploited, was the thing to replace the subject” (quoted in op. cit., London, 1973, p. 87).

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