Léger painted the gouache Constructeurs, échelle et roue as the preparatory study, with virtually all pictorial elements in place, for the oil painting Composition pour Les Constructeurs (Les constructeurs à la roue; Constructeurs sur fond bleu) (Bauquier, no. 1399; fig. 1), itself one of five half-scale canvases (nos. 1397 [fig. 2]-1401) the artist painted in 1950 as he was finalizing his conception of this theme, which ultimately resulted in Les Constructeurs, définitif (no. 1402; fig. 3), completed that same year.
The present gouache is two-thirds the size of the related painting, and shows every one of the workmen, all their building materials, the ladder, wheel, as well as the network of girders on which they clamber about, and even the drifting clouds in the sky beyond, very much as they appear in the oil version (fig. 1). From among the handful of candidate variants in oils, Léger chose another one of the versions with a blue sky background, Etude pour Les Constructeurs, fond bleu (Bauquier, no. 1401; sold, Christie's, New York, 6 November 2007, lot 44) as the model for his full-size definitive version (fig. 3), which measures more than nine feet high and seven feet across (300 x 200 cm.).
The Constructeurs series is Léger's paean to the working class, both within French society and in the increasingly industrialized world at large, and moreover as a universal symbol of homo faber, man the maker and builder, a tribute which applies to architects and planners as well. Eager during this period to deepen his relationship with the working man and to extol his essential role in the re-building of post-war society, Léger joined the French Communist Party in 1945, almost exactly a year after Picasso had done so himself. In a 1946 article published in Arts de France, Léger wrote, "Making contact between the People and the work of art is a problem that is in the air, everywhere; but in order to talk to the people, you must be close to them." He recalled his experiences with comrades from all walks of life in the trenches during the First World War, "It was there that I truly understood what a man of the people is" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 143).
In a statement that Georges Bauquier cited in the catalogue for the 1963 Léger exhibition at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, in which the monumental Les Constructeurs was shown, Léger wrote: "I got the idea traveling to Chevreuse by road every evening. A factory was under construction in the fields there. I saw the men swaying high up on the steel girders! I saw man like a flea; he seemed lost in the inventions with the sky above him. I wanted to render that; the contrast between man and his inventions, between the worker and all the metal architecture, that hardness, that ironwork, those bolts and rivets. The clouds, too, I arranged technically, but they form a contrast with the girders" (quoted in W. Schmalenbach, Léger, New York, p. 120).
Thusly inspired, Léger began to make numerous preliminary drawings, the first of which date from 1947, and then studies in gouache for Les Constructeurs (see J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Léger Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, pp. 179-186). He had recently completed Les Loisirs, hommage à David, 1949 (Bauquier, no. 1309; fig. 4), which celebrated the end of the Second World War by depicting one of the chief pleasures arising from the resumption of peacetime living, that of again enjoying healthy, outdoor leisure pursuits. By invoking the name of Jacques-Louis David, Léger was signaling his admiration of that artist's engagement in the historical events and political issues of his own day, during the Napoleonic and Restoration eras; Léger was moreover declaring his intent to measure his achievement according to the benchmarks chosen from the great art of the past, a quest that Picasso would also undertake in his appropriations from the old masters.
Léger aimed in Les Constructeurs to contrast and complement the easeful bourgeois repose of Les Loisirs by exalting the value of proletarian labor. At the same time the artist also sought to reaffirm his characteristic interest in the mechanical and geometrical aspect of the human environment, which is largely absent in Les Loisirs. To these ends, Léger created in the Constructeurs series a world which is exclusively masculine, showing brawny, hard-working men engaged in the brotherhood of co-operative labor, in a place where the rigid geometry of hard steel supplanted the congenial trappings of leisure living amid the pleasures of nature.
"When Léger took up theme of construction workers in 1950, it looked as if he was reverting to the technical, mechanical world of his youth," Schmalenbach observed. "Then he celebrated the glory of modern technology, which he placed above humanity; now, in the Constructor series, man asserts his freedom even in the face of technological constraint. The technoid, robot-like puppets of 1920 have become natural human beings, and the artist has gone so far as to bestow on them some individual features. Man no longer obeys the laws of technology but only the less strict, more relaxed law of the picture" (ibid.)
Léger's fundamental "law of the picture" is that of contrast, of all kinds, in both content and form. "If I have stressed the figures of my workers more, if they are depicted with greater individualization, it is because the violent contrast between them and the metallic geometry surrounding them is of maximum intensity," Léger stated. "Contemporary subjects, whether they are social ones or otherwise, will be apparent according to the degree to which the law of contrasts is adhered to. Modern life consists of daily contrasts. These must form part of our present outlook" (quoted in P. de Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 199).
"When I built Les Constructeurs," Léger further claimed, "I did not make a single plastic concession... no concession to sentimentality, even if my figures are more varied and individual. I try to do something new without leaving aside the problem. In my work humanity has evolved like the sky. I set more store on the existence of people but at the same time I control their actions and their passions. I think that in this way truth is expressed better, more directly, more durably" (quoted in W. Schmalenbach, op. cit., 1985, p. 120).
Les Constructeurs, définitif was first shown with related works at the Maison de la Pensée Française, Paris, during June-October 1951. This painting provoked more controversy than any other of Léger's major post-war works. The rising new generation of abstract painters decried Léger's use of figuration, and among fellow members of the French Communist party, doctrinaire social realists criticized the artist's seemingly detached and--so they claimed--undignified treatment of workers and their labor. Eager to escape the haranguing of petty ideologues and critics, and to "make contact between the people and his art," Léger turned to actual workers for their response to Les Constructeurs. Following the close of the exhibition, Léger installed some of the Constructeurs paintings in the canteen at the Renault automobile factory in Boulogne-Billancourt. The artist sat in the canteen, eating his lunch, observing the factory workers' reactions to his canvases, as he later wrote:
"The men arrived at noon. They looked at the pictures while they ate. Some of them laughed. 'Look at those guys, they'll never be able to work with hands like that!' In a word, they judged by comparison. They found my pictures funny. They didn't understand them. I listened to them and gulped down my soup sadly. A week later I went back to the canteen for a meal. The atmosphere had changed. The men didn't laugh any more, they no longer bothered about the pictures. But quite a few of them, as they ate, looked up at my pictures for a moment and they lowered their eyes again to their plates. Maybe the pictures puzzled them? As I was leaving, one of the men said to me: 'You're the a painter, aren't you? You'll see, when your pictures are taken away and they are faced with a blank wall, my buddies will realize what's in your colors.' That sort of thing is gratifying" (quoted in ibid.)
Fernand Léger in his Paris studio with studies for Les Constructeurs. The oil painting to which the present gouache is related is visible above the artist's shoulder. Photograph by Willy Maywald. BARCODE:25010497FIG
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Composition pour Les Constructeurs, 1950. Private collection. BARCODE: 25017977_001
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Etude pour Les Constructeurs, 1er état (L'Equipe au repos), 1950. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. BARCODE: 28861942
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Les Constructeurs, définitif, 1950. Musée national Fernand Léger, Biot. BARCODE: 28861959
(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, Les Loisirs, hommage à David, 1948-1949. Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE: 28861966