The five years of war-time exile that Léger spent in New York and traveling around America had been an eye-opening experience. Nevertheless, when he returned to France in December 1945, he was glad to be home. Flush with optimism for the future of France in the post-war era, Léger painted this exuberant and life-affirming canvas several years later. In "Art and the People," a 1946 article published in the journal Arts de France, Léger declared, "I want to tell what I felt in returning to France, the joy I have had in rediscovering my country. I assure you that the people have made a great advance in France. I assure you that a magnificent evolution has come about. Maybe you who stayed here don't feel it. Me, I have faith in France" (in Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 147-148). Like Picasso, Léger joined the French Communist Party. He laid out his agenda: "Now more leisure time must be created for workers" (ibid., p. 145). He 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. He had advocated similar ideas nearly a decade earlier, during the time of the leftist Front populaire. At that time, he stated, "Let us encourage the people, the clerk, the worker, to liberate themselves. Fight for your leisure, your freedom. Once these freedoms have been acquired, you will be able to cultivate yourselves, to develop your sensibility." (in "Color in the World," ibid., p. 130).
The circus represented for Léger the public spectacle par excellence. It was not merely an entertainment, it was a genuine art of the people. He closely identified with the circus performer. The acrobat was an artist, just as the modern artist, in his risky avant-garde calling, was no less an acrobat. It was fitting, then, that a male acrobat and his bevy of female partners were the subject of Léger's pivotal, monumental pre-war canvas, Composition au deux perroquets, 1935-1939 (Bauquier, no. 881; fig. 1). In this picture Léger created the prototype for the convergence of pictorial ideas that would dominate his art for the remainder of his career, and come to fruition in his great post-war compositions. Strong visual contrasts, in his imagery, forms and color, would henceforth interact on a huge scale. His figure subjects would actively celebrate the pleasures of life, as they participated in a new "outdoors" reality. Léger wrote to a friend in 1939: "We have all achieved a reality, an indoor reality--but there is perhaps another one possible, more outdoors. The new thing in this type of big picture is an intensity ten times greater than its predecessors. We can get this intensity by application of contrasts--pure tones and groupings of form. That is the solution for the big picture" (quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 145).
In 1940, while waiting in Marseille to sail to America, Léger had witnessed some young dockworkers on their midday break diving from a wharf for a swim in the harbor. Later, in the summer heat of New York, the artist watched bathers jostle each other for room in a crowded public swimming pool. These experiences became the basis for his wartime Plongeurs series. He enjoyed the fresh-air recreational culture in America, especially the fashion for bicycling, his own favorite personal sport, and embarked on his series Les cyclistes. The casual freedom and lack of inhibition that women displayed in public during their leisure activities fascinated Léger, who observed "girls in shorts dressed more like acrobats in a circus than one would ever come across on a Paris street" (quoted in ibid., p. 237). Léger touted the healthy athleticism of young American women in the painting La grande Julie, 1945 (Bauquier, no. 1187; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). He depicted bicycling as a pleasant pastime for family and friends in a series aptly titled Les loisirs (Leisure), which he began in New York in 1944 and continued in France through the end of the decade. Léger subtitled the culminating wall-size canvas in this sequence Hommage à David (fig. 2), a reference to France's leading painter during the Revolution and Napoleonic era. Léger envisioned his paean to the pleasures of peacetime as a modern counterpart to David's Mars désarmé par Vénus et les Grâcese, 1824 (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels).
Léger had been a fan of the spectacular three-ring Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which performed seasonally in New York's Madison Square Garden. He painted several circus pictures before departing from America (Bauquier, nos. 1205-1207), including the large Acrobates et musicians (fig. 3), which presages the Grande parade compositions of the 1950s, the artist's crowning works. Back in France, the subject of the circus seemed even more compelling to Léger, as being representative of a grand, popular national tradition. The old Cirque Médrano was still open; it had been a favorite attraction for Léger and his friends Apollinaire, Cendrars and Max Jacob in 1913-1914 while the artist was working on his famous contrastes de formes, and he featured it in his circus paintings of the late 'teens. The circus was an apt symbol of French esprit and joie de vivre, calling attention to the nation's desire to excel in the face of daunting challenges, and to take pride in its skills.
Léger painted L'acrobate dans le cirque, esquisse, as was his custom, in preparation for a large canvas, L'acrobate et sa partenaire, which was nearly twice the dimensions of the present version, and very closely resembles it (Bauquier, no. 1308; Tate Gallery, London). Léger painted these pictures while he continued to work on the cycling theme in his Loisirs series. Both subjects share a central circular motif, the bicycle wheel in Loisirs, and in the circus pictures, the carnival wheel of fortune, which also stands for the circus ring, and the knife-thrower's whirling target. Léger prepared a text of reminiscences and observations for Le cirque, his magnificent folio of lithographs that Tériade published in 1950 (Saphire, nos. 44-106). He wrote, "The bicycle seems to be alive. In watching the maneuvers of this spectacular object, naturally dance comes to mind. And when the acrobat, head down, resumes his position while crossing the wire, it is certainly more risky than dance but it is in the same family" (in Functions of Painting, p. 171).
The circular motif harkens back to the disks in Léger's contrastes de formes paintings of 1913-1914, and in his compositions of mechanical elements following the First World War. It recalls Delaunay's pioneering abstract formes circulaires of 1913. The circle became Léger's primary dynamic and generative device. He wrote in Le cirque, "There is the visual tactile satisfaction of the round form. It can be moved quickly, it rolls. Go to the circus. Nothing is as round as the circus. It is an enormous bowl in which circular forms unroll. Nothing stops, everything is connected. The ring dominates, commands, absorbs. The circus is a rotation of masses, people, animals, and objects. The angle, unpleasant and sharp, looks badly out of place there. Go to the circus. Leave your rectangles, your geometric windows, and go the country of circles in motion" (ibid., p. 172). Even the acrobat in this circus scene, caught in the mid-air as he peforms his stunt, is half coiled into a circular shape. Léger described a similar figure in Le cirque, "he is an upside down figure that gently balances itself; a mouth that becomes the center of a face, the eyelids beating in that anguished face, an arm, a foot, a hand that searches for something to hold on to; all that in a space with no protective restraints" (ibid., p. 173).
Léger described the overall juxtaposition of forms in the larger second version of this subject, L'acrobate et sa partenaire, "The acrobat and disk that surrounds him represent movement. The flower in his hand, composed entirely of curves, heightens the impression of movement; so does the shape of the cat on the chair. The straight lines of the chair, those at the edge of the canvas on the same side, the ladder, and the acrobat's partner form the static part of the picture, which contrasts violently with the dynamic part. The more contrasts there are in a picture, the stronger is the painting" (quoted in W. Schmalenbach, Léger, New York, 1985, p. 116).
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Composition au deux perroquets, 1935-1939. Musée National d'Art Moderne-Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE 24768238
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Les loisirs, hommage à David, 1948-1949. Musée National d'Art Moderne-Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE 24768221
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Acrobates et musicians, 1945. Museo d'Arte Contemporáneo, Caracas. BARCODE 24768214