Fernand Leger's Composition, 1945 displays the playful lyricism and dynamism that characterised the artist’s works during this period. From the 1930s onwards, Léger endeavoured to create a new artistic language, which would be an appropriate expression of the realities of modern day life. This pictorial language would not aim for mimetic reproduction but instead for an abstraction, which inspired by nature and the imagination, would find a balance between familiar imagery and the architectural function of painting, which in turn would stress the permanence of man. Léger compared his pictorial language with the ever-changing spoken language. In a 1937 essay entitled The New Realism Goes On, Léger wrote: ‘All down the ages, the people have gone on inventing their language, which is their own form of realism. This language is unbelievably rich in substance. Slang is the finest and most vital poetry that there is... This verbal form represents an alliance of realism and imaginative transposition; it is a new realism, perpetually in movement’ (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., "Art and the People", in Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 118).
Léger strove to create a popular art, which would be universally communicative and receptively engaging to all walks of life. Peter de Francia observed that, ‘Intensity of reality is achieved by the contrast of prosaic objects with pictorial artifice... Léger's paintings are exorcised of mystery. Formalised elements, used sparingly, invalidate any tendency to interpret figuration in terms of naturalism... Each element is completely predictable and readable’ (quoted ibid., p. 228). This readability was important to Léger, who did not want his art to be a philosophical reflection on the issues if the day. Instead he wished for his work to be a departure from the hardships of war and aimed to promote an optimistic aesthetic, which would place his art in the wider context of human history and would act as a sign of human endurance and hopefulness.
Functionality was important to Léger who stripped objects of their sentimentality, presenting them now solely for their plastic value. Composition displays Léger’s aim to depict ‘free objects’, which leave behind the elements of reality to create a purely decorative abstract aesthetic. Devoid of narrative the focus now falls on the harmonious relationship between volume, line and colour: the three forces Leger believed should govern a work of art. In manipulating these elements he saw that the results, could display as much variety and profundity as any imitative subject.
In Composition Léger captures the effect of light and depth by juxtaposing flat shapes of contrasting form and colour, their contours highlighted by thick black outlines, a feature which characterised his work. This interplay of rhythms and harmonies creates a dynamism and sense of movement, which became synonymous with the artist’s later œuvre. Displaying the vibrancy and exuberance of Léger’s palette, the present work showcases the artist’s experimental and expressive use of colour, which he described in 1937, as being an ‘elemental force, as indispensable to life as water and fire’
(quoted ibid., p. 117). Colour became the defining drive behind Leger’s work, with him later in 1938, asserting ‘colour can enter into play with a surprising and active force without any need to incorporate instructive or sentimental elements. A wall can be destroyed by the application of pure colors... A wall can be made to advance or recede, to become visually mobile. All this with colour’ (quoted in ibid., p. 123).
Léger’s renewed interest in colour and the increased energy and dynamism in his work, can be indebted, in part, to his move to the United States. Emigrating in 1940 at the outset of the Second World War, he would remain there for the next five years. Here he was struck by the vastness of the American landscape and the energetic dynamism he found in New York: ‘During these years in America I do feel I have worked with a greater intensity and achieved more expression than in my previous work. In this country there is…an increased sense of movement and violence... I prefer to see America through its contrasts--its vitality, its litter and its waste... What has come out most notably in the work I have done in America is in my opinion a new energy--an increased movement within the composition’ (quoted in Fernand Léger, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 234).