Léger passed the first half of the 1940s in the United States as an exile, having fled France during the German Occupation. In contrast to his paintings and drawings from World War I, his work from this period does not directly address the war, perhaps on account of the fact that he was no longer a witness to the fighting. Instead, the artist's oeuvre of this time tackles themes inspired by his impressions of America. 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 a definitely romantic atmosphere in the good sense of the word--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).
During his five year sojourn in America, Léger did not learn much English, choosing to pass most of his time with the large community of French exiles that lived in New York. While traveling to an exhibition of his work in Montreal in 1943, Léger discovered an abandoned farmhouse at Rouses Point, a small town in upstate New York near the Canadian border where residents commonly spoke French. Rouses Point is located in the Champlain Valley, which reminded the artist of the Normandy countryside he was separated from. Léger proceeded to spend the next three summers at Rouses Point, where he found his interest in nature stimulated. He painted a series of works inspired by the surrounding landscape during these summers, particularly struck by skeletons of farm machinery abandoned in the fields.
For Léger, the obsolescence of these manufactured products was symptomatic of a striking difference between French and American life. In America, he proclaimed, "only the economic question counts. The dollar is king... A farmer's plow meets an accident; he abandons it in the field and has another brought out. It isn't repaired, it's replaced" (quoted in ibid., p. 235). The discarded farm implements, broken wagon wheels, barbed wire fencing and fallen branches overgrown with vegetation at Rouses Point become the motifs used in a series of canvases in which he developed the theme of decay and regeneration. Léger was particularly interested in the contrast between the mechanical and the natural found in these settings: "I painted a series of American landscapes, inspired by the contrast between the abandoned machine that had turned into rusty metal, and the vegetation that was devouring it. Nature was literally eating up the machinery. You could see it disappearing under the wild flowers and greenery. The opposition between this heap of twisted metal and the wild daisies had a lively and endearing charm about it" (quoted in G. Neret, Fernand Léger, Paris, 1990, p. 210).
The present work was painted during Léger's last summer at Rouses Point. A jumbled mass of mechanical parts dances playfully on the canvas. Parts of a fence cross through the center of the composition, with haphazardly attached barbed wire jutting out. One of the poles is lined with screws which do not attach to anything, as if the pole has been ripped from its original structure and thrown to the ground. Three small sprockets lie unused at the lower right corner of the composition. The pieces of discarded machinery sit piled together on a white ground, which is encircled by blue. A thick circle of red is painted around the pile. Though there are no overt references to nature in this painting, the brilliant colors can be read denotatively: blue, the color of water and red, the color of earth. These planes of color crowd the pile, threatening to envelope it. The seemingly ominous theme of discarded machine parts is here transformed by the artist, and his vivid palette, into a lyrical image, full of joy and movement.
(fig. 1) Photograph of the farmhouse Fernand Léger rented at Rouses Point, New York, 1945.