This crouching nude young woman--set against a red ground as if she were a large medallion mounted on a wall, removed from any recognizable spatial environment, interior or exterior, unsupported from beneath--exists outside time and place. She has only one reality, that which the painter Léger has bestowed upon her: she is a pictorial object. Her inviting gaze beckons to the viewer nonetheless; it is undeniable that she possesses a powerful, eye-stopping presence. She summons up a host of feminine images from the very distant and nearer past. She is a descendant of the naked Aphrodite at her bath in the British Museum (fig. 1), the Titian Venus Anadyomene (fig. 2), or an Ingres odalisque in that artist's Le Bain turc. She is the younger sister of a Modigliani nude, but given the relentless pace of modernism in the early part of the 20th century, what a difference a decade can make!
Léger's crouching nude is quintessentially modern, but not at all like the brutally primitivized women in Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, or the hyper-analyzed, facetted women in his high cubist paintings. This young lady is a miracle of formal reduction and purification, having been rendered into a compactly succinct and perfect form. Her curving volumetric and metallic components give her the hard appearance of a virtually indestructible object made to last for all time--she might have been fashioned from molten steel, cooled down, lifted from the mold, tooled and polished, then parked on the red backdrop to show off her qualities by way of maximum contrast. There is nothing about her to suggest the incarnation of living, breathing mortal flesh--instead the monochrome background in red, the color of blood and passion, abstractly projects her vital element. She is a woman only insofar as Léger has created her image to represent one; she is an idealized conception of woman, of all women. She is nonetheless wholly mysterious and inviting, and may be thought to represent feminine beauty in its most pristine, demure and unblemished state. She is both very old as an archetype, and brand new as form. Léger has created her as the apotheosis of modern womanhood, a magnificent secular icon for modern society in modern times.
Many people will recognize the Léger nude on a red ground from their museum-going experiences. The full-size version of this image that Léger painted, also in 1927, measuring twice the height of the present canvas, has been on view for many years in one of America's premier institutions, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (Bauquier, no. 530; fig. 3). The differences in the two versions, apart from that of sheer size, lies in the somewhat squarer format of the present painting, and the extra measure of polishing that Léger has accorded the modeled contours on the figure in the large version, as its monumental scale required. While the girl's faces in both pictures are very similar, they are not identical, and one may note in her visage as it appears in the Palevsky painting a slightly enigmatic quality of expression that is not present in the Hirshhorn version, from which all such trace of individual character and private feeling has been thoroughly expunged.
The track which carried Léger from his mechanical paintings of the late teens through the great figure compositions of 1921, and culminating in the masterly classical still-life and figure paintings of 1925-1927, may be conveniently followed within the contents of this sale catalogue, in which there is a strongly representative and illuminating selection of paintings from this important period in Léger's work, and in the many comparative illustrations in the accompanying essays (see lots 17, 35 and 39).
The essential elements in Léger's treatment of the figure from 1921 through 1927 are fully discernible in his twin masterworks of 1921: Le Petit déjeuner (Bauquier, no. 310 [see lot 39, fig. 1]), and Le Grand déjeuner (Bauquier, no. 311 [see lot 39, fig. 2]) to which Max Palevsky's La Tasse de thé is closely related (see lot 39). Indeed, the gentle triste expression of the crouching nude, and the fall of her hair on the right side of her face, has an antecedent in the girl holding a cup of tea on the right side of Le Petit déjeuner. In 1922 Léger painted Buste de femme (Bauquier, no. 324), which shows this girl face-on, as she fingers the cascade of her hair, set against a monochrome background, the first instance in which Léger completely discarded the cubist-derived, grid-like architectural elements which normally provided a stage for his figures. He returned to this idea in 1923, but on a much more elaborate scale, employing a pair of kneeling women set off against a red ground in Les Deux figures (Bauquier, no. 357; fig. 4). A similar pictorial conception informs La Femme au livre, 1924 (Bauquier, no. 365; see lot 43, fig. 2). Léger wrote "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 body. Now I began to put it together again" (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47). Léger went on to mention the "schematic" quality of these figures, but by 1924 his women appear less like amazons in full form-fitting medieval armor plate, and instead their limbs have acquired more softly rounded sectional forms, while retaining the overall effect of burnished metal.
Léger made no distinction between his appreciation and pictorial treatment of inanimate objects, as they appear in his still-lifes of the mid-1920s (see lot 17), and his approach to the female body in the concurrent figure paintings. Léger wrote in 1924: "I consider plastic beauty in general to be completely independent from sentimental, descriptive and imitative values. Every object, picture, architectural work, and ornamental arrangement has an intrinsic value that is strictly absolute, independent of what it represents... The beautiful is everywhere, perhaps more in the arrangement of your saucepans on the white walls of your kitchen than in your eighteenth-century living room or in the official museums" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 52). Léger liked to provoke the public on this point. In 1925 he walked into a lecture hall at the Sorbonne, where he had been asked to speak, holding a package. He unwrapped it to reveal a gas meter, which he set down on a table. "Ladies and gentlemen," he declared to the students present, "this is much more interesting than the Venus de Milo!" (quoted in G. Néret, F. Léger, New York, 1993, p. 138).
L'Esprit nouveau of the Purist movement, as espoused by Amédée Ozenfant and Charles Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), joined with developments in the Weimar Bauhaus and constructivist currents in other European cities to become an international movement during the mid-1920s. The public became familiar with the pared down classicism that had become characteristic of the fine and decorative arts, architecture and design during this period. Léger's still-life object paintings posed little difficulty for viewers, apart from the odd juxtapositions of objects, among which they looked for a thematic unity as subject that was purposely absent from the artist's conception. His treatment of the figure, however, remained beyond the grasp of many, and continued to meet with resistance. To think of the body, especially the beautiful female form, as something off an assembly line, like the hood ornament of an automobile, was difficult to accept. Léger addressed this issue repeatedly in his writings, and for many years afterwards: "As long as the human body is considered a sentimental or expressive value in painting, no new evolution in pictures of people will be possible... If the person, the face, and the human body become objects, the modern artist will be offered considerable freedom. At this moment, it is possible for him to use the law of contrasts, which is the constructive law, with all its breadth... At this moment, to the mind of the modern artist, a cloud, a machine, a tree are elements as interesting as people or faces. So new pictures, important compositions will be made from an entirely different visual angle" (ibid., pp. 132-133). He later wrote "The human figure can now be considered, not for its sentimental value, but solely for its plastic value... The human figure remains purposely inexpressive in the evolution of my work from 1905 until now. I know this very radical concept of the figure as object shocks a great many people, but I can't help it" (ibid., p. 155).
The strong visual impact of Femme sur fond rouge stems from the immediately perceived unity of its assembled limbs, digits, the globe of the breast, the head and neck as if welded in place. The sculptural effect of the figure is very persuasive, especially in contrast to the flat red ground, suggesting a monumental scale that transcends the actual dimensions of the canvas. With further study one can enjoy the ambiguous and even implausible elements in Léger's arrangement of the girl's pose: note the uncomfortable positioning of the thumb on the girl's right hand, the awkward meeting of legs and feet. Most amusing of all is the incorrect placement of the cleft in her buttocks, which should have been behind her and out of sight, but here has been rotated around and transplanted to the upper part of her hip. Such drastic anatomical dislocations would become commonplace in Picasso's later paintings and drawings. Léger painted one more composition of steel-gray and black figures on a red ground, Composition aux trois femmes, 1927 (fig. 5), in which he took great pleasure in creating a welter of interlocking limbs.
Léger's paintings of the early and mid-1920s represent the high noon of the classical impulse in his oeuvre, and are surely his greatest works since his famous Contrastes de formes done before the First World War. The mechanical paintings done at the very beginning of the decade are modern in their brashness and dissonance, and now it was time to show the power of restraint, the serene beauty of dynamic forces held in equilibrium, without sacrificing anything by way of vitality and invention. By the end of the decade Léger's figures would become freer, more flexible, more adaptable to a host of themes, but until the great murals of the artist's final years, rarely quite so grand and awe-inspiring. Christopher Green has written:
"Between 1925 and 1927 Léger produced a series of 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 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).
(fig. 1) Aphrodite Crouching at her Bath, Roman, second century AD. British Museum, London.
BARCODE 2800 1959
(fig. 2) Titian, Venus Anadyomene, 1520. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.
BARCODE 2800 1942
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Femme sur fond rouge, Femme assise, 1927. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.
BARCODE 2800 1881
(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, Les Deux figures, 1923.
BARCODE 2800 1935
(fig. 5) Fernand Léger, Composition aux trois femmes, 1927. Musée d'art moderne, Saint-Étienne.
BARCODE 2800 1928