Léger's most intense and rigorous involvement with the machine as an object for painting occurred in the years following the First World War, during the phase he called his "mechanical period." The artist's experience of front-line service during the war, where he witnessed mechanized killing on a horrendous scale, did not discourage him from returning to the cylindrical, machine-like elements that he had introduced into his paintings before 1914. He saw the war as an irrefutable sign that society had broken with old values and that he was witnessing the advent of a new and genuinely modern reality. When Léger resumed painting towards the end of the war, he was poised to counter the increasingly escapist classicism of the wartime Paris avant-garde with his own message of new subject matter represented in a dissonant and dynamic pictorial language.
Léger painted La roue rouge (Composition à la roue I) in 1920 at the height of his mechanical period. He had recently completed his series of La Ville and Les Disques paintings. He wrote in 1923 acknowledging that he had been "criticized severely for having tackled the mechanical element as a plastic possibility." He responded, "I am eager to put things in focus," and declared in no uncertain terms: "In accord with the individual's plastic purpose, in accord with the artist's need for the real element, I think that the mechanical element is extremely advisable for anyone who seeks fullness and intensity in a work of art" (in "Notes on Contemporary Plastic Life," in E. F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger, Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 24).
The artist had reached a crossroads in his work around this time. He had begun to re-introduce figures into some of his canvases, very tentatively at first; they seem alien within the brave new world of their mechanical surroundings, and appear formally overwhelmed by the geometry of these compositions. In other works, such as the present La roue rouge, Léger remained focused on the guiding principle in his work since the great pre-war series of Contrastes de formes, 1913-1914 (see lot 43), which he reiterated in the 1923 article: "I organize the opposition of contrasting values, lines, and curves. I oppose curves to straight lines, flat surfaces to molded forms, pure local colors to nuances of gray. These initial plastic forms are either superimposed on objective elements or not, it makes no difference to me. There is only the question of variety" (quoted in ibid., p. 25).
In the La Ville series Léger had superimposed on the city the curvilinear forms of certain mechanical objects, the propeller, the rotary engine and gears--that is, basic wheel forms--in order to disrupt and contrast the right-angled geometrical grid of urban architecture. He extolled the circle per se in the Les Disques paintings; these circular forms have as their antecedents the cones and cylinders in the Contrastes de formes. In the cities they take the form of loudspeakers, the gears in factory machinery, the wheels of automobiles and traffic signs. Léger now defined his purpose anew--he aimed for "Clear, true, impartial judgement, the creation of works that will last, an art related to its setting, away from extremes. The appearance of cities--geometric, horizontal, vertical. The concept of color as an external value belonging to architecture. To make a city sculptural, lively, to permeate and illuminate it with colors. To comprehend the whole in a beneficial and social spirit. To divert people from their enormous and often arduous exertions, to envelope them in a vividly new and decisive manner to make them live" (quoted in D. Kosinski, ed., Fernand Léger 1911-1924: The Rhythm of Modern Life, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Basel, 1994, p. 69).
Léger utilized partial wheel shapes in the two versions of L'aviateur, 1920 (Bauquier, nos. 205 [fig. 1] and 206). A disk shape became a lady's mirror in the 1920 series of paintings La femme au miroir (B., nos. 217-221) and Les femmes a la toilette (B., nos. 222-224; fig. 2). The metamorphosis of this pictorial form from one object into another, in one series to the next, indicates the unexpected and extraordinary degree of flexibility that Léger discovered in the basic circular shape, which in its perfect and self-contained form is normally inert when used in a pictorial context. Turned slightly in space, where it becomes somewhat oblong, or divided into component radial sections, however, a circular shape allows for more varied possibilities, especially when contrasted with the straight vertical and horizontal elements of the cubist grid.
Léger manipulates these compositional possibilities in La roue rouge to excellent effect. Here the wheel is actually a section of a rotary-shaped and flanged mechanical object, which as such assumes a fan-shape. The alternating bands of dark alizarin red and white emanate like spokes from the center of the object. Mounted on the reverse side is some sort of motor or gearbox. The curvilinear motif is repeated on the left side in another propeller blade-like object. Léger has contrasted these flat shapes against smaller gray and modeled circular forms that appear on either side of the wheel mechanism; these are familiar from Léger's prewar paintings as puffs of smoke, and indeed they rise from a smoker's pipe seen at lower left. The setting is probably a factory, in which a machinist has seen set down his lit pipe during a break from his work.
La roue rouge (Composition à la roue I) is, as the title implies, the first in a series of paintings utilizing these elements (B., nos. 229-233). Two of these canvases share the horizontal format seen here (nos. 231 [fig. 3] and 233), while the remaining two are vertical, including La roue rouge (Composition a la roue II) (fig. 4). The red wheel becomes dark blue in two of these versions (nos. 230 and 233). Around this time or shortly thereafter, Léger embarked on a series of Éléments mécaniques (B., nos. 235-240) and subsequently, by way of contrast both thematically and pictorially, he painted the first of his lounging female nudes, who were to make their grandest appearance in the great Dejeuner canvases of 1921.
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, L'Aviateur, 1er état, 1920. Sold, Christie's London, 25 June 1996, lot 27. BARCODE 25003772
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, La femme à la toilette, 1920. Konstmuseum, Göteborg. BARCODE 25003765
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Composition, 1920. Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth. BARCODE 25003741
(fig. 4 ) Fernand Léger, La roue rouge (Composition à la roue II), 1920. Musée national d'art moderne, Paris. BARCODE 25003758