This scene might be that found in any album of family photographs: two sisters, perhaps twins, or just friends, stand side-by-side for a birthday photograph, holding flowers in celebration of the occasion. It is important to note the snapshot appearance of many of Léger's late figure compositions, in which the participants seem to randomly congregate, casually pose and simply gaze toward the viewer, as if the latter were pointing a camera at them. During the years following the end of the Second World War, easy-to-use, inexpensive handheld cameras were mass-produced and widely sold, making an amateur photographer out of anyone who acquired one of the new machines. Since the 1930s Léger had been striving to create a popular art that would communicate clearly and effectively among large numbers of people he believed would be receptive to art, but had few opportunities to enjoy it. Even if Léger has cast this picture the modern syntax of his late mural style, L'Anniversaire is a universally communicative and engaging painting. Peter de Francia has written:
"In the last decade of his working life Léger was completely absorbed in endeavouring to create a language in which a balance could be established between familiar imagery, an architectural function of painting, and themes stressing the permanence of man. The problem was an extraordinarily difficult one. The figures in his paintings could easily have become the equivalent of cult images. Léger avoided this by making them innately approachable. Intensity of reality is achieved by the contrast of prosaic objects with pictorial artifice... Léger's paintings are exorcized of mystery. Formalized elements, used sparingly, invalidate any tendency to interpret figuration in terms of naturalism... Each element is completely predictable and readable" (Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 228).
Léger had no wish to remind his viewers of Cold War crises and the growing threat of nuclear annihilation. There would not be in his art any suggestion of existentialist angst or any call for deep philosophical reflection on events or issues of the day. Instead he would provide a simple, soothing balm for the anxious public, by placing his art in the wider context of human history, in which humankind seemed blest with the capacity to endure and carry on, while maintaining fundamental values. Léger trusted to his instinct for optimism. To this end he reached back, as many modern artists have done, to the mythic and classical foundations of human culture. Léger declared: "It is the great order of antiquity that I wished to see reappear" (quoted in Y. Brunhammer, Fernand Léger: The Monumental Art, Paris, 2005, p. 147). The two women in L'Anniversaire may be celebrating a youthful birthday, or, by way of allegory, one that marks a progression in years that began long before, going back several millennia. Entwined with flowers, and with limbs like tendrils, the two young women in L'Anniversaire are Léger's contemporary, popularized embodiment of female vegetation and fertility myths drawn from humankind's deepest past. Léger wrote:
"We are experiencing space more than ever before. Man is growing and expanding in all directions; there's a competition to escape and leave behind all earthly constraints, to flee what is solid and concrete. A nervous mobility is taking over the world. Everything is moving and escaping from traditional constraints... And yet, we want to go backwards, too see life run in reverse, like a movie: all the traditional sanctuaries and safe havens return, the lights are extinguished, the hierarchies and inexplicable mysteries are reestablished, and we once again find respect for the great natural forces. The birds will always be marvelously dressed in color, progress is a meaningless word, and a cow that nourishes the world will always move at three kilometers an hour" (quoted in G. Néret, F. Léger, New York, 1993, p. 238).
This image of woman as a modern Demeter or Flora, resembling goddesses from antiquity who might be found on a classic Attic vase, is a late development in Léger's characterization of the feminine image during the post-war period. During the 1940s, while Léger was spending his wartime exile in the United States, young women featured in his paintings as active participants in outdoor sports, as bicyclists and swimmers, or as acrobats in the circus. They dedicated their leisure time to healthy pursuits, and projected an athletically active version of the female goddess, the contemporary equivalent of Artemis the huntress. In 1948, several years after his return to France, Léger painted Les Trois Soeurs (Bauquier, no. 1289) in which the three female visages, viewed close-up, becomes a symbolic image of well-being and beneficence, the Three Graces of antiquity come alive for today, or taking the role of Marianne, the female avatar of the French nation. In two portraits of women that followed, the sitters hold flowers (Bauquier, nos. 1291 and 1292). Thereafter, Léger's female portrait subjects, singly or in pairs, are usually seen bearing flowers or have been posed in close proximity to floral motifs (Bauquier, no. 1359; fig. 1). This conception of woman as Flora actually has a much earlier antecedent in Léger's oeuvre. In 1924 he painted a series of canvases culminating in La Lecture (Bauquier, no. 367; Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), which shows one of the pair of women standing and holding flowers. Two of the related pictures show a similar figure before a brilliant red ground (Bauquier, nos. 364 and 365; the latter, fig. 2).
Similar treatment of the feminine image may be observed in the work of other major artists in France during the postwar period. The most iconic image of this kind is the portrait that Picasso painted of his new companion Françoise Gilot, titled La Femme-fleur and completed 5 May 1946 (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 167 [fig. 3]). Picasso began this painting as a realistic portrait of a seated woman, but Picasso began to elongate the forms, which became increasingly plant-like. As Françoise later recalled, the artist told her when he finished it, "You're like a growing plant and I've been wondering how I could get across the idea that you belong to the vegetable kingdom rather than the animal. I've never felt impelled to portray anyone else this way. It's strange, isn't it? I think it's just right, though. It represents you" (in Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 119).
Since the mid-1930s Matisse had been painting women in interiors that were almost always adorned with vases of flowers and large houseplants (fig. 4), especially the artist's favorite philodendra, whose fanlike leaves became an important motif in his paper cut-outs. Chagall's depictions of his beloved wife Bella, before and after her death in 1944, invariably include great bouquets of flowers, which sometimes dwarf the figures in the composition. For Léger and his colleagues, flowers were far more than a sentimental and decorative pictorial accessory that could easily be tossed in the mix to enliven a painting. During and after the war, floral symbolism was a significant means of stating a belief in the capacity of the human body and spirit to regenerate and replenish itself amid devastation on a previously inconceivable scale. The gods of war had for too long dominated men's thoughts and guided their actions. Now the goddesses of peace, fertility and abundance would restore order, heal the wounds, and provide a model for universal harmony and balance. This is the cause for celebration in Léger's L'Anniversaire, couched in emblematic terms that viewers at the time were unlikely to overlook.
L'Anniversaire manifests Léger's late mural style, his preoccupation with the "architectural function of painting," as Peter de Francia has stated above. The most novel element in this approach is the way in which Léger broke up the wall through his use of bands and swatches of pure color forms, which may conform to or run independent of contour lines. The repeated use of green in this picture underscores the vegetable aspect of Léger's pair of women. The straightforward use of blue, white and red--the French tricolor--also points to the allegorical dimension in this canvas, as a paean to his native land, even if the artist would argue that he was simply using objects, including the figure as object,"not for its sentimental value," he declared, "but solely for its plastic value. Léger wrote:
"The plastic life, the picture, is made up of harmonious relationships among volumes, lines and colors. These are the three forces that must govern works of art. If, in organizing these three essential elements harmoniously, one finds that objects, elements of reality, can enter into the composition, it may be better and may give the work more richness. But they must be subordinated to the three essential elements mentioned above... Sometimes these relationships are merely decorative when they are abstract. But if objects figure in the composition--free objects with a genuine plastic value--pictures result that have as much variety and profundity as any with an imitative subject" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Paintings, New York, 1973, pp. 155, 168 and 169).
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, La Femme au vase rouge, 1950. Private collection.
BARCODE 2724 9314
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, La Femme au livre, 1924. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
BARCODE 2724 9307
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, La Femme-fleur (Françoise), 1946. Private collection.
BARCODE 2724 9819
(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, La Musique (Le Guitariste), Nice, 1939. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
BARCODE 2724 9703