Léger predicted in 1913 that the art of the future would “converge toward an intense realism obtained by purely dynamic means. Pictorial contrasts used in their purest sense–complementary colors, lines and forms–are henceforth the structural basis of modern pictures” (“The Origins of Painting,” in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 7). The laws of contrast constituted Léger’s guiding principle in the ground-breaking modernism he practiced throughout his career, from the radically abstract Contraste de formes he painted on the eve of the First World War, down to his final crowning achievement, Le grande parade, 1954 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). Contrasts ring out loud and clear in Le vase noir, 1938, painted as Léger was about to embark in 1938 on his third trip to New York. This composition contains elements that the artist would soon put to further use in the important commission which had occasioned this journey–he had been chosen to decorate the apartment of Nelson A. Rockefeller, Jr., a leading American advocate of modern art, and at that time, a trustee and the treasurer of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
“The most colossal spectacle in the world,” Léger had called New York, writing of his first stay in the United States during September-December 1931. “Mechanical life is at its apogee here... American life is a succession of adventures optimistically pushed as far as they will go” (“New York”, in ibid., pp. 84 and 86). He was back in the United States during the period September 1936-March 1937 for his first American retrospective exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, which then traveled to Chicago and Milwaukee. The Chicago collector Chester Dale commissioned Léger to paint his wife, and the artist collaborated with American colleagues on a Works Progress Administration mural for the French Line pier in New York, which was ultimately abandoned. Before returning to France he viewed the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, in which he was showing five paintings, again at The Museum of Modern Art.
Still-life canvases accounted for most of Léger’s easel production during the mid- and late 1930s. Le vase noir belongs to a series of these works which additionally employ one or two figures, standing or seated at a table on which the still-life elements have been arranged (Bauquier, nos. 999-1006). The artist’s busy travel itinerary probably accounts for the relatively small number of other figure compositions that Léger painted during the late 1930s, in comparison with previous years. There were, however, two such major works that consumed much of his time and effort, both executed as murals on a monumental scale: Adam et Ève, and the even more ambitious Composition aux deux perroquets, his magnum opus of the decade, both of which he worked on between 1935 and 1939 (Bauquier, nos. 880 and 881, respectively).
Together with his students and studio assistants, Léger created during the next several years a series of large decorative murals for public places: Accompagnement d’architecture (in collaboration with Gleizes and Survage); Le Syndicalisme ouvrier for the Hall d’Honneur of the Pavillon de la Solidarité, to celebrate French social unity; and Le Transport des forces (Power Transmission), for the Palais de la Découverte at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques, Paris, in 1937. For this same exhibition, he devised–in collaboration with Charlotte Perriand, an architect and designer–Travailler, a mural which combined painting and photomontage, celebrating the modern worker.
This new public mural style, fundamentally flat in form and in space, arose from Léger’s involvement during the mid-1930s with the left-wing Front Populaire, France’s democratic alternative to German Nazism and Italian fascism. Art must transform itself, he believed, by keeping pace–by means of what he called “The New Realism”–with the accelerating spread of modernity in all fields of endeavor, “to compete with the daily allurements of the movies, radio, large scale photography and advertising.” Leger proclaimed, “Free the masses of people, give them the possibility of thinking, of seeing, of self-cultivation–that is all we ask; they will then be in a position to enjoy to the utmost the plastic novelties which modern art has to offer... The working class has a right to all this” (“The New Realism Goes On,” 1937, in ibid., pp. 115 and 116).
The concurrent emphasis that Léger placed on still-life subjects in his smaller easel paintings–such as the present Le vase noir–had a significant role in Léger’s larger socio-aesthetical agenda. He employed such compositions as vehicles by which he could test and verify the effectiveness of various formal means. His aim was the development of a strikingly novel, but still decorative approach to the modern presentation of objects, whether assembled from nature, the commercial sphere, or the latest technology. He cut loose these chosen objects–as seen here, the vase, its floral and leafy contents–from the formal strictures of conventional spatial arrangement, and allowed them to float freely but inter-connectedly in space. He employed identical formal means in treating both figures and objects. “One understands that everything is of equal interest, that the human face or the human body is of no weightier plastic interest than a tree, a plant, a piece of rock, or a pile of rope,” he stated. “It is enough to compose a picture with these objects, being careful to choose those that may best create a composition” (in ibid., p. 111). He intended that this method of composition should apply to all his work, from easel paintings in all sizes and formats to in- and outdoor murals executed on a monumental scale.
Léger’s recent work had drawn the attention of the New York architect Wallace K. Harrison, who had been involved in planning Rockefeller Center and recently redesigned Nelson A. Rockefeller’s Fifth Avenue apartment. He proposed that Léger submit a proposal for decorating the walls, which Rockefeller approved in early September 1938. Léger arrived on the S.S. Île-de-France two weeks later, and by the end of the year he completed, painting in situ, a sequence of abstract murals that adorn the walls of a circular staircase linking the two floors of the Rockefeller residence. He then proceeded in early 1939 to paint a decorative wall piece which surmounted the fireplace in Rockefeller’s sitting room, situated across from the Matisse mural La Poésie, 1938. Delighted with the results, Léger’s enthusiastic patron commissioned the artist in early 1939 to provide a roof design for Hawes House, his country home in Pocantico, upstate New York, a building that was completed later that year. Before returning to France in early March, Léger created the maquette for a mural, later executed by workers, to adorn the Consolidated Edison Building, which Harrison had designed for the 1939/1940 New York World’s Fair.
Complementing the grand scale of Léger’s major projects of 1938-1939, the easel-size still-life canvases demonstrate Léger’s program for the New Realism translated into a more intimate scale for the domestic environment. Le vase noir is a lively, sprawling, but harmoniously unified composition of objects and a figure projected as lines, forms and colors, consistent with Léger’s long-held fundamental principles of construction: “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,” the artist declared, as he sought to “apply the law of contrasts” towards the realization of a “state of plastically organized intensity” (“Notes on Contemporary Plastic Life,” 1923, in ibid., p. 25).
[A] Fernand Léger, Nature morte au melon, 1937. Sold, Christie’s, New York, 2 November 2011, lot 327.
[B] Fernand Léger, Grande nature morte, 1938-1939. Sold, Christie’s, New York, 6 May 2014, lot 30.
[C] Léger’s murals for the stairwell of Nelson A. Rockefeller’s apartment, New York, 1938. The Rockefeller Archive Center.
[D] Léger with his fireplace mural for Nelson A. Rockefeller’s apartment, New York, 1938-1939. Archives Georges Bauquier.