Nature morte was painted in 1927 and perfectly demonstrates the incredible, searing quality of vision that characterised Fernand Léger's pictures during this fertile and important period. This picture dates from the phase when he was still clearly influenced by the Purism espoused by Le Corbusier and Amedée Ozenfant - his involvement with the aesthetic had even led to his founding the Académie de l'Art Moderne with the latter artist in 1924. At the same time, it reveals the increasing influence of cinema on Léger's work, and in particular of the close-up, a factor that had led the artist to look at objects in an entirely new way. In Nature morte, this is clear both in the zooming in on the objects in question - the fish, the classical head and what appears to be an angle ruler - and also in the juxtaposition of these disparate items. This recalls both the revelatory power of Léger's 1924 film, the Ballet mécanique, and also the increasing influence of Surrealism and the legacy of Giorgio de Chirico's Pittura metafisica.
Looking at Nature morte in terms of de Chirico is enlightening in its own right. Only two years after Léger painted this still life, de Chirico created his Natura morta, now in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome. That picture also comprised fish and a classical bust, yet the effect in each is bracingly different. Both artists appear to have been responding, in their own ways, to the search for the classical that had come about in relation to the Rappel à l'ordre which had swept across so much of the avant garde in the wake of the chaos and carnage of the First World War, but the reactions are wholly different. Where de Chirico has opted for his deliberate timelessness, for the Stimmung or mysterious and poetic atmosphere that he espoused in many of his pictures, Léger has created a bracingly modern image. Even the fish has an Art Deco feel, with the red-and-white checker of its scales, an echo of the chessboard that had featured in several recent still life compositions; meanwhile the ruler in the middle serves to introduce the notion of blueprints and architecture. At the same time, it adds a dynamism to the composition, serving as a chevron, an arrow pointing across the canvas. The crisp outline and patterning of the fish and the central composition, filled with its ladder-like progression of regular lines, is contrasted with the more organic form of the bust to the right. This is shown as a nimbus-like organic agglomeration of forms, which represent the hair of the person modelled, yet which also echo the bunch of grapes that Léger placed in a similar, although inverted, position in two other pictures of the same year, which, apart from the reflection and that substitution, featured almost exactly the same composition.
In this way, Léger has managed to bring his gaze and his own unique perspective to the objects in question. This was an increasing preoccupation for him in his pictures of this period. Influenced in part by his experiences in film-making and also by various other factors, he had begun to look at life as though through a microscope, becoming aware of its beauty in a new way. Relating this new means of viewing the world to his favourite authors Balzac and Dostoyevsky, Léger explained that his interest in them was because of their use of a proto-cinematic "close-up" on certain details which thrust them into a new light. Similarly, he explained that cinema involved,
'moving toward personification through enlarged detail, the individualisation of the fragment, where the drama begins, is set, and stirs. The cinema competes with life in this way. The hand is an object with multiple, changeable meanings. Before I saw it in the cinema, I did not know what a hand was! The object by itself is capable of becoming something absolute, moving, and dramatic' (F. Léger, quoted in Functions of Painting, ed., E.F. Fry, London, 1973, p. 65).
It is this mysterious transformation into the absolute, the moving and the dramatic that takes place in Nature morte.
For Léger, this focus on a few objects provided an intriguing bridge between the art of the ancients and the modern experience, a factor which increased its validity. On the one hand, explaining his disdain for the artists of the Italian Renaissance following his travels through that country, he stated:
'All the great ages have striven for the vertical arrangement of the isolated object to obtain a decorative or plastic value.
'This is the framework of the seventh-century mosaics, of the popular engravings of the twelfth and fourteenth centuries.
'With the Italian Renaissance the taste for the subject drove out the taste for the object and destroyed style' (Léger, ibid., p. 79).
Thus Nature morte appears anchored in a means of presentation that is linked to the mosaics at Ravenna and their intense, iconic imagery. At the same time, Léger found a similar quality at play within the context of commerce and of the street, the perfect arena for contemporary life. 'Economic pressure has brought the merchant to his knees before his merchandise,' Léger propounded.
'He has discovered it; he has perceived that his objects have beauty. One fine day, he put a shoe or a leg of lamb on display in his shop window, getting a perspective. His taste and imagination did the rest. A style was born, very contemporary - a revolution made without drum or trumpet. Then the store can be considered one of the fine arts, for it is majestically dressed by a thousand hands that daily make and remake the modern stores' pretty scenery. The billboard is no longer a match for them' (Léger, ibid., pp. 78-79).
At the same time, it was not only the impetus of commercial economics, but also of post-war economics that had led to this focus on individual objects, especially the things that formerly would have been overlooked. 'Every object has become valuable in itself. There is no more waste,' Léger declared, explaining that this had brought about an apotheosis for the humbler items in life. 'A nail, a stub of candle, a shoelace can cost a man's life or a regiment's. In contemporary life, if one looks twice, and this is an admirable thing to do, there is no longer anything of negligible value. Everything counts, everything competes, and the scale of ordinary and conventional values is overturned' (Léger, ibid., p. 65).
It is a mark of Léger's success in capturing the contemporary world that Nature morte was one of the pictures to pass through the hands of Paul Rosenberg, rather than his older brother Léonce, who had championed the Purists as well as Léger himself at his Galerie de l'Effort Moderne. It was precisely in 1927 that Paul Rosenberg, who had successfully wooed other artists away from the stables of his own brother and of Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, began buying works by Léger in significant quantities. This picture was later owned by Stanley N. Barbee, who, with his twin brother, ran the Coca Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles. The Art Deco credentials of Nature morte appear in keeping with Barbee's own taste. Indeed, the iconic and celebrated Coca Cola building that he commissioned in Los Angeles' Central Avenue from architect Robert V. Derrah in the early 1930s is a distinctly Léger-like vision, an Art Deco imitation of a cruise liner running along the street. Barbee was also a great collector and a fierce advocate of the arts; in 1951, he was one of the signatories of a letter of protest against the local government of Los Angeles when they had begun to interfere in exhibitions of contemporary art, claiming that it concealed Communist leanings and meanings. Barbee and several others were significant voices in refuting these claims.