In 1950, Fernand Léger painted Composition, having been commissioned to paint it by his friend, the celebrated Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. Aalto and Léger had first met in Athens in 1933 during the Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne. There, Léger lectured on 'L'architecture devant la vie' ('Architecture before life'), a subject close to Aalto's heart. An enthusiastic correspondence ensued, fuelled by Aalto and Léger's mutual interest in art's role in architecture. This even led to Aalto organizing Léger's joint exhibition with Alexander Calder in Helsinki in 1937. Only a year after they had met, Léger was already trying hard to find some common project for them to work upon, demanding of Aalto, 'Are you planning a small bistro which I could decorate? Or perhaps a cinema? I would love to work with you. If not, I will come over and decorate your hat. Fernand L.' (Léger, postcard to Alvar Aalto, 1934). In his writings Léger, a great advocate of art for the environment of the proletariat, cited Aalto's work on several occasions, being particularly impressed by the Finn's idea of giving workers brightly coloured rooms in the apartments he had made:
'A dozen years ago, the architect Aalto had some important commissions, and I went to spend two months there with him, where he built modern apartments for engineers and workers. He thought about the problem of walls of color. What happened when the engineers or workers found *hemselves among those walls of color?… the influence of color and l*ght affected them; their clothing was better cared for. Aalto was en*husiastic, and he said, "All in all, the people aren't bad"' (Lger, 1954, 'Color in Architecture', pp.183-88, reproduced in F. Lé*er, Functions of Painting, ed. E.F. Fry, London, 1973, p.187).
This morale of workers through art, as well as the lengths Léger was willing to go to collaborate with the Finn. In many ways, theirs was a relationship of balancing contrasts - Léger was an architect or engineer in a painter's vocation and Aalto, the opposite. Although Aalto had originally wished to become an artist, parental pressure meant that he had sought a more 'acceptable' career in the arts. Throughout the various architectural styles he espoused, art was in some manner always at their core, as can be seen in the example of the workers' apartments Léger so admired. Where Léger often seemed to mechanise humanity in his art, Aalto sought to do the opposite in architecture and design by humanizing the mechanical. Indeed, it was shortly after Léger met Aalto that the human elements began to repopulate the Frenchman's work on a large scale, not least in his master series, Les constructeurs. Although Composition is not monumental in its scale, it is an important example of Léger's civic art. Commissioned to hang in the Säynätsalo town hall in Finland, Composition is packed with colour and vitality, showing the two men's shared interest in colour and environment. This building, one of Aalto's masterpieces of design, was to be the municipal centre for an expanding community on the island of Säynätsalo, largely dominated by a factory. The council was dominated by the Communist party, a fact that apparently appealed to Léger and in itself seems to have spawned the commission. Aalto had visited Paris during the period of the design and construction of the Säynätsalo town hall, and Composition was probably commissioned there by Aalto in person when the two old friends were reunited.
Regrettably, the council at Säynätsalo and Aalto had a misunderstanding regarding a nominal fee to Léger, and Aalto, to avoid any insult to his friend, paid this sum and kept the painting himself. However, the council evidently liked the painting enough that they placed a copy in the niche Aalto had specially designed for it in the town hall's main chamber, thus paying a curious tribute to both the architect's and the artist's intentions.