This painting is an outstanding example of one of the key compositions from the middle of Léger's career. He painted two variations of this composition in 1936 and seven in 1937; and its fundamental contrast of biomorphic and anthropomorphic shapes was a major concern of the painter in a number of his most important projects of the 1930s, including La baigneuse of 1931 (Bauquier, no. 762; Private Collection), Composition aux deux perroquets of 1935-1939 (fig. 1), and Adam et Eve of 1935-1939 (Bauquier, no. 880; Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf). The contrast of the human and the bioplasmic first appears in Léger's work in Femme et fleur of 1926 (fig. 2), but it does not become a predominant theme until the 1930s, with La baigneuse. The present work belongs to Léger's most abstract series founded on this contrast, and it anticipates the artist's development over the next decade. As Peter de Francia has commented:
For Léger 1937 was an extraordinarily prolific year... He was beginning to paint in a way that was to continue till the mid-1940's: wide, part-landscape paintings in which heavy polychromed elements appear to float free, intertwined with tree roots and wispy tendrils. (P. de Francia, op. cit., p. 187)
So abstract are the forms in the present painting that their representational basis is not immediately apparent. In fact, it only becomes fully evident upon examination of other paintings in the series, especially Composition of 1937 (fig. 3). Léger also executed a preliminary study for the present work entitled Fleur et poupée (Bauquier, no. 962; Private Collection), and two inverted variants of the composition, one called Les deux poupées (Bauquier, no. 964; Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris) and the other called Composition aux trois profiles (Bauquier, no. 965; Private Collection). Of all Léger's investigations of this composition, the present is by far the largest. At 72¾ x 98½ inches, it is nearly four times bigger in area than the next largest versions, which measure 35 x 51½ inches. Indubitably, the present work is Léger's most monumental and perfected interpretation of the composition. In scale it approaches his Adam et Eve (89 x 128¼ inches), and like that picture, it is evidence of the artist's ambition in the late 1930s to become a public artist of grand stature. In his essays of the mid- to late-1930s, Léger wrote several times of his desire to make paintings that had the scope and importance of mural paintings in the Renaissance, and in 1937, the year of the present picture, he executed two enormous murals, including Le transport des forces for the Palais de la Découverte at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris. In 1938, he wrote:
Murals turned out to be one of the very new aspects of the 1937 Exposition. Modern painters, who have all produced easel pictures over the last years, are invited to tackle the problem of the mural. (F. Léger, Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 121)
The evolution of the present painting's composition can be plotted over the course of many projects, beginning with Femme et fleur in 1926 (fig. 2). The next step was Composition aux deux profils, no. 1 in 1933 (Bauquier, no. 832; Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire), in which one finds for the first time the contrast of a pair of simply rendered heads and a large biomorphic shape with radiating arms. (One should also consider Compostition aux deux profils (Bauquier, no. 855; Private Collection), the first version in a horizontal rather than vertical format.) The next stage was reached with Les deux femmes au vase bleu of 1935 (Bauquier, no. 878; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille), which is by far the most representational of all versions of this theme. Significantly, it was made the same year that Léger began Composition aux deux perroquets (fig. 1) and Adam et Eve (Bauquier, no. 880; Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf). In 1936, Léger returned to an abstract design with La fleur polychrome (Bauquier, no. 891; Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris). His fascination with the composition intensified in 1937, a highly productive year in which he made seven variations of the painting. The present painting--and the other versions from that year--have an unprecedented complexity of form, exuberance of movement and brilliance of color.
Variations on the biomorphic shape at the right are featured in a number of Léger's works in the 1930s, especially after 1935. To judge from the titles of these works, it can be interpreted variously as a butterfly, a star or a flower. It is ultimately rooted in the forms of Léger's Hommage à la danse of 1926 (Bauquier, no. 468; Collection Adrien Maeght, Paris), and it also recalls the keys which appear in several of his paintings from circa 1930, including La joconde aux clés (Bauquier, no. 712; Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot).
In the 1930s, the painter was attempting to create a new artistic language appropriate to the expression of the reality of modern day life. This pictorial language would not aim for perfect mimetic reproduction but instead for an abstraction inspired by nature and imagination. Léger compared this creativity with the inventiveness and mutability of spoken language. In a 1937 essay entitled "The New Realism Goes On," Léger wrote:
All down the ages, the people have gone on inventing their language, which is their own form of realism. This language is unbelieveably rich in substance. Slang is the finest and most vital poetry that there is... This verbal form represents an alliance of realism and imaginative transposition; it is a new realism, perpetually in movement. (F. Léger, op.cit., p. 118)
The vibrance and exuberance of the palette is a striking feature of the present work; and it is worth noting that in the same essay, Léger wrote:
Color brings joy... It is an elemental force, as indispensable to life as water and fire. It may exalt the impulse to action to an infinite degree; it may well stand up to the laud-speaker, being of the same stature as the latter. There are no limits to its use, from the slightest shading to a dazzling burst. (Ibid., p. 117)
Dore Ashton has written about the present painting:
It has the breadth and simplicity of the muralist's conception. The canvas ground left mostly untouched is likened to a wall. The repeated petal, calyx and leaf shapes are aligned on the wall in varying degrees of abstraction. Color is allocated according to weight and intensity... [Léger] was then formulating his idea of what he came to call nouveau réalisme, which was based on this suggestion of real objects dispersed in abstract terms. The leaf, the rope and root and vegetal forms were symbols that appear throughout his paintings for the rest of his life. The "realism" Léger envisioned was not based on the identity of the object, but on the "objectness" of the object... This picture is a clear prototype of much that has succeeded it. (D. Ashton, op.cit., pp. 8-9)
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Composition aux deux perroquets, 1935-1939
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Femme et fleur, 1926
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Composition, 1937