In 1935 a coalition of leftist and centrist parties, organized labor and intellectuals formed the Front Populaire, with the goal of countering the rise of fascism in Europe. Fernand Léger pledged his support in an article published on Bastille Day in the periodical Monde: "This July 14, 1935, will mark a date in the social and national rectification of France. We are coming out of a gray and confused time" (quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 138). In the previous year Léger had joined the Communist-led Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (AEAR), which brought together artists working in diverse modern styles. Léger's work was controversial; he persisted in the promulgation of his machine aesthetic, meeting with protests from those who had adopted a social realist position and believed that the celebration of the machine in an abstract idiom was capitalist and anti-proletarian. Léger argued that social revolution would pave the way for workers to control their destiny in the machine age and foster appreciation of advanced modernist styles. The emergence of the Front Populaire represented, for Léger, the advent of this new social consciousness.
The Front Populaire controlled the French government from May 1936 to April 1938, and during this time the state acquired its first paintings by Léger. The artist actively sought government patronage and undertook a series of mural projects in Paris that espoused the Front Populaire agenda and reflected the exhilarating but short-lived surge of social optimism during this period. In 1937 in Paris, Léger painted Le Transport des forces for the Palais de la Découverte, Le Syndicalism ouvrier for the Hall d'Honneur of the Pavilion de la Solidarité, and Travailler, a combination of photomontage and painting, was installed in the Pavilion des Temps Nouveaux at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne.
Despite the prominence of both organic and machine-derived abstracted imagery in Léger's murals and easel paintings during this period, the landmark work, indeed the one that sums up the artist's many diverse achievements during this decade, is a figure painting Composition aux deux perroquets (1935-1939; Bauquier, no. 881; coll. Musée national d'art moderne, Paris). The canvas is immense, measuring more than thirteen feet wide. To embody the buoyant spirit of the times Léger chose four acrobats, a man (very likely a surrogate for the artist) and three nude or partly clad women. The latter probably allude to the three graces in ancient mythology, the attendants of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who are usually depicted nude in late representations. They spread civility and joy among the peoples of the earth, and to emphasize the artist's earthly concerns, Léger has sunk the abstract vertical forms of the fence posts into the ground at the base of the composition.
The present work is a large study for Composition aux deux perroquets. All four figures are present, as are the fence posts and the clothing draped over it, with the large blue cloud in the background. Only the two parrots have yet to be put in place. The female acrobat at upper right would eventually shed her multicolored leotard, to be clad only in her underpants.
In Composition aux deux perroquets Léger created a prototype for the pictorial ideas that would take precedence in his art for the remainder of his career and see fruition in his great postwar compositions. Visual contrasts and pure colors would interact on a huge scale, and his subjects would be life-affirming and vigorous participants in a new "outdoors" reality. Léger wrote to a friend in 1939, "We have all achieved a reality, an indoor reality--but there is perhaps another one possible, more outdoors. The new thing in this type of big picture is an intensity ten times greater than its predecessors. We can get this intensity by the application of contrasts--of pure tones and groupings of form. That is the solution for the big picture" (quoted in ibid., p. 145).