In 1947-1950 Léger returned to one of his favorite subjects, the circus, to execute a series of color lithographs, which Tériade's Les Editions Verve published as the folio Cirque in 1950. The artist then began to make studies in preparation for two large compositions titled La Grande Parade, the second, definitive version of which he completed in 1954, the year before his death (fig. 1). He intended his circus mural to summarize the themes of men and women at leisure, existing in a joyous state of freedom and play, that had preoccupied him since his Les plongeurs series in the early 1940s. La Grande Parade refers not to events in the ring under the big top, but to the customary show put on by the performers outside that was intended to draw in customers from the street. Léger described such a scene in his text accompanying the Cirque lithographs:
Furious music suddenly erupts and overwhelms the noises of the crowd. The collective march moves toward a goal: the circus parade. It begins. The gate money is tied to this parade, so it is persuasive and dynamic. The instruments are making as much noise as they can. All this hullabaloo is projected from a raised platform. It hits you right in the face, right in the chest. It's like a magic spell. Behind, beside, in front, appearing and disappearing--faces, limbs, dancers, clowns, scarlet throats, pink legs and that music associated with the glare of the spotlights that sweeps over the whole, aggressive bunch, that makes all those white faces with staring eyes approach, become caught, and climb the steps that lead them to the ticket booth. 'Hand us the cash!' They keep coming in and always will. They scramble in until the tent is ready to burst. People are turned away. The parade has won (reprinted in F. Léger, The Functions of Painting, New York, pp. 175-176).
Léger made over seventy paintings, gouaches and ink drawings for the two versions of La Grande Parade. The artist rendered the present study following the completion of the first state of the mural in 1952 (coll. Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris), in which color had been applied locally, within the outlines of the figures and their outdoor setting with sky and clouds. Léger retained a similar configuration of elements in this study, with various adjustments--he added, for instance, the clown at far right, having taken out a male acrobat seated at lower right in the earlier painting. Most importantly, Léger removed all local color, and in its place substituted broad swatches of pure, non-descriptive color, as seen in the final version of the mural. He banished the blue sky and clouds; Léger's circus people now existed on the wall of the room itself. This was in keeping with his latest ideas of mural painting as "conceived in conjunction with architecture." He wrote in an article published in Galerie Maeght's magazine Derrière la Miroir in 1952:
Let us leave the colored walls, let us imagine interiors in free colors in order to avoid the word "abstract," which is wrong. Color is true, realistic, emotional in itself without having to tie itself closely to a sky, a tree, a flower. It has intrinsic value, like a musical symphony. I believe that the acceptance of these large mural decorations in free color, which is possible very soon, could destroy the cheerless soberness of certain buildings: stations, large public spaces and factories. Why not? (reprinted in ibid., pp. 179-180)
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, La Grande Parade (état définitif), 1954. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. BARCODE 23659414