Filled with its swirling, chaotic forms, L'araignée bleue, painted in 1938, is a colourful and whimsical work that shows Léger both revelling in painting, and the influence of the Surrealist movement on his art. Although Léger was never affiliated with the Surrealists, he had contact and indeed friendships with many of the movement's members. Indeed, a photograph exists taken in New York in the early 1940s which shows many of the Surrealists in exile, and amongst them is Léger himself (fig. 1). It was only really through their indirect influence that Léger's art during the 1930s had begun to show an increasing disregard for 'reality'. The Rappel à l'ordre that had followed the chaos of the First World War had marked his work for a long time, and had brought him to think of the machine as the salvation of the modern world, as the ultimate vision of the future. However, by 1938, when L'araignée bleue was painted, this call to order had long lost its momentum, not least with Léger.
Laeger reacted to this change in several different ways, and this is shown in the various paths that his art was taking during this period. On the one hand, he created paintings that were open, that showed everyday scenes in his trademark fashion and which were expressly painted to be understood by everyone, not merely critics, connoisseurs and intellectuals. On the other hand, he also began to explore new senses of form, of colour and importantly of dynamism with a new freedom. The composition of L'araignée bleue shows this, with its exuberant explosion of planes, lines and forms. It is a work packed with rhythm and energy. However, as it is not a literal scene, showing instead an almost abstract conglomeration of shapes, it fits into an expanding group of works that Léger was executing with the 'educated' viewer in mind. This was apparent, for instance, in the decorations he was commissioned to create for Nelson Rockefeller's apartment in New York, which featured a similar, largely abstract visual idiom that earlier had had no place in Léger's work.
While the above dynamism is not particularly Surreal, but instead shows the experimentation of an artist who had always been preoccupied with movement in his work, the amorphous creature that seems to be making its way across the canvas, and through the forms, appears reminiscent of some of the strange entities that peopled the paintings of Max Ernst and other Surrealists. Despite the title, it appears to have little to do with spiders, even to the point of having too many legs. Despite this being one of a series of works showing L'araignée, Léger was not interested in the creature's precise classification, but instead in capriciously creating a creature of the mind. In the same way that his imagination has produced this vibrant bustle of forms, it has produced an image of life to match it.
Aside from the influence of the Surrealists, the creature can be seen as a reflection of Léger's artistic researches of the period in a much more literal sense: from a merely compositional point of view, this animal adds to the sense of movement of the work, as its tentacles swirl throughout it, linking the various forms and evoking a sense of motion. The series of Araignées should therefore be seen in the context of Léger's great series, be it the Contraste des formes or the cityscapes with the smoke snaking upwards, with the artist energetically exploring the various different facets and means of producing an image that gives the impression of pure life and movement. Indeed, while the creature featured in only a select group of works, the exploration of forms and planes that distinguishes the background remained present in his work for some time, still apparent in, for instance, his Compositions or Grand nature morte of 1939 (fig. 3). Interestingly, these new experiments in the dynamism of his art bore results which manifested themselves throughout his oeuvre. Léger was able to take successful elements from one type of work and incorporate them in another, hence the increasing number of figurative works that he came to paint which had strange, jazzy backgrounds of abstract forms which, although they added a sense of musicality to the works, were nonetheless not an extension of the visual world around him.
The association of this picture with the Surrealists was not limited to the image itself, but to the poem that features on it. It is a testimony to the surreal and fantastical quality of this painting that Paul Eluard, one of the most prominent Surrealist poets, chose to write an autograph poem in one of the white areas of L'araignée bleue. It reads:
'Mange ta faim
Entre dans cet oeuf
Où le plâtre s'abat
[Eat your hunger
Enter this egg
Where the plaster crashes down.']
This Surreal poem has a carefree sense of wit. Its sense of nonsense and whimsy appear in accord with the nature of the picture itself. Although there is a sense of fragility and even chaos in the idea of this 'crashing plaster' that appears in keeping with the tensions in the world as it hurtled headlong towards war, the poem in fact is filled, like L'araignée bleue, with charm and fantasy.