In his still-life compositions of the mid-1920s, Léger aimed to create a state of virtually absolute equipose that he rarely pursued in later works. The pronounced horizontal bias in Le compotier rouge suggests the quietude and tranquility of a panoramic pastoral landscape, or the contemplative calm of a broad marine vista. Key central motifs--the red compotier, the black-and-white pitcher--appear mirrored on either side of a transverse divide, as if they are reflections in limpid water. While the still-life objects have been cropped and are perceived as fragments of a whole, as if seen in a darting gaze, the rectangular regularity of the architectural elements in the background anchors the composition and serves to reinforce an aspect of absolute stasis and permanence.
It was only a decade earlier, on the eve of the First World War, that the virtical abstracted elements in Léger's now famous contrastes de formes paintings, and just after the war, the kinetic bustle in his mechanical pictures, represented pictorialism in its most extreme form. Indeed, these paintings were virtually unpalatable to viewers and mostly unsaleable as well, notwithstanding the fact that they had their roots in what was by then accepted cubist theory and practice. In the early 1920s, Léger responded by stages to the rappel à l'ordre, the humanistic "call to order" first advocated by Jean Cocteau and quickly taken up by the Paris avant-garde during the post-war period. Léger turned away from the brashly dynamic, mechanical manner of his earlier work, and his paintings began to assume a more calm, balanced, and consciously classical appearance. He remained steadfast to his basic principle of seeking contrasts in forms, but he now pursued these ideas in a different context, in which harmony and order supplanted dissonance. In a 1924 article he published in his dealer Léonce Rosenberg's Bulletin de l'Effort Moderne, Léger advocated "A society without frenzy, calm, ordered, knowing how to live naturally within the Beautiful without exclamation or romanticism. That is where we are going, very simply. It is a religion like any other. I think it is useful and beautiful" (in E. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 47).
These ideas were definitely in the air at the time. Léger was attracted to ideal of order in Le Corbusier's and Ozenfant's theories on Purism--L'Esprit nouveau--and the disciplined balance of pictorial elements in Mondrian's recent Die Stijl paintings, which Léonce Rosenberg exhibited at his Galerie de l'Effort Moderne in 1923. Léger was now convinced that he should strive in his art for the transcendent order and permanence of the classical and humanistic ideals that informed the great and enduring art of the past. He was keen on making his own significant statement, in which he would unite the timeless order of classicism with subjects drawn from everyday modern life, cast in the conventional and accepted genres of figure-painting, still-life and landscape.
The pictorial elements in Léger's earlier mechanical compositions, as well as in the paintings of classicized figures in domestic interiors (fig. 1), while rendered through various contrasts of form, were integrated and brought to order within a fundamentally unified conception of the subject. Léger now turned to another approach, in which he focused on the various aspects of individual objects. The artist wrote, "The subject in painting had already been destroyed, just as avant-garde film had destroyed the story line. I thought that the object, which had been neglected and poorly exploited, was the thing to replace the subject" (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger Drawings and Gouaches, New York, 1973, p. 87).
Léger was drawn to the beauty of the manufactured object, from the most technically advanced airplane engine to the humblest everyday house fitting. In the prosperity that followed the war, consumer goods filled the stores, and were shown off in cleverly graphic advertisements and enticing window displays. The moving image of the film now had mass-appeal. Léger had done work in avant-garde cinema with his friend the poet Blaise Cendrars, who introduced him in 1921 to the famed director Abel Gance. In 1924 Léger collaborated with Dudley Murphy, an American cameraman and film-maker, to produce the film accompaniment to composer George Antheil's Le ballet mécanique. The moving images concentrated on objects, without a scenario. This experience was instrumental to the new approach he took in his painting. Léger wrote, "Contrasting objects, slow and rapid passages, rest and intensity--the whole film was constructed on that. I used the close-up, which is the only cinematic invention. Fragments of objects were also useful; by isolating a thing you give it personality. All this led me to consider the event of objectivity as a very new contemporary value. We are living through the advent of the object that is thrust on us in all those shops that decorate the streets" (from an unpublished article, "Ballet mécanique," circa 1924, in Functions of Painting, p. 50).
Léger placed his objects in a flattened De Stijl-like space, organized in abutting or overlapping rectangular sections, in the manner that he had composed his first large mural pictures done in late 1925 and early 1926 (Bauquier, nos. 436-440; fig. 2). The artist preferred to use a wide format akin to a movie-screen as a backdrop. In the present painting Léger has rendered, in a simplified manner, commonplace objects, none of which would seem out-of-place in a traditional still-life, and completely integrated them within this space. Only the organic shapes of the pears counter the geometry of this environment, and serve as the most visually striking contrast of form within the composition. Various horizontal and vertical wall moldings, creating screen frames within frames, both separate and connect the objects, which through their specific placement each possess equal pictorial weight and significance, as if seen in a cinematic close-up. Christopher Green has observed, "Léger brings together the products of his new cinematic approach to the figurative fragment and the manufactured object, an approach which ensured the survival of the unexpected, the personal in his painting, however stable, however classical it became" (in Léger and the Avant-garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 313).
Le compotier rouge and other still-lifes of the mid-1920s represent the culminating stage in Léger's classicism, a phase that would yield in a few years to new contrasts, cast in new forms, often derived from organic objects, that reflect the growing influence of Surrealism. Green has summed up the stunningly impressive achievement of this period: "The breadth, the confident sense of breathing space that we find in the mural paintings, is carried over into the still-lifes and the object paintings of 1925-1927 [fig. 3]. They bring together all the qualities of his earlier mechanical works; the careful planning, the perfect precision of technique, the clear, standardized pictorial forms, the interest in both variations and repetition, the sense of balance between opposing forces; but they do so with an uncluttered simplicity and a controlled mastery of spatial paradox beyond the range of his earlier work It was now that the common object acquired true monumentality" (in Léger and Purist Paris, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, 1970, pp. 77, 79 and 80).
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, Le trois personnages devant le jardin, 1922. Sold, Christie's New York, 8 November 2006, lot 44. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 24160254
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Peinture murale, 1924. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 25238709
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, Nature morte à la guitare, 1926. Sold, Christie's New York, 2 May 2006, lot 49. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 25238693