Four years of mechanized warfare during 1914-1918 decimated an entire generation in Europe. As foreign nationals Picasso and Juan Gris were exempt from military service in France, but many among their Montmartre circle served at the front and sacrificed dearly. One can witness the toll in the sad expression that Guillaume Apollinaire, poet and impresario to the pre-war cubist avant-garde, wears in a photograph taken in 1915, showing his grievous head wound still wrapped in bandages, or in the vacant stare in a photograph taken in the same year of Léger's close friend the poet Blaise Cendrars, who had recently lost his right arm in battle. The banquets that Picasso and his friends gave to celebrate Apollinaire's and Braque's demobilizations were on the surface upbeat and raucous affairs, but could not hide the tragedy of their circumstances.
Léger did not share in the jingoism that had greeted the outbreak of the war, but nor did he shirk his duty. While some artists found themselves relatively safe assignments in camouflage units or noncombatant roles, Léger was at first a sapper, was gassed on the Aisne front, and later served as a stretcher-bearer, carrying the bodies of the dead and wounded after the battle of Verdun. Léger was spared from harm in the final year of the war by contracting rheumatism. He was later diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent eleven months in military hospitals before he was finally discharged from the army in 1918.
Léger was occasionally able to draw at the front, and paint when he was on leave and later while convalescing. He remained in touch with recent developments in Paris, which since the beginning of the war had taken a decidedly more conservative direction. The anarchic absurdism of Dada had yet to arrive from neutral Zurich, and the immediate response of many French artists to the chaos and carnage of modern warfare was to seek refuge in a revival of humanism and rationalism. Picasso had reached the point where his synthetic cubism stood at the verge of decoration, and felt the need to refresh and expand his pictorial vocabulary by turning again to the figure and looking to the classical art of Italy and Ingres. He continued to paint cubist pictures, but he and Gris introduced a simpler, crystaline and more classical clarity into their cubist compositions, whose subject was primarily the still-life. Amedée Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (known as Le Corbusier) were in the process of distilling still-life forms even further in anticipation of their "Purist" style. Even Gino Severini, whose early wartime paintings had extolled the dynamism of conflict, abandoned futurism and turned to a more balanced, precise and static form of classical cubism.
It speaks much for Léger's resolve as an artist, and the fortitude and resilience of his personality, that he did not let the horror of his war experiences divert him from the path he had taken before 1914, and he remained committed to employing modern and mechanistic elements to pictorial ends. While maintaining an interest in Picasso's formal developments, Léger was not inclined to escape the realities of modern life by retreating into historical styles and fostering the appealing illusion of a personal classical arcadia. Léger viewed the war as irrefutable proof that society had broken with old values and that he must bear witness to the advent of a new modern reality. He later recounted to his dealer Léonce Rosenberg, "Three years without touching a paintbrush but in contact with reality at its most violent, its most crude, the war made me mature, I'm not afraid to say so" (quoted in C. Green, op. cit., p. 96). In late 1917, when he finally resumed painting, Léger was poised to counter the detached classicism of the wartime Paris avant-garde with his own message of new and entirely modern subject matter, in which he wholeheartedly engaged the world around him, shunning all ambivalence, alienation and resignation. His dissonant, fragmented and dynamic pictorial language, presented without apology or historical sugar-coating, was consistent with his modern subjects, and was proof of the full measure of his commitment. "For most French artists the war was a disruptive experience. Not so for Léger; indeed no other artist of his generation was to extract such positive conclusions from its squalor and horror. These years, when he was living and working with ordinary, working-class men, laid the foundations for his subsequent political commitment; and when he came to condemn much of pre-war work as being too abstract, he meant almost certainly that it was lacking in social content" (J. Golding, op. cit., p. 10).
In December 1917, while convalescing and still officially in uniform, Léger completed La partie de cartes (fig. 1), a tribute to the comraderie that Léger experienced during his time in the trenches. There is neither sentimentality nor brutality in his depiction; there is instead a compassionate objectivity that enabled the artist to see, not without humor, a mechanistic reflex in the men's preoccupation with their game. The soldiers seated around the table are composed of silvery tapered cylinders, basic forms recognizable from earlier paintings such as Le fumeur, 1914 (Bauquier, no. 92), and Le soldat à la pipe , 1916 (Bauquier, no. 100). The painting was all the more striking for its ambitiously large scale, especially when compared to the smaller easel-sized paintings of the later cubists. This painting served as an inaugural manifesto of Léger's post-war aims. During the course of 1918 the artist negotiated a contract with the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, whose gallery had recently taken the name Galerie de l'Effort Moderne. Rosenberg gave Léger his first post-war exhibition in February 1919, accompanied by a poetry reading by Cendrars, and a concert by Erik Satie.
Léger followed La partie des cartes with a series of pictures that heralded the triumph of the machine in modern life, such as Le moteur (fig. 2). Based on the structure of an engine that drives a propeller (either in an airplane or ship), Le moteur is composed of gears, wheels and belts of this mechanism set in a state of heroic, monumental equilibrium. Léger was immediately criticized for his treatment of mechanical elements. In response he wrote, "The situation at the present moment is tragic enough. The artist is 'in competition' with the useful object, which is sometimes beautiful. Or at least fascinating. He must create as well or better. Geometric relationships, volumes, lines, and colored surfaces (airplanes, automobiles, farm machinery, all commercial objects, etc.) can be beautiful; that is absolutely indisputable. We live in a geometric world, it is undeniable, and also in a state of frequent contrasts. I am consistent with my own time, and when all is said and done, the result is what counts. As a method, any way is good" (F. Léger, "Notes on the Mechanical Element," quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting by Fernand Léger, New York, 1973, pp. 29 and 30).
Léger's interest in the figure, even if expressed in partly mechanical forms and barely distinguishable from the architecture of its surroundings, remained central to his vision of modern life. Moreover, while Picasso was growing increasingly preoccupied with the exclusive upper class millieu that dominated the theatrical world in which he now spent much of his time, Léger continued to cultivate an egalitarian and inclusive social outlook. He enjoyed the vitality and diversity of the modern city, which he felt embodied a ringing affirmation of the life-force that was the ultimate antidote to the destruction and negativity of the war years.
In a series of seven paintings done in 1918, including the present work, Léger featured the circus as a symbol of modern spectacle and urban leisure. The artist intended the series to celebrate the end of the war and to mark a return to the enjoyment of ordinary
peacetime entertainments. In taking the circus as his theme, Léger was referring to a popular Parisian tradition that reached back into the late 18th century. And in choosing as his setting the Cirque Médrano (fig. 3), Léger was following the example of a line of great modern painters, including Degas, Renoir, Seurat, and Lautrec, and more recently, Picasso and van Dongen, in whose work the site had become a local shrine for the avant-garde.
The Cirque Médrano opened in 1873 as a travelling circus. At that time it was known as the Cirque Fernando, named after its proprietor Ferdinand Beert (a bareback rider), who built a permanent structure for the troupe in 1875 at the corner of the boulevard Rochechuoart and the avenue des Martyrs in Montmartre. Several years later it was refurbished to attract a better clientele, and within a decade Beert was charging the same price for the house's best seats as the huge upscale Hippodrome near the Champs-Elysées. It was taken over and renamed in 1897 by the clown Médrano, whose family ran it until 1943. Thereafter known as the Cirque de Montmartre, it finally closed in 1963.
In 1879 Degas painted used the newly renovated building as the setting for his Miss Lola au Cirque Fernando (Lemoisne, no. 522). Lautrec was a frequent visitor, and many of his circus scenes depict the Cirque Fernando, including Au Cirque Fernando: Ecuyère, 1887-1888 (Dortu, no. P.312; The Art Institute of Chicago), as well as many prints, and at least some of the masterly drawings in his late series Au cirque, 1899 (Dortu, nos. D.4.522-D.4.560). The most famous work set in the building is Seurat's final masterpiece, Le cirque, 1890-1891 (fig. 4). In 1924 the critic Florent Fels noted that "Seurat is unknown to the general public. But a reproduction of this work Cirque is tacked to the wall of painters' studios all over the world" (quoted in A. Distel, Georges Seurat, exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1991, p. 361).
The paintings in Léger's circus series are heavily indebted to Seurat's, Le cirque; they share with it an interest in integrating the figure within a gridlike architectural setting, and they similarly contrast the movement of curvilinear forms against the static geometry of emphatic vertical and horizontal lines. Both artists juxtapose a random, unpredictable human element - the spontaneous activity of the acrobats and riders - with the timeless rigidity of their settings, and impose upon the figure a mechanical aspect which places it in a larger, timeless, more ordered and rationalistic universe.
The primary impetus for Léger's circus paintings, however, were contemporary developments in the avant-garde and were in fact literary in origin. Léger was interested in the concept of simultaneity, the presentation of multiple and often disparate layers of information, in which time and place were rendered discontinuous, in order to represent the experience of modern urban life. The idea had been expounded in the use of multiple points of view in the cubism of the Puteaux "Section d'Or" group before the war. The concept was revived with the publication of Apollinaire's Calligrammes, his final collection of poems, shortly before his death in 1918, and more significantly for Léger, the publication of poems and prose by his close friend Cendrars, including his war reminescences, J'ai Tué, 1918, for which Léger provided illustrations. Cendrars was also involved in the cinema, and had assisted the film director Abel Gance. He explained to Léger the procedures involved in editing films, including the abrupt cutting of visual sequences and the use of the close-ups.
Léger commenced his series of circus paintings with two "widescreen" views of the big top: Le Cirque Medrano (Esquisse) (Bauquier, no. 108) and Le cirque (fig. 5). He felt that these were perhaps too broadly illustrative, and their unity, bracketed by opposing Delaunay-like color discs, was necessarily somewhat forced. He then turned to a series on the theme of a pair of acrobats (Bauquier, nos. 110, 111 and the present painting), cutting in closely to his subjects and condensing the imagery, but using even larger canvases than in the previous circus overviews. There are also two paintings of clowns (Bauquier, nos. 112 and 114); all of these paintings were completed in 1918. Of the three acrobat compositions the present work is the only version in a vertical format, which concentrates on the figures and emphasizes their activity. Nevertheless, despite their central role in the composition, the figures are fragmented and their forms recede into the surrounding spectacle. Even the faces of the two acrobats are depersonalized, with one merging into the other. Léger wrote:
The 'Big Top' of the New Circus is an absolutely marvelous world. When I am lost in this astonishing metallic planet with its dazzling spotlights and the tiny acrobat who risks his life nightly, I am distracted. In spite of his dangerous game, prescribed by the cruelty of a certain public that has dined well and sends him puffs from their cigars, I forget him. I am looking at the spectacle that is all around him. I no longer see the flushed faces. I am caught up by the strange architecture of colored tent poles, metallic rods, and ropes that cross each other and sway under the effect of the lights (F. Léger, "The Spectacle: Light, Color, Moving Image, Object-Spectacle", quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., p. 40).
(fig. 1) Fernand Léger, La partie de cartes, 1917.
Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo.
(fig. 2) Fernand Léger, Le moteur, 1918.
Christie's New York, 6 November 2001.
(fig. 3) Le Cirque Médrano, Paris, circa 1910.
(fig. 4) Georges Seurat, Le cirque, 1890-1891.
Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 5) Fernand Léger, Le cirque, 1918.
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris.