The year 1920 marks an important turning point in Léger's work. In the immediate post-war period, he had remained true to the brash, anti-order convictions of his earlier years, rendering scenes of modern urban life in a fragmented and dynamic way. In 1920, under mounting pressure from Ozenfant, Le Corbusier, and other members of the Parisian avant-garde to classicize his art, Léger began to create calmer and more rigorously ordered compositions, depicting monumental figures within a stable architecture of flat planes. By 1921, he had produced his first major statement of this new formal order, Le grand déjeuner (Museum of Modern Art, New York). The present canvas is part of a series of women at their toilette from early 1920, among the final pictures that Léger would make in the cacophonous, simultaneist style of his first mature period (see also lot 41). Far removed from the conspicuous structural stability of Le grand déjeuner, the Femme au miroir pictures are distinguished instead by their insistent fragmentation of the human form and their collapsed and ambiguous space. At the same time, their intimate subject matter heralds the impending shift in Léger's art, making the pictures linchpins in this period of vital transition.
The present canvas is one of the largest and most fully worked of the Femme au miroir series (Bauquier nos. 217-224; figs. 1-2), and one of only two examples to feature a pair of figures instead of just one. The painting depicts two women seated behind a dressing-table, the edges of which can be discerned in the foreground and at the right. Two oval mirrors with decorative pedestals are positioned on the table, and two lipsticks can be seen in the foreground. The face of the figure at the left is partially visible, along with her bright green sleeve and yellow wrist, while the second figure is identifiable only from her raised left hand. The overlapping planes and fragmented forms of the picture are resolutely incoherent; as one critic has declared, "Elements are incorporated into a structure of disparate objects, willfully juxtaposed to induce the maximum shock of incredulity" (P. de Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 50). Christopher Green has provided a detailed analysis of the painting's intentionally bewildering structure:
"Léger's subject here is...perfectly geared to his destructively ambiguous intentions. Enough legible features are left to announce the essentials of the subject...but these features are dispersed as merely partial clues in a loose disintegrated array of color planes, bars, metallic elements, and indeed, the fragmentary use of such clearly recognizable features...simply serve to intensify the effect of figurative disintegration--of destruction... Léger works in terms of both flat contrasting planes and modeled elements, using the staccato effects of interruption developed during the previous two years to create a stylistically disunited result. In all three versions [of Femme au miroir] the wholeness of the figure is challenged dramatically by the stylistic contradictions out of which it is built: the hair is both a series of corrugations and a dark, sweeping metallic surface, the right arm is a cylinder while the left is an overlapping pair of color planes. Not even pictorially can the figure be read as a coherent, interlocking structure, and in the comprehensiveness of its disintegration is conveyed continuing rejection of stylistic unity altogether" (C. Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, pp. 195-197).
Yet if the pictorial language of Femme au miroir is wholly in keeping with Léger's previous work, the subject matter represents a striking break. His paintings of the immediate post-war period largely depict the mechanized cityscape and urban spectacle of modern Paris -- a man's world, so to speak. In 1921, by contrast, Léger turned inward, focusing on the female figure in a private, domestic setting. His later pictures are also notable for their self-conscious allusions to art historical tradition, Le grand déjeuner, for instance, drawing heavily on Venus, odalisque, and harem iconography. Likewise, the theme of the woman looking in the mirror has a long tradition in western art, from Renaissance portraits like Titian's Lady at her Toilet (Musée du Louvre, Paris) to Manet's celebrated Nana (Kunsthalle, Hamburg) and Degas's numerous images of women dressing their hair. Indeed, Léger would return to the theme in 1925, this time rendering it with almost mathematical precision and clarity (Bauquier nos. 427-430). Discussing the present series in light of Léger's earlier subject matter, Werner Schmalenbach has written:
The woman is dominated by the objects and the geometrizing forms. Her head, barely distinguished by an eye on a yellow background, is half hidden by the looking glass... The 'womanly' implements on the dressing table speak the language of Léger's mechanical elements, and the table itself might just as well be a joiner's bench. There is not the slightest concession to femininity. Even the peeping eye, focused on the mirror, carries no trace of the seductive coquetry of the innumerable representations of women with fans that fill the history of art. This charade does not conceal a womanly secret. Léger resists the charm of the subject for the sake of the object quality of the forms and colors--in a word, of the picture. The human figure is made of the same material as all the other elements, both figurative and abstract; it is not a lot more alive than the objects and forms that surround it. The hair and body are segments of a circle; the face is a rectangle; the arms are cylinders... Geometry alone defines the character of the picture (W. Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, New York, 1976, frontispiece).
(fig. 1)Fernand Léger, La femme au miroir, 1920.
Moderna Museet, Stockholm.
(fig. 2)Fernand Léger, La femme à la toilette, 1920.