"I had broken down the human body, so I set about putting it together again and rediscovering the human face...I wanted a rest, a breathing space. After the dynamism of the mechanical period, I felt the need for the staticity of large figures" (quoted in C. Lachner, exh. cat., Fernand Lger, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 188).
The end of the Great War of 1914-1918 forced artists and writers to rethink their relations to society and their aesthetic expression of it in their works. The pressure for modernity, manifest in the bravado rhetoric of the Cubists and Futurists of the pre-war years, was replaced by a classicism that looked back to traditional forms and subjects. This "rappel l'ordre," in Jean Cocteau's words, is most apparent in Picasso's portraits of mothers with children where the return to naturalistic representation signals a temporary retreat from the modern. Lger, however, was unwilling to withdraw from what he regarded as the heroism of modern life and sought ways to reconcile his aggressive modernity with subjects that bore the unmistakable imprint of Egyptian and classical art.
Lger was drawn in two directions, firstly by the Purism of Amede Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, and secondly by the rigorous modernity of de Stijl. In Purism, where the machine was the dominant motif, everything was made with precision and devoted to a balanced superiority of form and structure. The Purists developed a vocabulary of forms and objects with the intention of producing bonheur, and from this Lger developed his own formal vocabulary. From the de Stijl artists he learned that using spare planar compositions in conjunction with the Purist machine aesthetic could provide an enriched and thoroughly modern picture type. The first exercises in this genre were paintings of the "Typograph" and the "Mechanic"--heroes in a mechanical world. Their distinction between the figure, natural objects, and the planar background dominates the paintings of the early 1920s and lends a solidity to the composition in works such as the present one.
In 1921, Lger changed from depicting primarily male figures to groups of female figures, both naked and clothed, reclining in front of highly stylized backgrounds. The reinstallation of the Poussin and Corot galleries in the Louvre in 1921 has been credited as one possible source for this change in iconography; until then, Lger had used pre-Renaissance art and classical frieze forms as models. Moreover, in 1922 Renoir's late nudes were exhibited at Galerie Durand-Ruel and Lger was forced to consider the potency of the female nude. He wrote in the Bulletin de l'Effort Moderne of the decadence of Renaissance art and the way in which the nude was a "shameless temptation to representation," and in the series of paintings entitled Le petit djeuner, which were precursors to the present work, he constructed the women with a cool impassivity and an extraordinarily deliberate control. Christopher Green wrote of these works:
... the feeling of tradition is the result of elements from the past rather than specific recollections: the cool tonal modeling is both mechanical and David-like, the firm geometry of limbs is both mechanical and Poussin-like and Ingres-like and, naturally, Picasso-like. Like Picasso, Lger mixes the flavors of the past with amazing variety: his tipped up table tops make an all-embracing bow to the still lives found in pre-Renaissance art and there is even something of the flavor of antique Roman mosaics in his heavy nudes, their parts so clearly itemized, set against flat ground planes. (C. Green, "Lger and L'Esprit Nouveau 1912-28," in exh. cat., Lger and Purist Paris, Tate Gallery, London, p. 67)
The present work, which was completed mid-way between the Le grand djeuner (fig. 1) in the Museum of Modern Art, New York and La lecture of 1924 (Bauquier, 1920-1924, no. 367), now in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris combines the elongated nude figure with two clothed women, one of whom holds a bouquet of flowers. This is stylized and was to become a dominant motif in both this and the mechanical element works of the late 1920s. The faces are defined with simple shaded elements and the components of the figures with geometric forms. Lger wrote, "I oppose curves to straight lines, flat surfaces to molded forms, pure local colors to nuances of gray. The initial plastic forms are either superimposed on objective elements or not, it makes no difference to me. There is only a question of variety" (quoted in C. Lanchner, exh. cat., Fernand Lger, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, p.191).
(fig. 1) Fernand Lger, Le grand djeuner, 1921
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
(fig. 2) Fernand Lger, Les deux femmes et la nature morte, 1920
(fig. 3) Fernand Lger, Les femmes au bouquet, 1921
Muse National Fernand Lger, Biot
(fig. 4) Fernand Lger, Trois femmes, 1921
Sale, Christie's, New York, 11 May 1992, lot 29