‘I invent images from machines, as others have made landscapes from their imagination. For me the mechanical element is not a fixed position, an attitude, but a means of conveying a feeling of strength and power’
(Léger, ‘The Machine Aesthetic: Geometric Order and Truth’ in E. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting: Fernand Léger, London, 1973, p. 62)
L’usine or Motif pour le moteur is one of a series of explosive, dynamic and dazzlingly coloured paintings that Fernand Léger painted in 1918 after his discharge from the French army. Among the most important works of Léger’s career, this series of mechanically inspired paintings served as a potent visual manifesto of the artist’s new post-war beliefs and aims as an artist. After serving at the Front for four years, Léger returned to painting with a radically new artistic outlook; leaving behind the non-representational abstraction of his pre-war Contrastes des formes, he embraced modern life in his art, deifying the machine and mechanical elements.
L’usine or Motif pour le moteur was born directly from Léger’s experiences serving in the French army throughout the First World War. Having enlisted in October 1914, for the next four years, Léger served first as a sapper, whose job was to dig down beneath ‘no man’s land’ in order to conduct surprise attacks on the Germans, and subsequently as a stretcher-bearer active in some of the deadliest battles of the war. He witnessed at first hand the immense and brutal power of the machine: the rapid rattle of the machine gun, the rumbling aggression of tanks, and the constant hum of air craft swooping into battle above him. Man too had become a machine, depersonalised and anonymous: another cog in the grinding machine of destruction and death.
This new form of mechanical, technological and industrialised life captivated Léger. The artist found great beauty in the gleaming metallic surfaces of canons and guns, the slick geometry of engines, the smashed debris of a crashed plane, or the thud of munitions being produced in near-by supply factories. More than this, he was also living and fighting side by side with men of all classes; an experience that would influence his social and artistic beliefs for the rest of his life. ‘It was those four years which threw me suddenly into a blinding reality that was entirely new to me… Suddenly I found myself on an equal footing with the whole French people. Posted to the sappers, my new comrades were miners, labourers, artisans who worked in wood or metal. I discovered the people of France. And at the same time I was suddenly stunned by the sight of the open breech of a .75 cannon…confronted with the play of light on white metal. It needed nothing more than this for me to forget the abstract art of 1912-1913’ (Léger, quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., New York, 1998, p. 174). This constant immersion in a mechanical reality awakened and reinforced in Léger the realisation that the machine age had truly begun. The power of technology, he found, was inseparable from modern life, and it is this concept that would underpin his art in the years immediately following his discharge from the army, as exemplified by L’usine or Motif pour le moteur. ‘Three years without touching a paintbrush’, he reminisced to his dealer Léonce Rosenberg later in 1922, ‘but contact with reality at its most violent, its most crude…the war made me mature, I’m not afraid to say so’ (Léger, quoted in C. Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven & London, 1976, p. 96).
It was not until 1918 when he was discharged from the army and hospitalised in Villepinte, before moving to Vernon, that this new outlook made itself felt in Léger’s art. He began painting ubiquitous, quotidian objects that were easily accessible – a stove and a clock for example – as well as an array of industrial and mechanical subjects that were seared in his memory from serving at the Front. Propellers, pistons, motors, and as the present work shows, factories, emerged as the protagonists of Léger’s new, radical form of painting; presented not as literal depictions of these objects, but rather as abstract conceptions of these mechanical elements. As Léger explained, ‘The manufactured object is there, a polychrome absolute, clean and precise, beautiful in itself; and it is the most terrible competition the artist has ever been subjected to. I have never enjoyed copying a machine. I invent images from machines, as others have made landscapes from their imagination. For me the mechanical element is not a fixed position, an attitude, but a means of conveying a feeling of strength and power’ (Léger, ‘The Machine Aesthetic: Geometric Order and Truth’, in E. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting: Fernand Léger, London, 1973, p. 62).
As the title suggests, the subject of L’usine or Motif pour le moteur could be both a faceted fragment of the inner workings of a factory, or relate to another important subject of 1918, Le moteur. Léger painted two other works entitled Dans l’usine (Bauquier, no. 136 & 137), and another work on paper of the same composition now resides in the Musée de Grenoble. The structural compositions of these paintings are almost identical to the present work; the same flat plane with an undulating edge dominates the lower centre of these works, with the metal cylinder meeting it from the top of the canvas serving to split the image into two halves. Some of these same compositional features also feed into Le moteur (Bauquier, no. 138; Sold, Christie’s, New York, 6 November 2001, lot 9, $16,726,000), which is also, like the present work, a composition composed of a complex composite of highly coloured mechanical parts. The elements of these mechanical subjects were mutated and extrapolated, scattered and reconstructed; as Christopher Green has explained, ‘every theme was at every stage open to changes so radical as to create new themes, so that even Le moteur itself could be vandalised, its elements broken apart and rearranged with each other, new elements to create the theme Dans l’usine’ (C. Green, op. cit., p. 148).
Like these closely related works, the various lines and planes of flattened colour that depict the metallic pistons, struts, cogs, wheels and axels of L’usine or Motif pour le moteur seem to be working against each other to create a sense of magnificent force. This small, tightly compacted painting is alive not with a cohesive, functioning rhythm but instead with a sense of pulsating, increasing dynamism as the parts seem to interlock and strain against each other. In this way, this work serves as the very embodiment of the contrast, fragmentation and dissonance that define the work of this radical mechanical period.
L’usine or Motif pour le moteur was presented as a gift from Léger to his friend, the art historian, critic and pioneering figure in the development of Swedish design, Professor Gregor Paulsson. A progressive figure of Modernism in Sweden, Paulsson passionately advocated for modern art – forging close alliances with Léger and Kokoschka – architecture and design, fervently believing that these could have an impact on society. In 1919, he published Better Things for Everyday Life, which served as a manifesto for a new form of industrial beauty in the modern age. In many ways, this belief that art should be integrated into life aligned with Léger’s own beliefs, and so it is no surprise that the pair were close friends. Paulsson was heavily involved in the landmark 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, which served as a celebration of Swedish design and technology, presenting to the public the positive benefits of the Functionalist style that dominated Swedish architecture at this time. It was on this occasion that Léger presented Paulsson with the present work.