Throughout his career Fernand Léger moved between near abstraction and updated conventions of traditional figuration and his greatest works reflect a synthesis of these two tendencies. Beginning as early as the 1930s when in exile in America, Léger explored the compositional juxtaposition of two opposing forms - flat geometric shapes set against organic forms.
Speaking of his work at this time, Léger commented, 'I dispersed my objects in space and kept them all together while at the same time making them radiate out from the surface of the picture. A tricky interplay of harmonies and rhythms made up of background and surface colours, guidelines, distances and oppositions' (quoted in W. Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, New York, 1976, p. 132).
It was during this time, and in contrast to the period after the First World War, that Léger came to accept that man rapidly loses control over the machine, or rather that the system ultimately dominates man the farther one is distanced from the forces of nature. So it was that, during the end of his stay in America in the mid- to late 40s, Léger made efforts to return to the countryside. He discovered an abandoned farm at Rouses Point, near the Canadian border, and began to incorporate images of found objects into his paintings, such as, in the present work, discarded farm implements, broken wagon wheels and barbed wire.
In Composition au couteau the elements appear to have been spontaneously assembled and informally arranged. The sheer profusion of objects and the artist's deft handling of perspective are brought together harmoniously through the use of a careful architectural line, contrasting forms and volumes and the balance of colour harmonies.