Painted in 1913, this Contraste de formes, belongs to a series of paintings that changed forever the way we look at art. Across the course of just a few months, in a sequence of some fourteen canvases dedicated to an uninhibited exploration of dynamic contrast, Léger advanced beyond the formal and intellectual daring of Cubism into a visual language that even abandoned the representational concerns of his contemporaries Picasso and Braque. Instead Léger made pure, abstract shapes and colors, hinged on a network of forceful lines, his only subject. Henceforth, Léger believed, with the growing presence of photography and cinema in modern lives, the real value of any work of art must rest in qualities independent of imitation. The Contrastes de formes have long been considered cornerstones of important collections of modern art and thus nearly all examples from the series are today housed in major institutions. The present painting, which was originally acquired from Léger at the end of 1913 by his dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, was bought over sixty years ago from Galerie Rosengart in Lucerne. It has remained in the same family’s possession since then.
The years 1910-1914, those immediately preceding the outbreak of the First World War, marked the ascendancy of cubism as the unrivaled impetus in progressive modern painting. The culmination of collective artistic activity came with the second Section d’Or exhibition in a gallery on the rue de la Boétie in October 1912, assembled by the Puteaux group which centered around the brothers Duchamp and Villon. Including more than 200 works by 30 artists—the Duchamp brothers, Léger, Gleizes, Metzinger, Picabia, Gris, Kupka and Archipenko—the exhibition, in its diversity, was intended to demonstrate the strength, maturity and potential of the Cubist movement. In fact, it became clear that the young artists who took up the cubist banner had less in common than at first met the eye, so that one might wonder if it were a coherent movement at all.
However it was important to present at least the impression of solidarity to the public and especially to the popular press, which continued to mock and deride the efforts of these young artists. In December 1912 Gleizes and Metzinger published their Du Cubisme, the first tract to explain the goals of the movement. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s Les peintres cubistes: Méditations ésthetiques, largely cobbled together from his recent reviews, followed in March 1913. In it he outlined four major tendencies among the Cubist painters, and if his categories seem from our point of view today to be vague and generally unsatisfactory, his attempt demonstrated the difficulty of tracking this volatile movement in which new ideas flew fast and furious. The Puteaux group was already splintering into various factions, and even more significantly, its founding members were now declaring their independence altogether, as they pursued newer and more experimental goals.
In the inaugural February 1912 issue of the review Soirées de Paris, published months before the Section d’Or exhibition, the acutely observant Apollinaire drew attention to a new set of issues that were preoccupying a handful of painters: the significance of the subject and the development of pure painting. Cubism had opened the gates to alternative visual realities, and pure painting was now the new frontier. Apollinaire wrote:
Verisimilitude no longer has any importance, for the artist sacrifices everything to the composition of his picture. The subject no longer counts, or if it counts, counts for very little. An entirely new art is thus being evolved, an art that will be to painting, as painting has hitherto been envisaged, what music is to literature. It will be pure painting, just as music is pure literature (“On the Subject in Modern Painting”, reprinted in L.C. Breunig, Apollinaire on Art, Boston, 2001, p. 197).
Gleizes and Metzinger, whose agenda was somewhat less radical, wrote in Du Cubisme:
The painting should imitate nothing and should nakedly present its raison d’être... Nevertheless, let us admit that reminiscences of natural forms cannot be absolutely banished; as yet, at all events.An art cannot be raised all at once to the level of pure effusion (quoted in R.L. Herbert, ed., Modern Artists on Art, Engelwood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1964, p. 7).
Apollinaire had witnessed the subject dissolve and become nearly indecipherable amid the subdivided planar structures that characterized the Cubist compositions of his friends Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, during what is now referred to as their “high analytical” phase of 1911-1912. Apollinaire championed their work above all others, and was quick to remind his readers that they were the true founders of the Cubist movement, a fact that was not apparent to most, because Picasso and Braque did not show in the Salons and their work could only be seen in Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s gallery. Apollinaire also closely followed the work of Robert Delaunay, who in the summer of 1912 was about to undertake pure painting in his Fenêtres series. Delaunay did not show that fall with the Section d’Or, whose weekly meetings he had regularly attended, and chose instead to exhibit these radical works at the Galerie Sturm in Berlin early the following year. Apollinaire wrote the introduction to the catalogue exhibition and attended the show. The paintings of Kupka, who tried to establish himself as the elder statesman of the Puteaux group, were filled with a cosmic imagery that evokes a music of the spheres, in forms that he said “lie between the visible and that which can be heard” (quoted in D. Cooper, The Cubist Epoch, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1970, p. 114). In Munich, Wassily Kandinsky was also pursuing a visual music, intentionally disguising his imagery, reducing them to mere traces, and giving little idea of their source. In 1912 he wrote “the abstract life of objective forms that have been reduced to a minimum—hence the noticeable predominance of abstract elements—reveals in the surest way the inner sound of the picture.” (“On the Question of Form”, K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, ed., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 244). The Dutchman Piet Mondrian, working mainly in Paris during this time, painted his progressively abstract series of trees in 1912-1913 (Apollinaire complimented one shown in the 1913 Salon des Indépendents), his abstract Compositions in 1913- 1914, ocean series and church façades in 1914-1915.
In declaring the advent of pure painting Apollinaire also had in mind the works of another artist he deeply admired, Léger, whom he described as “one of the gifted artists of his generation. He is a painter, a simple painter, and I rejoice in his simplicity and in the solidity of his judgment” (from “Les Peintres Cubistes”, in H.C. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 243). Apollinaire did not delve into the difficult and complex questions that Léger faced in his art during this time, for in light of these Léger could hardly be called a “simple” painter—Apollinaire was probably referring to the bold and logical solutions this artist brought to pictorial problems. Indeed, the work of Léger during 1912-1914 provides an illuminating and perhaps the most revealing case history in the push towards pure or non-representational painting in France during this deliriously innovative and intellectual period, and the subsequent return to the subject in the months preceding the mobilization for war.
It is most helpful that Léger authored two lectures on these topics, which were delivered at the Académie Marie Wassilief, an art school in Paris whose students were mostly Russian. The first was given in May 1913 and published the following month in the review Montjoie!. Léger presented the second lecture in June 1914; it was printed soon after in Les soirées de Paris. Together they provide fascinating insights into the ideas of a profoundly thoughtful, ground-breaking painter, as he tried to give verbal expression to the visual problems that he faced in the studio. They are reprinted in E.F. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting by Fernand Léger, New York, 1973, the edition cited in this essay.
Léger sought to counter the increasing impact of Italian Futurism, whose attraction stemmed from its use of modern, cosmopolitan subjects, treated in motion, and similar tendencies among fellow Section d’Or artists, as seen in Marcel Duchamp’s Nu descendant un escalier, no. 2, which was painted in early 1912 and included the Section d’Or show in October. Léger wished to replace their illusory dynamism with a true pictorial dynamism. At the same time he also wished to move beyond the influence of Cézanne, whose work had made an overwhelming impression on him when he saw the master’s memorial retrospective at the 1907 Salon d’Automne. Léger shared with Cézanne an interest in static subjects and a constructive means of composition, but now felt that the accelerating pulse of modern living required a newer, more radical approach in order to embody these new sensations.
Léger’s La femme en bleu, painted in mid-1912 and shown at the Salon d’Automne that year (Bauquier, no. 39; Kunstmuseum, Basel), was his answer to these issues. He took a stable subject—as in a Cézanne portrait, but unlike that which a Futurist would treat—and invested it with extreme formal contrasts: flatly colored planes opposing modeled tubular, conical and cylindrical forms. He not only visualized his subject as the “cylinder, the cone, the sphere,” as Cézanne had once advised in a letter to Emile Bernard (J. Rewald, ed., Paul Cézanne Letters, New York, 1995, p. 301), he painted it as such. “[Cézanne’s] grip was so strong,” Léger recalled in 1954, “that to get free of it I had to go as far as abstraction” (quoted in C. Green, op. cit., p. 52). The result was a composition that did not render the illusion of motion in the Futurist manner, but was expressive and dynamic through its own invented pictorial forms.
At this stage Léger was on the verge of pure painting—only vestiges of the subject remained—and in early 1913 he took the plunge with his Contrastes de formes, the series that occupied him for the remainder of the year and into 1914. He delivered his first Académie Wassilief lecture at this critical juncture. He stated that pictorial realism—by which he meant the absolute integrity of the picture as object in and of itself, and not as the representation of something else—was the “simultaneous ordering of three plastic components: Lines, Forms and Colors” (cited in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 4). He went on to declare, “From now on, everything can converge toward an intense realism obtained by purely dynamic means. Pictorial contrasts used in their purest sense (complementary colors, lines, and forms) are hence the structural basis of modern pictures” (ibid., p. 7).
In his Contrastes de formes, Léger utilized simple geometric volumes composed of cylinders and planar elements which he rendered into multiple forms by means of line and color. He fabricated a shifting, tumbling surface in which these forms combine to suggest volume; shapes simultaneously appear to jut out of the picture plane or recede into it. All of the component lines, forms and colors are actively and equally engaged as they play off each other to create a jostling, rhythmic composition. At first glance these surfaces display a helter-skelter appearance; however, there is a visual logic based on the simple aspect of his chosen component forms. In the second Académie Wassilief lecture, prepared as Léger was bringing this series of paintings to a close, he wrote, “Composition takes precedence over all else; to obtain their maximum expressiveness lines, forms, and colors must be employed with the utmost logic. It is the logical spirit that will achieve the greatest result” (ibid., pp. 14-15).
The contrasts in these compositions are on one level “retinal”, that is, we view juxtapositions and oppositions in the lines, shapes and colors. On another level the contrasts are conceptual as well, and confront the viewer as contradictory ideas. Léger underscores the traditional opposition of line and color—each is kept separate from the other—they simultaneously oppose and interact to create form. The forms in their startling profusion appear to suggest volume and depth, with one form placed in front of another, yet, in the absence of conventional modeling, the surface looks flat, especially when one examines local sections. While the artist may contradict flatness, he will neither completely affirm nor deny it. Léger delights in setting up a series of dialectical visual arguments, in which he disallows any possibility of resolution. Léger’s aim is to create “contrast = dissonance, and hence a maximum expressive effect” (ibid., p. 16). This dissonance, like strident harmonies or outright discord in a musical composition, keeps us on the edge of our seats, and is certainly Léger’s intention. One wonders if he had heard the pounding rhythms and clashing sonorities of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, whose Paris premiere on 29 May 1913 (three weeks after Léger’s first lecture) caused a riot. The event became a rallying point for the Paris avant-garde.
This is pure painting seen in its most exciting form, bursting with visual and intellectual ideas. These pictures are more dynamic than Delaunay’s contemporary Formes circulaires and Première disque, which aimed for harmony and equilibrium. Léger’s Contrastes are more outwardly logical and physically assertive than the non-objective paintings of Kandinsky and Kupka, which instead evoke an internal, spiritual center. Picasso and Braque did not care to theorize and argue in the way that Léger did in his lectures, and of course, in their paintings, they never let the subject slip so dangerously from view.
In Léger’s Contrastes the subject has virtually disappeared, in keeping with Apollinaire’s prediction. The prevailing use of vertical figure formats and the tendency of the largest cylindrical forms to congregate around a central vertical armature may seem to imply a figure subject, as seen in the earlier La femme en bleu. However, the painting that led into this series was Paysage of 1913 (Bauquier 41; ex-coll. Douglas Cooper). As Christopher Green has pointed out, Léger took landscape elements and reworked them in a way that is related to figural treatment, especially in his use of the limb–or torso–like cylinder, to arrive at the basic, rounded forms he required. “In the last analysis it becomes clear that the Contrastes de formes as a body were indeed the result of the progressive metamorphosis of landscape ideas, a process which led ultimately to pictorial results so far from their origins and so free of any representational limitation, that they achieved purity” (op. cit., pp. 67-68).
Christopher Green provides an excellent description of Léger’s working technique at the time. “Léger first primes them in grey, the primer having that roughcast quality, accentuated by rough handling...Then the linear movement and the shaping of the volumes are established in black with long and decisive strokes of the loaded brush, their execution obviously accomplished at speed and almost all in a single session. Shape gives volume, but the grey surface remains dead without colour and Léger himself described the next stage: ‘Only when I’d really got the volume, as I wanted it, did I begin to put in the colours. But that was hard. How many canvases were destroyed...’ The frequent superimposition at their edges of colour patches over outlines makes it clear that in these paintings colour was indeed a response to the preliminary stimulus of outline, its application following as a separate stage in the process of execution. Red, yellow, blue and violet are literally scrubbed on with the brush, the colours taken straight from the tube, and then finally, when they are nearly dry, the highlights are added to give the paintings a completely solid, mechanical and dissonant presence...He seldom changes colour decisions and, without hesitation, scrubs over lines considered irrelevant to the final effect. His technique is simple, without room for vacillation, and much of the force of these paintings is the result of its simplicity. It leads invariably to the clear separation of line from colour patch so that, not only is the entire picture surface animated by the movement of volumes, but every surface contains its own arsenal of contrasts out of which it is built.” (op. cit., pp. 25, 90).
In his 18 March 1913 review of the Salon des Indépendants, Apollinaire proudly touted the work of the Orphist painters, the name he bestowed on Léger, Delaunay, Duchamp and Picabia. Derived from the ancient Greek cult commemorating the poet-musician Orpheus, this appellation—very characteristically the invention of a poet—was intended to underscore the fact that theirs “is the art of painting new structures out of elements which have not been borrowed from the visual sphere, but have been created entirely by the artist himself, and been endowed by him with fullness of reality” (from “Les Peintres Cubistes” in H.C. Chipp, ed., op. cit., 1968, p. 228). However, pure painting was only partly in evidence at the Salon d’Indépendants that spring. Delaunay’s contribution was his L’équippe de Cardiff, 3e représentation (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris), which contained easily recognizable subject matter—football players, the Eiffel Tower, a ferris wheel and flying machine. He painted it in early 1913 following the pure, chromatic lyricism of the Fenêtres series. He turned again to pure painting in his Formes circulaires and Disque later that year, but representational elements reappeared in his Hommage à Blériot and related works in 1914.
Léger showed his Modèle nu dans l’atelier, painted in 1912-1913 (Bauquier 40; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). Léger’s name was for some reason omitted from the catalogue, and in his Montjoie! review Apollinaire mistakenly commented that Léger withheld this work, “because he thought he had not attained the goals he was pursuing” (quoted in L.C. Breunig, op. cit., 2001, p. 291). Perhaps he was thinking of Léger’s Contrastes, then in their earliest stages. In any case, Léger did not exhibit any of his most advanced examples of pure painting in the Salons before the war. In October 1913, while in the midst of working on the Contrastes, Léger signed an exclusive three-year contract with Kahnweiler, who would buy up his new paintings when they were ready, and exhibit and re-sell them as he thought best. Kahnweiler did not put on one-man shows and never allowed a picture to be seen in the Paris salons, preferring to send the paintings for inclusion in group exhibitions outside of the country. He had similar arrangements with Picasso, Braque, Derain and Gris. Delaunay favored showing his recent work in Germany, where it was widely acclaimed by Franz Marc, August Macke and other progressive artists. In fact, pure painting was in greater evidence in Berlin than it was in Paris; Apollinaire called the the Herbstsalon at Galerie Sturm in September 1913 the first “Orphic Salon”. The only show in Paris that year dedicated to pure painting was of works by the Americans Morgan Russell and Stanton MacDonald Wright, who closely allied themselves to developments in Delaunay’s work, at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. Despite Apollinaire’s exhortations, a Parisian had remarkably little opportunity to see pure painting in the capital of the art world.
The contract with Kahnweiler provided Léger welcome financial security; his mother, who saw to it that the document was properly notarized, exclaimed “Fernand is going to earn his living!” (quoted in P. Assouline, An Artful Life: A Biography of D.H. Kahnweiler, New York, 1990, p. 101). The agreement also served as a shield protecting the artist from the taunts and vitriol of the press. By avoiding exposure in the salons Léger need not be concerned with the general public and press response to his most radical works. If cubism was still a hard nut for them to crack, it is unlikely that they would have approved of paintings without a subject or any trace of recognizable imagery. Picasso and Braque had used this strategy to their advantage; it enabled them to experiment as they saw fit, and their reputations grew and spread by word of mouth among Kahnweiler’s carefully cultivated clientele, whose opinions and patronage were those that really mattered.
While the Contrastes were under way, Léger had to wonder where it would take him and what the next step would be. The rarified air of pure painting was hard to breathe for very long. Painting that fed off its own plastic means only, without new external input, would perforce become repetitive and formulaic. Kandinsky, Kupka and later Mondrian in their painting sought an inner spiritual world apart from the material world, and their idealistic agendas sustained the development of non-representational painting as a permanent approach. Léger, however, Apollinaire had noted, was “not a mystic”. And in the spring of 1913 Apollinaire had noticed something new in the air. He had seen Delaunay’s aforementioned L’équippe de Cardiff. “By the Indépendants of 1913 a definite return to modern poetic imagery was observable in Parisian avant-garde painting. Albert Gleizes’ Joueurs de football [Varichon 404; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.] was another pointer to this trend, and it led Apollinaire to declare in Montjoie! the return of the subject in painting. Almost before pure painting had begun, the reaction against it set in, allied to a Futuristically simultaneous emphasis on the ‘new beauty’—the modern world” (C. Green, op, cit., p. 80). There was also an increasing emphasis on memory, dream and mental processes, as in the work of Duchamp and Picabia, and among representational artists such as Marc Chagall and Giorgio de Chirico. Purely plastic concepts were now of less concern.