Élément de barrière et cordage fond jaune was painted during a time of great upheaval in Léger's art. His purist, geometric aesthetic had reached its culmination only a short while previously when his work had achieved a sublime balance of form and colour that was based on the integral beauty of an isolated object. Now, however, Léger began to use the forms in his paintings to disrupt and unbalance the harmony that he had strived for so fiercely.
Although Léger had largely turned his back on the geometry and order that represented his visual expression of purism, he continued to employ both real objects and images of abstraction together in his pictorial vocabulary as evidenced here in Élément de barrière et cordage, fond jaune. The present work is one half of a larger painting completed two years earlier, Composition aux trois figures of 1932 (Centre Georges Pompidou). In the larger work, the fence and rope elements together with the steely black tendril are reproduced on the right hand side of the canvas beside a group of three female figures. The object/abstract group and the figural group are out of proportion to one another, emphasising their separation, but for the shared smoky wisps in the background. Composition aux trois figures was the first Léger work purchased by the French state in 1936. A version showing only the figural group of the left part exists in the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburg.
These object-based but semi-abstract paintings, express what Léger called a 'lyricism in which colour, form and object play equal parts', each blending into a new objective unity that Léger hoped would enhance the inherent beauty to be found in the everyday modern world. On a uniform yellow background - a preferred colour of Léger, and one we immediately associate with the artist - each element in Élément de barrière et cordage, fond jaune is given equal status in the carefully studied composition and each element independently contributes an equal importance in the vibrant construction of the whole. As Léger stated: 'In contemporary life if one looks twice, and this is an admirable thing to do, there is no longer anything of negligible value. Everything counts, everything competes and the scale of ordinary, conventional values are overturned' (The Machine Aesthetic II, Paris, 1925).
The propagandist of the 1920s who had attempted almost to impose his utopian vision of order had given way to a softer aesthetic, communicating his perceived beauty of the everyday world through a sensory and sensual explosion of form and colour. 'It is quite useless to make an attempt to force people to be aware of reality by simply showing them a replica of the reality surrounding them since...they are aware of it already. And it is no use claiming that in doing so one is revealing something that they have either failed to notice or remained insensitive to. Painters aren't conjurors. But what is important is to make them aware, through the unexpected things they discover in a painting, which may at first appear new and strange, of the newness of a reality they would like to know - something that could add enormously to their lives' (Léger, quoted in P. de Francia, Fernand Léger, New York & London, 1983, p. 210).