There is an easy-going vitality, a love of life and an irrepressibly athletic physicality in Léger's late paintings. Men and women as he depicted them during the 1940s and 1950s possess greater freedom, and are altogether more loose-limbed and elastic than ever before. Occupying a flat, non-descript space–essentially that of the mural wall–and unrestrained by any kind of perspectival system or doctrinaire pictorial structure, modernist or otherwise, the late figures are free to interact with each other in the most casual, freewheeling and unencumbered manner. The four acrobats in this painting tumble and sprawl across the canvas, entwined with each other in rubbery knots of bandy-limbed exuberance. Seen close-up and tightly cropped within the image, as if on a television screen, they give the impression they are about to burst the confines of the rectangular canvas. Having nothing like a solidly muscular body that could actually support anyone else, the acrobats have been given license to defy gravity and all other laws of the physical world. They exist in a cartoon universe where all feats of physical daring are possible. Smiling and waving at the viewer, as if captured in a casual snapshot, they are thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Léger painted Les Quatres acrobates as he was finishing his final masterwork, La Grande parade, état définitif, 1954. These pictures come at the end of a long line of circus scenes that Léger executed throughout his career: le cirque is one of great themes that threads through his oeuvre from start to finish. In a series of seven paintings done in 1918 (Bauquier, no. 113), Léger featured the circus as the epitome of modern spectacle and public entertainment, a most suitable subject to celebrate the end of the First World War and a return to ordinary peacetime leisure pursuits. The scene is the fabled Cirque Médrano in Montmartre, which featured in paintings by Degas, Renoir, Seurat, Lautrec, Picasso, van Dongen, and Chagall. After 1943 the Médrano became known as the Cirque de Montmartre, and continued to serve as an inspiration for Léger's paintings. The artist wrote in 1924: "The 'Big Top' of the New Circus is an absolutely marvelous world. When I am lost in this astonishing metallic planet with its dazzling spotlights and the tiny acrobat who risks his life every night, I am distracted... There are more 'plastic passages' in ten minutes of an acrobatic spectacle than there are in many scenes of ballet" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 39-40).
The five years of exile during the Second World War that Léger spent in New York and traveling around America had been an eye-opening experience. Nevertheless, when he returned to France in December 1945, he was glad to be home. In "Art and the People," an 1946 article published in the journal Arts de France, Léger declared, "I want to tell what I felt in returning to France, the joy I have had in rediscovering my country... I assure you that the people have made a great advance in France. I assure you that a magnificent evolution has come about. Maybe you who stayed here don't feel it. Me, I have faith in France" (quoted in, ibid., pp. 147-148). Like Picasso, Léger joined the French Communist Party. He was a painter with a definite social agenda: "Now more leisure time must be created for workers" (ibid., p. 145). He believed that an essential part of peacetime reconstruction was to bring a sense of enjoyment to the lives of citizens from all walks of life. He had advocated similar ideas in the mid-1930s, during the time of the leftist Front populaire. At that time, he stated, "Let us encourage the people, the clerk, the worker, to liberate themselves. Fight for your leisure, your freedom... Once these freedoms have been acquired, you will be able to cultivate yourselves, to develop your sensibility" (quoted in ibid., p. 130).
The circus represented for Léger the public spectacle par excellence. It was more than a commercial entertainment, it was a genuine art of the people. He closely identified with the circus performer. The acrobat was an artist, just as the modern artist, in his risky avant-garde calling, was no less an acrobat. It was fitting, then, that a male acrobat and his bevy of female partners were the subject of Léger's pivotal pre-war canvas Composition aux deux perroquets, 1935-1939 (Bauquier, no. 881). By the end of the 1920s, the discipline of the cubist grid no longer exercised any constraining effect on Léger's work, and in this huge canvas he established a freely associative alternative to modernist pictorial composition. The acrobatic composition became the prototype that would guide Léger's art for the remainder of his career, and find ultimate fruition in La Grande parade. Strong visual contrasts–in his imagery, forms and color–would henceforth interact on a monumental scale. His figure subjects actively celebrate the pleasures of life, as they participated in a new "outdoors" reality. Léger wrote to a friend in 1939: "We have all achieved a reality, an indoor reality–but there is perhaps another one possible, more outdoors...The new thing in this type of big picture is an intensity ten times greater than its predecessors. We can get this intensity by application of contrasts–pure tones and groupings of form...That is the solution for the big picture" (quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 145).
Léger had been a fan of the spectacular three-ring Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, which, then as now, performed annually in New York's Madison Square Garden. He recalled how "forty aerialists spin more than a hundred feet off the ground" (quoted in E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 173). He painted several circus pictures before departing America (Bauquier, nos. 1205-1207) which presage the Grande Parade compositions of the 1950s, the artist's crowning works. Back in France, the subject of the circus seemed even more compelling to Léger; le cirque represented a grand, popular national tradition and was a stirring source of pride. The old Cirque Médrano was still open; it had been a favorite attraction for Léger and his friends Apollinaire, Cendrars and Max Jacob in 1913-1914 while the artist was working on his famous contrastes de formes, and his circus paintings of the late teens. The circus was an apt symbol of French esprit and joie de vivre, calling attention to the nation's desire to excel in the face of daunting challenges, and to take pride in its skills.
By the beginning of the 1950s the circus theme had come to dominate Léger's art in all its aspects. He executed Le Cirque, his master graphic work, a magnificent folio of 34 color, 29 black-and-white lithographs that Tériade, the first owner of the present work, published in 1950 (Saphire, nos. 44-106). It is a compendium of the artist's circus subjects, past and present, and some of the images would inspire oil paintings to come. Indeed, Plate 67 (p. 42) of Le Cirque shows the essential idea for Les Quatres acrobates: the configuration of the four performers has been laid out here, and their contours largely fixed. It remained for Léger to translate the lithograph drawing into his late mural style. He chose a solid red, for him the color of the dazzling lights of public spectacle or the daytime sun, to function as the wall. Only one figure, the man in yellow and blue, has been mostly colored in; elsewhere Léger uses swathes and spots of solid color to generate rhythmic contrasts and movement within the composition, to inflect and enliven the flatness of the wall. The essay Léger wrote to preface the publication of Le Cirque contains his most excited and inspired prose on a subject that he loved more than any other:
"Go to the circus. Leave your rectangles, your geometric windows, to the country of circles in action. It is so human to break through restraints, to spread out, to grow toward freedom...To escape from the ground, to leave it, to touch the tip as little as possible, the farthest tip. To inhabit upper space means to have wings, an ambition to leap across space in a single bound. What grace is in the assemblage of curves and softened angles. Static and not interfering with the scenery, the dance blends with the colored background. Carefully studied movement, its fixed phases, where a leg prudently returns to the floor after having risked space, lifted at arm's length, the free balancing of two rounded and pleasing limbs, the dynamic aggression of a collective mass that assaults the spectator. Speed, elevation, the instantaneous return to the floor and departure again; that with color, with lighting, with music to support the agile mass of feet, hands and bodies. The speed captures the motionless audience. It is most still when the action is furious. It luxuriates in this rapid, frothy interplay. This is what it came for" (quoted in ibid., pp. 173-174).