Philippe Dotremont, Brussels
Galerie Beyeler, Basel (acquired in February 1963)
Jane Wade, New York (acquired from the above in April 1968)
Galerie Beyeler, Basel (acquired from the above in June 1997)
Acquired from the above by the late owner in 1997
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Ausstellung F. Léger, 1964, no. 12, illustrated in colour on the catalogue cover
Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Fernand Léger, 1964, no. 7
Bremen, Galerie Michael Hertz, Fernand Léger, Werke aus den Jahren 1909 bis 1955, 1966, no. 4, illustrated in the catalogue
Chicago, International Galleries, Fernand Léger, 1966-67, no. 12, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Tel Aviv, Pavillon Rubinstein, Fernand Léger, 1967, no. 3
Galerie Beyeler (ed.), Fernand Léger, Basel, 1969, no. 17, illustrated in colour p. 31
Jean-Jacques Lévêque, La Galerie des Arts, 1972, no. 112 (as dating from 1914)
Georges Bauquier, Fernand Léger. Catalogue raisonné de l'œuvre peint, 1903-1919, Paris, 1990, no. 186, illustrated p. 329
The composition is painted with a vibrant palette of primary colours that Léger carried over, and enhanced, from the Contraste de formes series that had occupied him before the war (fig. 4). The aesthetic of Eléments mécaniques, though, is more representational than that of his pre-war pictures. After witnessing the reality of battle and the brutal destruction of the familiar world, Léger felt that his early abstract style was no longer wholly appropriate for his art, and sought a way of combining the humanistic qualities of figuration with the dynamism of his modern vision. The artist was discharged from military service in early 1918 having gone ‘three years without touching a paintbrush’ (quoted in Christopher Green, Léger and the Avant-garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 96), and now he was finally able to resume painting full-time. His experience of front-line service during the war, in which he had witnessed mechanised killing on an unimaginable scale, led him to new innovations in his style and subject matter. He wrote to his dealer Léonce Rosenberg: ‘As soon as I was freed, I started to profit from those difficult years; I've reached a decision, and I'm modelling in pure, local colour and on a large scale without making any concessions. The war made me what I am, I'm not afraid to say so’ (quoted in Fernand Léger: The Rhythm of Modern Life (exhibition catalogue), Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg, 1994, p. 68).
Eléments mécaniques is among a series of works from this crucial post-war period that also includes La Ville (fig. 1) and Les Disques (fig. 3). These compositions inherit the stylistic legacy of Synthetic Cubism and also incorporate the dynamism and energy that was concurrently being expressed in Italian Futurist art. In these vibrant compositions Léger showed his ability to maintain a fine balance between the abstract strength of the Contraste de formes series (fig. 4) and references to contemporary urban life. In the present work, the composition consists of many abstract forms, vertical, horizontal and diagonal bands of colour, spheres and less clearly definable shapes that coexist with glimpses of machine parts and architectural fixtures. The resulting aesthetic is a bold statement that has come to encapsulate the style of post-war Paris.
Léger’s art from this period has been memorably described by John Golding: ‘Now, at the height of his powers, he rendered architectural the compositional effects of synthetic Cubism to give definitive form to all that had been most positive, from a visual point of view, in the Futurist programme [...]. From synthetic Cubism Léger adapted a form of composition that relied for its effects on a surface organization in terms of predominantly upright, vertical areas, often tendered now in unmodulated colour. Mechanical, tubular forms, like great shafts of metal, appear with frequency, but these are now tied into, and indeed made subsidiary to a flatter treatment of the picture surface; the coloured shapes tip and tilt, fanning out towards the edges of the canvas, only to meet opposing forces which tie them back again tightly into the overall, jazz-like rhythms of the composition. The bright raw colours call to each other across the surface of the canvas, pulling it taut like a drum. The vitality of the forms is such that at times they appear to advance towards us, so that we seem to share, palpably, in the painting’s beat. Some areas become cells in space, in which we glimpse the life of the city’s inhabitants; others are broken by letters, like fragments of giant billboards, while their harsh, dry imagery is thrown into relief by the contrasting, swirling, circular bands of colour. Never has the poetry of the first machine age been so grandly and proudly exalted’ (J. Golding, ‘Léger and the Heroism of Modern Life’, in Léger and Purist Paris (exhibition catalogue), The Tate Gallery, London, 1970-71, p. 12).
One of the early owners of the present work was Walter Schwarzenberg who owned the Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels. Alongside his business partner P. G. van Hecke (owner of Galerie L’Epoque), Schwarzenberg championed many contemporary artists, and in particular the Surrealist painter René Magritte, whom they generously supported by signing a deal granting him financial independence and the oppurtunity to travel to Paris. Unfortunately the gallery's exhibitions of Expressionist and Surrealist art failed to attract much positive interest and in 1930 Schwarzenberg was forced to close it down. In 1932 he held an auction of his collection at the Galeries Georges Giroux. Comprised of 360 modern works by French, German and Belgian artists, including the present painting by Léger, the sale was a great success, with high prices achieved for works by Ernst and Menzel among others.
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