Perrel Collection, Paris
Louis Clayeux, Paris
Marcel Brient, Paris
Painted in 1922, Nature morte au profil is a stunning example of Fernand Léger’s post- war style. The elegant composition is poised upon a complex arrangement of everyday objects on a table top, depicted in a highly stylised manner in delightful colour combinations. The dynamism of his earlier mechanical works (fig. 1) is retained in Nature morte au profil, but the inclusion of the female silhouette at the centre of the scheme shows Léger’s revival of figurative elements, which he reincorporated into his œuvre to add a more organic resonance. He later recalled: ‘I needed a rest, to breathe a little. After the dynamism of the mechanical phase, I felt, as it were, a need for the static quality of the large forms that were to follow. Earlier I had broken up the human body. Now I began to put it together again. Since then I have always used the human form. Later it developed, slowly, towards a more realistic, less schematic representation’ (quoted in Jean Cassou & Jean Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47).
Preceding the Great War Léger forged many influential friendships, such as with Le Corbusier and in 1921 he met the de Stijl artists Théo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian (fig. 3). Although it cannot be doubted that discussions with these highly disciplined and avant-garde artists provided stimulus, it would be wrong to assume that his art became ‘Purist’, in fact Léger stated that ‘Purism never touched me; too meagre for me that thing, that closed world. But it was nonetheless necessary that it be done, that one go to that extreme’ (quoted in Fernand Léger (exhibition catalogue), Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1982, p. 35). The advances he made in the 1920s can be better ascribed to Léger’s desire for aesthetic freedom from artistic conventional idiom; he explains that in ‘about 1922-1924 architects had rid walls of the welter of ornamentation imposed on them by the taste of the 1900’s. White walls began to appear, and both Delaunay and myself managed to liberate colour, too. Blue was no longer inevitably associated with the sky, nor green the trees. Pure tones were become independent and could be used objectively’ (quoted in Felix H. Man, Eight European Artists, London, 1954, p. 54).
Léger was an outspoken communicator of his artistic principles; he explains his essential aesthetic as: ‘I apply the law of contrasts... I organize the opposition of contrasting values, lines, and curves. I oppose curves to straight lines, flat surfaces to molded forms, pure local colors to nuances of gray. These initial plastic forms are either superimposed on objective elements or not, it makes no difference to me. There is only a question of variety’ (quoted in Edward F. Fry (ed.), Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 24-25). He went on to further propound that: ‘Modern Man lives more and more in a preponderantly geometric order. All mechanical and industrial human creation is subject to geometric forces’ (quoted in ibid., p. 52). These ideas are perfectly encapsulated by Nature Morte au profil, in which the representative forms of a female head is layered over and under abstract shapes akin to ornate balustrades which smoothly create a semi-transparent extra dimension which overlaps with the more conventional realm in which the tea cup and pipes exist, both symbols repeatedly used in some of his most important compositions. In the present work Léger brilliantly collides art-deco gaiety with an intellectually profound exploration of visual aesthetics in the wake of Cubism, Purism and Orphism.
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