La carte postale belongs to an important period of transition in Léger art, when he moved away from the highly abstract, mechanical vocabulary of the previous decades and embraced the image of a human figure, often combined with elements of the natural world such as butterflies, flowers and plants. Ina Conzen-Meairs wrote: ‘Compared with the works completed before 1928-1930, the later figurative compositions seem at first the result of a complete artistic reconsideration. The gleaming machines and fragmentary forms disappear successively from his pictures. In the 1930s works evolve that are peopled with organically conceived figures and objects’ (I. Conzen-Meairs in Fernand Léger: Man in the New Age (exhibition catalogue), Arken Museum of Modern Art, Ishøj, Denmark, 2005, p. 38).
Léger’s compositions from the 1920s demonstrate a gradual shift away from the mechanical style, as the artist formulated the increasingly organic iconography that would dominate his art in the following decade. Works such as Composition aux trois femmes from 1927 still displays the hard-edged, metallic quality of his earlier output. Over the following years, however, they became softer and freer, and are often accompanied by elements of the natural world, as exemplified by La Danse of 1929. The present composition presents a complex amalgamation of female nudes and images suggesting landscape and still-life genres. The rhythmic flow of the women’s hair is echoed by a highly abstracted rendering of the tree which, together with the long-stemmed red flower and elongated yellow leaf, alludes to an outdoor setting. The identification of the scene as the titular postcard is facilitated by a slightly later version of this composition, now in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, in which the yellow shape in the upper left corner has metamorphosed into a postage stamp.
‘The artist must make something as beautiful as nature,’ Léger wrote in 1937, and this was certainly his objective when he painted La carte postale several years earlier. Executed in an earthy palette punctuated with primary tones, with the subject reduced to its pictorial essence, the present work boldly exemplifies Léger’s commitment to ‘painting first, then the subject’. The phrase aptly summarises the aesthetic doctrine that the artist promoted in many of his writings of the 1930s. As Léger saw it, the task of the artist was to single out the essence of beauty from a context that may otherwise overshadow it. ‘If I isolate a tree in a landscape, if I approach that tree, I see that its bark has an interesting design and a plastic form; that its branches have dynamic violence which ought to be observed; that its leaves are decorative. Locked up in “subject matter,” these elements are not “set in value”’ (quoted in Carolyn Lanchner, Fernand Léger (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 224).
Writing about Léger’s works from this period, Douglas Cooper observed: ‘Gradually he exchanged the monumental for the living. The architectural elements disappeared and were replaced by scattered objects setting up a rhythm between themselves, while the space in which they moved was created by pushing the objects into the foreground and setting up a play of colours in the background. The objects are related to each other by means of carefully controlled chromatic values, by similar or opposing rhythms and by the use of lines of direction which weave in and out through the whole composition. Léger places his objects at just the right distance from each other: they are held there by virtue of the laws of harmony and rhythm’ (D. Cooper, Fernand Léger et le nouvel espace, London, 1949, p. XIV). In the present composition, Léger achieved this sense of rhythm through a multitude of parallel lines that create a sensation of pulsating across the picture plane.
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