- Fernand Léger
- Les constructeurs
- Oil and gouache on paper on canvas
- 101 by 126 3/8 in.
- 256.6 by 321 cm
Estate of the artist
Mrs. Fernand Léger
Thomas Gibson Fine Art, London and Galerie Beyeler, Basel (by 1987-88 and until 1990)
Borghi & Co., New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner on April 2, 1990
London, The Whitechapel Gallery; Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie, Fernand Léger: the later years, 1987-88, no. 98
Gualtieri de San Lazzaro, "Homage to Fernand Léger," XXe siècle Review, New York, illustrated p. 105
Fernand Léger (exhibition catalogue), Pushkin Museum, Moscow, 1963, listed n.p.
The present work is one of the most monumental examples from Léger's celebrated Constructors series (see figs. 2-4), one of the pivotal subjects that marked his late oeuvre. Léger himself gave an account of how he arrived at this subject: "I got the idea travelling to Chevreuse by road every evening. A factory was under construction in the field there. I saw the men swaying high up on the steel girders! I saw man like a flea; he seemed still lost in his inventions with the sky above him. I wanted to render that; the contrast between man and his inventions, between the worker and all that metal architecture, that hardness, that ironwork, those bolts and rivets. The clouds, too, I arranged technically, but they form a contrast with the girders" (quoted in Werner Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, New York, 1976, p. 158).
The artist first embarked on the theme of construction workers in 1940, and in the following decade produced a number of paintings, drawings and sketches on this subject, culminating in the monumental oil Les Constructeurs of 1950 (see fig. 2), now in the Musée National Fernand Léger in Biot, as well the even larger present version in oil and gouache. This subject particularly preoccupied Léger in 1950 and 1951, when it became the primary focus of his work. Having executed the Biot painting in 1950, he returned to this theme in the following year, making drawings and studies of the workers' heads, hands and legs. Never before in his career had Léger expressed such interest in the human body, and his series of construction workers, including numerous studies of body parts, indicates a direction towards its "humanization." The present work is the largest from a particular rendition of the motif and is related to an oil that is currently at the Sonia Henie-Niels Onstad Foundations in Norway (see fig. 3).
Although Léger never attempted to represent the human body with anatomical accuracy, only taking interest in its plastic, compositional value, he had now started paying particular attention to the human body, and to the relationship between man and his surrounding world, in some cases even depicting him with distinct expressions or facial features (see fig. 4). A tireless observer of modern life, Léger's attention turned from technology, which marked the early years of the 20th century, to the new social circumstances of the years following the Second World War. Having joined the French communist party in 1945, Léger was actively involved in the effort to improve general living conditions for working people, and the series of construction workers enabled him to express his humanist convictions in his painting. He abandoned abstraction, which he now deemed elitist and inaccessible to the masses, in favor of a more humane art, and embraced as his new subject ordinary people that surrounded him, including the working classes.
Writing about this series of works, Werner Schmalenbach commented: "When Léger took up the theme of construction workers in 1940, it looked as if he was reverting to the technical, mechanical world of his youth. But his attitude to that world was very different from what it had been thirty years before. Then he celebrated the glory of modern technology, which he placed above humanity; now, in the Constructors series, man asserts his freedom even in the face of technological constraint. The technoid, robot-like puppets of 1920 have become natural human beings, and the artist has gone so far as to bestow on them some individual features. Man no longer obeys the laws of technology but only the less strict, more relaxed law of the picture" (ibid., p. 158).
Indeed, the new direction of Léger's painting cannot be seen as solely an expression of his political and social views. He was still as preoccupied with pictorial harmony and with relationships between volumes, lines and colors, as he had been three decades earlier. The space of the present work is defined by the straight horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines of the construction, seen against the backdrop of a blue sky. The pronounced linearity of the composition, as well as the frontal, close-up viewpoint, evokes the treatment of construction sites and workers by Maximilien Luce (see fig. 5), examples of which Léger would have seen in the retrospective exhibition of 1948. In contrast to the sharp, hard iron constructions, the softer features of the two men dominate the center of the composition. Despite its imposing size, height and complexity, the mechanical giant does not subordinate the human being; rather, it glorifies the man as its inventor and the powerful creator of the modern world.
Fig. 1, Fernand Léger in his studio with Les Constructeurs COMP: 131NY8125
Fig. 2, Fernand Léger, Les Constructeurs, 1950, oil on canvas, Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot
Fig. 3, Fernand Léger, Les Constructeurs, 1950, oil on canvas, Sonia Henie-Niels Onstad Foundations, Hovikodden
Fig. 4, Fernand Léger, Les Constructeurs, 1951, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Fig. 5, Maximilien Luce, L'Echafaudage, 1911