Ewan Mundy Fine Art;
'Paris is simply a place of freedom. Geographically central, it has always been a centre of light, learning and research. It will be very difficult for anyone to show that it is not still the home of freedom for ideas; a place where people like to hear ideas presented and discussed; where an artist of any sort is just a doctor or a plumber, and not a freak or madman.' (J.D. Ferguson, Modern Scottish Painting, Glasgow, 1943, p. 70)
Executed in Paris in 1929, Déjeuner sur L'Herbe is a synthesis of Fergusson's late 1920s preoccupations; the sensuality of the female figure, the nuances of still life arrangement, and the monumental sculptural qualities of the nude. France held a pull over Fergusson since he first visited in 1895. In the summers of 1909 and 1910, he painted with Peploe and Rice in Royan and nearby Saintage, before moving to Paris in 1910. There he immersed himself in the rich bohemian culture and café life, meeting and interacting with individuals who would have a profound effect on his developing artistic outlook. This included a chance meeting in a café with the literary critic John Middleton Murry, who pointed out the links between Fergusson's work and the theories of 'rhythm' espoused by the philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941). Murry claimed Fergusson held the 'position that rhythm was the distinctive element in all the arts, and that the real purpose of this "modern movement"- a phrase frequent on Fergusson's lips - was to reassert the pre-eminence of rhythm' (John Middleton Murry, Between Two Worlds, 1935, p. 155). Fergusson was particularly intrigued by Bergson's view of the feminine principle of life force, the élan-vital, and as his nudes began to develop, the robust curves, bright colours, and monumental forms, emphasize this sense of vitality. The present work is a particularly astute visualization of Bergson's concepts of earthly paradise and the energy of life. Not only do the ripe fruit and the figure's robust forms indicate fertility, but the curves and angles of the woman's forms are reflected in the trees and foliage, suggesting a symbiosis between the figures and the surrounding environment.
Like several of his late 1920s nudes, Déjeuner sur L'Herbe was likely based upon sketches Fergusson made while vacationing at George Davidson's Chateau des Enfants at Antibes, which was for many years his summer retreat. Having found the place for Davidson in 1920, it had been little more than a ruin among the woods that lined the coast at Antibes, built sixty years earlier by King Leopold of Belgium but not completed. The locale was transformed into a haven from the bustle of the urbane Parisian environment, and while visiting Fergusson would sketch his partner, the dancer Margaret (Meg) Morris, along with other models amongst the trees and along the white sand beaches. Meg reflected upon the idyllic nature of this environment stating that 'The Cap d'Antibes runs nearly two miles out to sea. The chateau woods ran to a bay facing due south, with cliffs of jagged rocks about twelve feet high, and water about fifteen feet deep. Lovely for diving... everyone bathed off the rocks and afterwards sun-bathed in the woods or on the rocks. When it got too hot, they dived into the sea again' (Margaret Morris, The Art of J. D. Fergusson; A Biased Biography, 1974, p. 150). While many of the compositions derived from these studies illustrate Meg as an avid swimmer in a bathing cap, such as Nude and Cliff, lot 74 in the present sale, the present work depicts a picnic among the seclusion of the trees.
The theme of the present work clearly demonstrates the influence of the Fauves, as Fergusson was conscious of, and greatly admired, the controversial Fauvist nudes produced in the early 20th century, such as Matisse's Blue Nude (1907) and Derain's Three Bathers (1907). However, in the works of the 1920s Fergusson was drawing on several sources, while simultaneously inserting his own sculptural sense of the figure, to create compositions uniquely his own. In Déjeuner sur L'Herbe the black incisive outlines, which created an almost cloisonné effect in early works such as Rhythm (1911, University of Sterling J.D. Fergusson Memorial collection), have given way to a lighter colour palette and a clear reassessment of the formal values established by Cezanné. The basket of fruit and scattered apples, placed upon the broken planes of a picnic blanket in the foreground, are a clear homage to the late French artist. Similarly, the title of the work and the stance of the far right figure, who boldly confronts the viewer with her stare, is a reference to Manet's famous work by the same title in the Musée d'Orsay.
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