In 1945 Fernand Leger came back to France after five years of exile in the United States during the war. His writings from the time reveal his joy in returning to his native country and regaining his studio. “After five years, I rediscover with pleasure the discomfort of my studio, with the same difficulties I encountered when I moved here after the war. All this is France, and I needed it.”
His return to France corresponded with a period of intense creativity for the painter, then at the height of his art. The end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s were the years when the artist made his most emblematic works, with his large format mural compositions such as La Grande Parade and the famous Constructeurs series. Like Braque, who painted his Ateliers series between 1949 and 1955, Leger also returned to the tradition of the Still Life, a theme he had already explored many times in the 1920s and 1930s.
Painted in 1949, Les deux couteaux perfectly illustrates the new conception of the still life that Leger inaugurated at this time. Painted in a more organic and spontaneous style than during the decades preceding the war, the objects retain an architectural dimension which magnifies them. These are ordinary everyday objects that the painter has chosen to depict; a pitcher, a glass, a cup and some knives. These objects were a recurring source of inspiration for the painter, and can be found in several compositions from these years, such as Nature morte au tapis bleu, 1950 (Fig. 1), probably conceived as a twin to the present painting or Nature morte aux deux couteaux, painted in 1952 (Fig. 2), where Leger reworks the composition of the present work in different colours.
Breaking with his works inspired by Purism or the pre-war series of “Objects in Space”, the bright colours of this still life, inherited from the American period, the contrast of colours and forms and the variety of depicted motifs are emblematic of the Leger’s artistic interests at this period. The present painting seems thus to echo Christian Zervos’s words when describing Leger’s Still Lifes: “There is no object in the physical world, as insignificant as it may appear, that is not capable of awakening in us a series of associations. Each thing can become an object of poetry, because the tiniest morsel of the world is part of the rest of the universe. Deciphering in an object, as humble as it may be, its part in the life of things and the relationships it holds with the world, this is what the poet’s work must be, whether he writes or paints.”
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