From 1929 to 1930, Léger’s decorative concepts permeated many of his object paintings. This period marks an important moment in the artist’s move away from the rigid, mechanical vocabulary that characterized his earlier work and his embrace of a more organic, less narrative aesthetic. This can be seen in the present work, Composition sur fond bleu, with its quasi-abstract forms, meticulously drawn and painted, that seem to float in a velvety blue space devoid of depth. Abandoning any spatial references of the traditional still life, Léger definitively frees his objects from the geometric structure of the painting and lets them float in tri-colored space imbued with a sense of enchantment. Léger’s main epiphany during this period was that he needed to liberate painting from any subject or narrative, once stating: “The subject in painting has already been destroyed, just as avant-garde film destroyed the storyline” (quoted in Jean Cassou & Jean Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, New York, 1973, p. 87). He realized that he needed to unshackle the object from its setting, to extract it from its conventional context and relationships, and let it exist for its own sake in a new isolated, revitalized state. “In painting, the strongest restraint has been that of subject matter upon composition, imposed by the Italian Renaissance. The effort towards freedom began with the Impressionists and has continued to express itself until our day… the feeling for the object is already in primitive pictures—in works of the high periods of Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman and Gothic art. The moderns are going to develop it, isolate it, and extract every possible result of it” (quoted in “The New Realism” in Edward F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 109).
A key theoretical component of Léger’s New Realism was the concept of “the object in space” perfectly exemplified in the present work. Composition sur fond bleu invites us into an indeterminate and ambiguous space, a place devoid of any historical or cultural references, and where time appears to have been suspended or enchanted. It is by focusing on this context—or lack of, rather—that we begin to understand Léger’s contribution to what is widely acknowledged as the most important and influential artistic breakthrough of the early twentieth century, that of recontextualizing familiar imagery in an effort to challenge, or at least revitalize, our common perceptions and interpretations. Léger has here freed form from the static structures that had previously held their contents in place, thereby imbuing his new works with a newfound atmosphere of fluctuation and fluidity, echoed by the organic imagery that winds its way in among the more solid elements.
Fernand Léger, Nature morte (Composition pour une salle à manger), 1930, oil on canvas, sold: Sotheby’s, New York, November 2, 2011, lot 53 for $2,770,500