Private Collection, Sweden
Thence by descent to the present owner
Berlin, Französische Malerei und Plastik 1938-1948, 1950, no. 52
Stockholm, Liljevalchs Konsthall, Cézanne till Picasso, 1954, no. 206
Painted in 1946, L’Etoile blanche exemplifies Léger's fascination with the expressive potential of colour and his commitment to a populist aesthetic – the two defining stylistic factors of his work during the last decades of his life.
Léger spent the first half of the 1940s living in the US and this experience had a profound effect on his art. Although the works of the 1920s and 1930s already reveal him working with an increasingly vivid palette, the kaleidoscope of New York, with its neon lights, billboards and shop fronts, was transformative, as the artist recalled: ‘I was struck by the neon advertisements flashing all over Broadway. You are there, you talk to someone, and all of a sudden he turns blue. Then the colour fades – another one comes and turns him red or yellow [...]. I wanted to do the same in my canvases’ (quoted in Fernand Léger (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 236). This, combined with the vitality of the city, imbued his work with a new energy and it remained an influence that can be felt in the fully saturated blues, oranges, reds and greens of L'Etoile blanche.
Léger’s return to France following the end of the war in 1945 also ushered in a period of renewed socio-political engagement continuing one of the overarching themes of his life. He wrote in 1950: ‘The time of the often criticised art without real subject (l’art pour l’art) and the art without object (abstract art) seems to be over. We are experiencing a new return to the meaningful subject which the common people can understand’ (quoted in Ina Conzen-Meairs, ‘Revolution and Tradition. The metamorphosis of the conception of realism in the late works of Fernand Léger’, in Fernand Léger (exhibition catalogue), Arken Museum of Modern Art, Ishøj, 2005, p. 38). In contrast to the rarefied and elitist aesthetic of post-war abstraction, his paintings of the period were intended to appeal to the public with a more comprehensible, figurative style. However, he also argued that a return to the subject did not necessarily preclude the use of abstract forms but that the opening up and freeing progress of the pre-war period should now be used to create an aesthetic for the modern age that was accessible to all.
In L’Etoile blanche Léger succeeds in this aim, combining both figurative and abstract elements in a riotous fusion of colour. As in many of his later still-lifes, it is the amalgamation of natural and biomorphic forms with elements of mechanical iconography that allow the artist to achieve this balance (fig. 1). Léger spent the summers of 1943-45 on a farm in a small French-speaking village in northern New York State where, as he later explained, he painted a number of works, ‘inspired by the contrast presented by an abandoned machine – become old scrap iron – and the vegetation which devours it. Nature eats it. It has disappeared, under the weeds and wildflowers’ (quoted in Fernand Léger (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., 1998, p. 235). Although L'Etoile blanche was painted a year later following his return to France, it is inspired by the same aesthetic. Léger combines the recognisable shapes of leaves and flowers with unidentified, twisting forms that seem more mechanical than natural, a contrast made explicit in the ‘white star’ of the painting’s title which could be either a white-petalled flower or a piece of machinery. Rendered in vivid colours, this swirling mass of forms creates a striking impression of vitality in a composition that is both beautiful in its simplicity and visionary in its treatment of colour and form.
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