Léger’s life as a painter was abruptly interrupted when he was mobilized on August 1, 1914. Sent to the front at the end of the month, he served as a stretcher-bearer until he was wounded in July 1915. The following year he was camped outside Verdun and from the beginning of 1917 he was stationed in Champagne. While on leave in July 1917, he fell seriously ill and for the next eleven months he was in various hospitals. Terrible as this period was, the war experience was a key factor in the development of his mature work. Before 1914, Léger had evolved a style that depended on the maximizing of contrasts between the constituent parts of his composition. In many of the paintings from the Contrastes de formes series, references to the outside world were largely eliminated. In the trenches this abstract language began to seem irrelevant. Plunged in to the middle of dreadful combat, surrounded and morally supported by his comrades and confronted with powerful modern weapons, Léger looked to the world around him for the few paintings and rather more numerous drawings of the war period. Le Soldat à la pipe, 1916, was followed in 1917 by the monumental La Partie de cartes described by Léger as “the first picture for which I deliberately took my subject from what was going on around me.”
After he was discharged from the army in 1917, Léger turned to life in the rapidly industrializing modern city as the subject matter of his paintings. After celebrating specific events, such as the annual commemoration of the French Revolution in Le 14 Juillet à Vernon and the end of the war in L’Armistice, he painted a series of works on modern themes. In these depictions of the Cirque Medrano, mechanical and industrial forms (Le Moteur, Les Hélices, Les Usines, Les Pistons) as well as in an extended sequence of works painted in 1918-19, the form of a disk is the principal element.
Years later, he would explain this change in his artistic priorities: “It was those four years [of World War I] which threw me suddenly into a blinding reality that was entirely new to me… Suddenly I found myself on an equal footing with the whole French people. Posted to the sappers, my new comrades were miners, laborers, artisans who worked in wood or metal. I discovered the people of France. And at the same time I was suddenly stunned by the sight of the open breach of a .75 cannon in full sunlight, confronted with the play of light on white metal. It needed nothing more than this for me to forget the abstract art of 1912-13” (F. Léger, Arts, Paris, 1949). This new-found sense of social responsibility and deep engagement with humanity in all its forms provided Léger with a new impetus moving forward in his imagery and subject matter.
Le Damier jaune is among a series of works from the immediate post-war period. These compositions inherit the stylistic legacy of Cubism and also incorporate the dynamism and energy of Italian Futurist art. In these vibrant compositions Léger showed his ability to work on a monumental scale, maintaining a fine balance between the abstract strength of the Contrastes de formes series and references to contemporary urban life. When he was painting these pictures Léger was bearing witness to the production of a new society. Léger's new conception of his painted surface involved the ability to depict the fragmented immediacy of objects; the frenetic simultaneity of modern life.
In the present work, the subject of a table top still life featuring a yellow checkerboard consists of many abstract forms, vertical, horizontal and diagonal bands of color, spheres and less clearly definable shapes that coexist with a background of undefined modern urban space. The resulting aesthetic is a bold statement that has come to encapsulate the style of post-war Paris. The work of this period has been memorably described by John Golding: “Now, at the height of his powers, he rendered architectural the compositional effects of synthetic Cubism to give definitive form to all that had been most positive, from a visual point of view, in the Futurist program... From synthetic Cubism Léger adapted a form of composition that relied for its effects on a surface organization in terms of predominantly upright, vertical areas, often tendered now in unmodulated color. Mechanical, tubular forms, like great shafts of metal, appear with frequency, but these are now tied into, and indeed made subsidiary to a flatter treatment of the picture surface; the colored shapes tip and tilt, fanning out towards the edges of the canvas, only to meet opposing forces which tie them back again tightly into the overall, jazz-like rhythms of the composition. The bright raw colors call to each other across the surface of the canvas, pulling it taut like a drum. The vitality of the forms is such that at times they appear to advance towards us, so that we seem to share, palpably, in the painting’s beat. Some areas become cells in space, in which we glimpse the life of the city’s inhabitants; others are broken by letters, like fragments of giant billboards, while their harsh, dry imagery is thrown into relief by the contrasting, swirling, circular bands of color. Never has the poetry of the first machine age been so grandly and proudly exalted” (J. Golding, “Léger and the Heroism of Modern Life” in Léger and Purist Paris (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1970-71, p. 12).
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