This new direction coincided with an important new chapter in Léger’s personal life. The end of World War II prompted Léger to resume life in France after five years of exile in New York. The renewed experience of war – Léger had fought in the battlefields of Verdun in World War I – also strengthened the artist’s political beliefs. In 1945, Léger joined the French Communist Party, a movement attracting many artists and intellectuals aspiring to radical change after the horrors of war, including Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard and Picasso, who registered for the party just one year before Léger. His radicalization of beliefs prompted Léger to explore new themes in the 1950s. From then on, he devoted his attention to the celebration of his fellow man through a variety of subjects, ranging from campers on a country outing to construction workers engaged in reshaping an urban landscape ravaged by years of destruction.
While Léger drew inspiration from Communist magazines celebrating the proletariat such as L’URSS en construction, the main revelation for his Constructeurs series came to him during his evening drive through the Parisian banlieue: “I got the idea travelling to Chevreuse by road every evening. A factory was under construction in the field there. I saw the men swaying high up on the steel girders! I saw man like a flea; he seemed still lost in his inventions with the sky above him. I wanted to render that; the contrast between man and his inventions, between the worker and all that metal architecture, that hardness, that ironwork, those bolts and rivets. The clouds, too, I arranged technically, but they form a contrast with the girders" (quoted in W. Schmalenbach, Fernand Léger, New York, 1976, p. 158).
Une Voiture à bras dans un paysage exemplifies this penchant for contrast, relying on an additive construction of the composition. Werner Schmalenbach commented on the dynamics between these juxtaposed pictorial elements, asserting the supremacy of the human over the industrialized world: "When Léger took up the theme of construction workers… it looked as if he was reverting to the technical, mechanical world of his youth. But his attitude to that world was very different from what it had been thirty years before. Then he celebrated the glory of modern technology, which he placed above humanity; now, in the Constructors series, man asserts his freedom even in the face of technological constraint" (ibid., p. 158).
In addition to this innovative modernist composition, Une Voiture à bras dans un paysage also demonstrates Léger’s mastery of color. Flat streaks of primary shades add an additional layer to the composition, making it visually dazzling. Charlotta Kotik notes: “Bands of color were organized on canvas to create a composition which could exist on its own if the design of the now-simplified figures was suddenly lifted off. A pure color abstraction was thus created, presenting a sharp contrast to the black outlines of figurative design” (Fernand Léger (exhibition catalogue), Albright-Knox Art Gallery, New York, 1982, p. 52). In this instance too, Léger’s inspiration came from his New York years, when he was renting a studio on 80 West 40th Street in the heart of the Theater District: “It is not imaginary. It is what you see. In 1942, when I was in New York, 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 color fades – another one comes and turns him red or yellow. The color – the color of neon advertisement is free: it exists in space. I wanted to do the same in my canvases” (ibid., p. 52). This innovative use of flat fields of color would extend to a new generation of American artists, such as Ellsworth Kelly, who pushed the limits of color and form, ultimately freeing them completely from the picture plane.
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