Léger’s shift away from his prior, more abstract mechanical inspirations of the preceding years coincided with the pervading sense of rappelle à l’ordre in the wake of World War I (see fig. 1). What Léger had witnessed as a stretcher-bearer on the battlefront had forced him to re-prioritize his artistic objective so that clarity of form would reign supreme in his compositions. The progression of Léger’s work also echoed the Purist theories of fellow artists like Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant (see fig. 2). The Purist movement, which rejected the more picturesque aspects of Cubism in favor of simplified lines and forms, emphasized a mathematical order and logic in its artistic iteration that resonated in the reconstruction era of post-war Europe. Perhaps unintentionally, Léger’s works from the Paysage animé series stand as clear embodiments of the Purist credo set forth by Le Corbusier and Ozenfant’s 1918 manifesto, Après le Cubisme, which stated: “Superficially experienced or observed, nature seems like a magma of continually changing and variable incidents. But carefully studied or seriously experienced, nature seems not like an unplanned fairyland, but rather like a machine” (quoted in C. Green, Leger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven & London, 1976, p. 255).
This moment in the 1920s provided a new challenge for Léger, as he began to synthesize organic figures with the planned, mathematical forms of his earlier career within the traditional contexts of landscape and figure painting—epitomized by his triumphant Three Women (Le Grand déjeuner) (see fig. 3). While the present work retains a pared-down effect achieved by the accumulation of refined forms and geometric lines, Paysage animé also presents a tableau brimming with life, from the vegetal forms at the side of the composition to the familiar duo of man and dog at center. With deliberate attention to chromatic and structural harmony, Léger balances the bright red and yellow hues of the man-made structures with open spaces of white and surrounds the geometric forms of the buildings with the soft, undulating lines of the clouds, flora and fauna. Léger’s treatment of the human figure at center, whose coloration best resonates with the elements of earth and sky while its linear definition echoes the more manufactured aspects of the scene effectually situates humanity somewhere between the realms of the organic and the industrial. The sleek buildings and clouds of smoke in the distance recall the industrialization of Paris in the twentieth century and reinforce the relentless pursuit of time and human progress in an era of rapid evolution.
This rich period of exploratory figuration in the 1920s would influence the latter part of Léger’s oeuvre, which witnessed a heavy emphasis on groups of people in diverse settings ranging from campsites to construction zones, always retaining the artist’s signature balance of color (see fig. 4). As Léger later recalled, “I needed a rest, to breathe a little. After the dynamism of the mechanical phase, I felt, as it were, a need for the static quality of the large forms that were to follow. Earlier I had broken up the human body. Now I began to put it together again. Since then I have always used the human form. Later it developed, slowly, towards a more realistic, less schematic representation” (quoted in J. Cassou & J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47).
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