EVERYTHING YOU CAN IMAGINE IS REAL: PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Influenced by the Purist aesthetic promulgated by Le Corbusier and Ozenfant, as well as the machine-driven imagery of the Futurists (see fig. 1), Léger’s still lifes from the late 1920s-30s present carefully crafted collections of familiar forms, gathered together to achieve utmost balance in both color and composition. As Léger described, “I organize the opposition of contrasting values, lines and curves. I oppose curves to straight lines, flat surfaces to molded forms, pure local colors to nuances of grey. These initial plastic forms are either superimposed on objective elements or not, it makes no difference to me. There is only a question of variety...” (quoted in E.F. Fry, Fernand Léger: The Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 24-25).
Also recalling the Cubist and Dadaist subversion of language and form, as well as their use of collage (see fig. 2), Léger’s Nature morte à la pipe sur fond orange removes its constituent parts from their rational, typical contexts, employing recognizable figures like keys, letters, leaves and pipes primarily for their linear qualities. Such objects would become visual mainstays of Léger’s work in the following years, serving as building blocks for his myriad still life compositions. The trivialization of the connoted meaning attached to these objects connects to Dadaist principles, while also foreshadowing and inspiring the Pop Art movement and its generalized cooptation of imagery from the 1950s onward. As Léger stated, "The subject in painting has already been destroyed, just as avant-garde film destroyed the story line. I thought that the object, which had been neglected, was the thing to replace the subject" (quoted in J. Cassou & J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, New York, 1973, p. 87).
In the present work, Léger reduces his color scheme to the dichotomous pairings of black and white and green and orange to achieve a static, harmonious balance within the picture. The artist’s incorporation of everyday objects also reflects a meditation on modernity and the rise of the working class around him in Paris. The years before and after the completion of this work attest to Léger’s continued fascination with plastic harmony, mechanical structure and repetition, both in his preceding Eléments mécaniques series of the early 1920s (see fig. 3), as well as his later figural group scenes like the Constructeurs of the 1950s. “Expression was always an element too sentimental for me. Not only did I sense the human figure as an object, but also since I found the machine so plastic, I wanted to give the human figure the same plasticity. If later, I painted hands in a way a bit different than the figure, without the geometric embodiment of my old canvases, I did it only because it didn’t bother me from the plastic point of view” (quoted in Fernand Léger (exhibition catalogue), Grand Palais, Paris, 1971-72, op. cit., p. 66). The combination of man and machine was a mantel that would be taken up by both fellow and future artists. In his black and white works from the 1990s and 2000s, Albert Oehlen confronts both the aesthetics and capabilities of early computer programs as a form of visual painting. His whispered lines, graphic letters and ungainly shapes echo, almost a century later, Fernand Léger's most graphic works (see fig. 4).
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