Roger Dutilleul, Paris (acquired from the above)
Thence by descent to the present owner
Painted in 1923, Nature morte displays an array of objects, their curved, overlapping forms set against a grid of horizontal and vertical lines of the background. Léger’s still-lifes from the 1920s present carefully crafted collections of familiar forms, gathered together to achieve utmost balance in both colour 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).
In its technique and subject matter Nature morte reflects the influence of various artistic trends as well as the broader cultural and historical context that characterised the post-war epoch. Moving away from the austerity and monochromaticity of Cubism, Léger nonetheless retained the fragmentation of objects in a manner more radical than Picasso’s art of this time, and applied this method to the Purist aesthetic pioneered by Le Corbusier and Ozenfant. The use of letters and bright colours connects Léger’s art of this period to the Dada aesthetic, while also foreshadowing the Pop Art movement and its use of mass-produced imagery (fig. 1).
The present work is a smaller version of the monumental canvas Nature morte au chandelier of 1922, formerly in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (fig. 2). Discussing Léger’s compositions from the early 1920s, Christopher Green wrote about the larger version of this image: ‘there is one, the grandest and most carefully finished of all, which is far more comprehensively attuned to the Ozenfant and Jeanneret of 1920-1: Nature-morte au chandelier. The pale warmth of the painting, with its intense central note of red for the cup against deep grey-blue, is hardly Purist, and neither is the incisive way the central sharp-edged plane cuts off the hemisphere of the cup, but the clear Cubist analysis of the candlestick, and the way in which the tilted table-top with its objects are contained by the strict verticals and horizontals of the planar surround, these factors are profoundly Purist’ (C. Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven & London, 1976, p. 263).
Nature morte illustrates Léger’s fascination with film and the cinematographic quality of modern life. The letters ‘RO’, seen here against a bright orange background reminiscent of a street poster, feature in several other compositions (figs. 2&3). They derive from the title of the film La roue (‘The Wheel’), for which Léger wrote a review in the journal Comœdia in 1922. Léger praised the film’s innovations: ‘this new element…: close-ups, fixed or moving mechanical fragments, projected at a heightened speed that approaches the state of simultaneity’ (quoted in Fernand Léger 1911-1924, The Rhythm of Modern Life (exhibition catalogue), Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg & Kunstmuseum, Basel, 1994, p. 25). Whilst in Nature morte Léger takes as his theme the somewhat traditional imagery of a domestic interior setting, without any direct depictions of a mechanised world, his painterly technique is clearly indebted to the mechanical and cinematic elements that fascinated him in La roue. He builds the composition out of overlapping and fragmented shapes and objects, with the film’s title making a cameo appearance. Whilst the interior setting and the bucolic landscape seen through the window present a thematic departure from paintings such as La Ville, a series of depictions of modern urban life that Léger executed several years earlier, Nature morte displays the same sense of simultaneity and dynamism and is an exceptional example of the way Léger’s art responded to the complexities and changing pace of modern life.
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