Roger Dutilleul, Paris (acquired from the above)
Thence by descent to the present owner
Tériade, ‘Fernand Léger’, in Cahiers d’Art, Paris, 1928, illustrated p. 68 (before the painting was signed)
‘Fernand Léger au Kunsthaus de Zurich’, in Cahiers d’Art, Paris, 1933, 8ème année, no. 3-4, illustrated (before the painting was signed)
Georges Bauquier, Fernand Léger. Catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre peint, 1925-1928, Paris, 1993, no. 426, illustrated p. 61
In Le buste Léger uses fragmented and overlapping images as principal elements of the composition, creating complex and perplexing spatial relationships within the two-dimensional plane of the canvas. As in several other composition from this time (fig. 1), the artist depicts a fragmented image of a human bust, whose gender here is ambiguous and identity unknown. The figure’s full, classical features and monochrome palette identify it as a work of art rather than a direct likeness of a particular model. While its voluminous shape could be interpreted as a sculpted bust, reminiscent of a fractured antique marble, it is at the same time seen within a frame which would suggest that it is a painted image, a picture within a picture. Reflecting the influence of Giorgio de Chirico's metaphysical paintings (fig. 2), such spatial ambiguities and fragmentation of the human body were ideas also embraced by Léger’s contemporaries associated with the Surrealist movement (fig. 3). Similarly, the inclusion of a stencilled letter against the flat orange background is arguably a legacy of Dada, whose key elements were blurring the boundaries between high and low art and the use of collage.
Writing about Léger’s paintings executed between 1925 and 1927, Christopher Green commented: ‘They are the product of a pictorial idea of the figure or object whose brutal “plastic” simplicity is personal, but which is the product of an approach to the realities of modern life indelibly tinged with the idealism of L’Esprit Nouveau, an approach which remains stubbornly “realist” but whose highly selective vision of the world picks out the most useful, the most geometrically “pure”, the most precisely finished of its manufactures, and subjects even the nude or the figurative fragment to the mass-production yet “classical” values thus extracted’ (C. Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven & London, 1976, p. 310). This complex interplay between purist, classical and plastic qualities that characterise Léger’s paintings from the mid-1920s is beautifully exemplified by the present composition.
The elegant and clearly delineated elements of Le buste point to the impact of the Purism of Amédée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier on Léger’s painting during this time. A search for classical beauty and balance that characterised the so-called rappel à l’ordre influenced many avant-garde artists working in Europe in the 1920s. After a decade disrupted by World War I, during which time Léger found inspiration in the mechanisation of society, he was ready for a change. As he remarked: ‘I had broken the human body, so I set about putting it together again and rediscovering the human face... I wanted a rest, a breathing space. After the dynamism of the mechanical period, I felt a need for the staticity of figures’ (quoted in Fernand Léger (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 188). In part this change in subject matter may be attributed to the inner dynamics of Léger's own situation as he sought to rediscover a sense of equilibrium that had been suppressed during the preceding tumultuous decade, as well as to broader cultural currents of the epoch, of which he was a pioneering figure.
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