Léger was no stranger to war. The only son of provincial cattle-breeders, he had studied architecture and fine art in Paris before serving as part of the French engineering corps during World War I. This regiment experienced some of the war’s most gruesome battles near Verdun in the summer of 1915. The Western Front unsurprisingly proved a shocking contrast to the pre-war Parisian avant-garde for Léger, who wrote, “My new comrades were miners, laborers, artisans working in wood and metal; I found the French people” (ibid, p. 11).
Such experiences bolstered Léger’s solidarity with the everyday Frenchmen amongst whom he fought, predisposing the artist to explore them as subjects later in his career. “Leger’s desire to reach and represent the ordinary man is evident in his theory that everything has its own roots….in his fusion of the mechanical and the mundane and in his fondness for contrast and mélange. Throughout his career, his peasant background contributed to his social philosophy and influenced his work” (ibid, p. 17).
Returning to a scarred but liberated France in December 1945 at the end of World War II, Léger’s predilection for mechanical and technological subject matter found a wealth of inspiration in the setting of post-war recovery. Combined with his belief in the worth of proletarian labor, these forces led the artist to produce Les Constructeurs, one of his most recognizable and acclaimed series of paintings. Élément méchanique sur fond jaune (construction métallique) was produced concurrently with Les Constructeurs, deriving from the same visual vocabulary found in France’s reconstruction efforts. In citing his inspiration for Les Constructeurs, Léger explained, “The idea came to me on the way to Chevreuse. There were three pylons with high-voltage cables being constructed near the road. Some men were perched on them, working. I was struck by the contrast between those men, the metal architecture and the clouds in the sky.” Shortly after completing works such as Étude pour les constructeurs, fond bleu, Leger completed a short series of three paintings that highlighted the mechanical elements of the construction site, situated against characteristically primary shades of yellow, blue and orange. The present work is the first painting of this group.
Depicting a chaotic knot of steel construction materials, Élément méchanique sur fond jaune (construction métallique) monumentalizes the labor of the French people. In choosing to focus on the concrete evidence of this labor, as distinct from the workers themselves, Léger drew upon his longstanding interest in the importance of technology in everyday life. This sentiment was reinforced during the artist’s five-year stay in the United States during the span of World War II. Selecting an initial studio at 80 West 40th Street in New York, the artist no doubt encountered the skyscrapers and ubiquitous construction sites characteristic of the city.
Élément méchanique sur fond jaune (construction métallique) is also extraordinary in its use of color. Léger heightened the effect of bright, primary hues by utilizing flat fields of color that appear almost independent of the spatial framework of the metallic structure. This bold use of color would extend to a new generation of Post-war American artists, including those such as Ellsworth Kelly, who pushed the limits of color and form, ultimately freeing them completely from the picture plane. As in Orange Red Relief, Kelly would take up the mantle of bold coloration that Léger initiated in his spectacular post-war series. Léger's inclination to monumentalize aspects of every-day life, such as the construction site in Élément méchanique sur fond jaune (construction métallique), would inspire the first generation of Pop artists including Roy Lichtenstein.
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