Fernand Léger

Fernand Léger
Le passage à niveau, 1912
Contraste de formes, 1913
La femme au fauteuil, 1913
Nature morte aux cylindres colorés, 1913
L’horloge, 1918
Les trois femmes et la nature morte, 1921
Nature morte, 1924
Feuilles et fruits, 1927
Nature morte au masque de plâtre, 1927
Composition I (Décoration pour une salle à manger), 1930
Les perroquets (Les acrobates), 1933
Les deux cyclistes, la mère et l’enfant, 1951
Le passage à niveau, 1912
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Fernand Léger
Le passage à niveau, 1912

The Level Crossing
Oil on canvas, 94 x 81 cm
Purchased with a donation from Kurt Schwank, Riehen
Photo: Cantz Medienmanagement, Ostfildern

If we compare this picture with Cézanne’s Sous-bois, also in the Fondation, a number of similarities can be discerned. Here, as there, a zone of dabbed beige paint, surrounded by vegetation, leads into the depths of the composition. Like Picasso and Braque before him, Léger too looks back to Cézanne. But the landscape has since changed: we see electricity masts (which Léger had discovered in the work of Rousseau), we see the front of a locomotive, its chimney billowing as it steams towards us from the left – and we see fields of colour floating freely on the pictorial plane. In his rapid alternation between dynamically shaped colour planes (later so admired by Ellsworth Kelly) and a staccato of lines, Léger casts an accelerated look at a landscape conquered by technology, through eyes that see its new and modern rhythms.

Contraste de formes, 1913
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Fernand Léger
Contraste de formes, 1913

Contrast of FormsOil on canvas, 81 x 65 cmPhoto: Robert Bayer, Basel

Cylindrical modules of form and gradations of hue – first and foremost the blue, white and red of the French tricolour – make up Léger’s Contrast of forms. Here, however, they are not assembled into a figure, as in his painting Woman in an armchair, but together create a structure of pure, three-dimensionally dynamic form. The pictorial space does not recede towards an imaginary vanishing point in the manner of centralized perspective; rather, it advances layer by layer from the background to the fore. Léger’s representational painting of form creates a sort of abstract illusion of round and flat bodies, whereby roundness is indicated by white and blue, and flatness by stacked elements, in most cases red. Order poster in the shop

La femme au fauteuil, 1913
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Fernand Léger
La femme au fauteuil, 1913
Woman in an ArmchairOil on canvas, 130.5 x 97.5 cmPhoto: Cantz Medienmanagement, Ostfildern
The theme of the seated woman was one that preoccupied not only Cézanne, Picasso and Braque, but also Léger, as his works in the Fondation Beyeler impressively show. His monumental Woman in an armchair, seemingly made up of sections of metal armour, is seated in an armchair and has rested her ‘paw’ beside a coffee cup in the lower right-hand corner. Léger is here opposing the idea that a painter must create illusion. For in truth, this is not really a seated woman, but an image built up out of individual brush strokes. Léger enlarges the strokes into modules that resemble segments of a suit of armour, from which he composes the body of the woman, and gives this construction a colour tonality drawn from the sphere of complementary colours. He thereby creates a work that addresses both reality and painting at the same time.
Nature morte aux cylindres colorés, 1913
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Fernand Léger
Nature morte aux cylindres colorés, 1913
Still Life with Coloured CylindersOil on canvas, 90 x 72.5 cmPhoto: Robert Bayer, Basel
The painting Still life with coloured cylinders (which carries a sketch for another picture on its reverse) combines the purely formal with the representational and also brings into play the motif of bodies spinning in space. Léger was fascinated by technology, by the cool ecstasy of the unleashed machine: it became for him the image of the innovatory power of art, which creates something new out of clearly outlined forms – a dispassionate, poetic ballet of the industrial age of modernism.
L’horloge, 1918
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Currently exhibited at the Museo Correr, Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia

Fernand Léger
L’horloge, 1918

The Clock
Oil on coarse fabric, 50.7 x 61.5 cm
Photo: Cantz Medienmanagement, Ostfildern

After his profound experience of the First World War, Léger’s art changed. He increasingly allowed the sounds and rhythms of the modern life that surrounded him in the metropolis to flow into his pictures, and strove towards an art of precise, monumental cheerfulness. The clock is packed with highly diverse elements of an industrialized urban culture. Mooring ropes are visible on the right, and in the centre parts of machines, snatches of adverts and the clock of the title, which precisely dates the creative moment. The relationship between background and foreground is new: there is no unifying ground against which specific objects stand out. Rather, the different spatial planes interlock to form a crowded composition that, as a whole, is not tied into any shared construction of space.

Les trois femmes et la nature morte, 1921
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Fernand Léger
Les trois femmes et la nature morte, 1921

Three Women and a Still Life
Oil on canvas, 60 x 92 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

As Léger‘s major works of 1913 in the Fondation show, one of the central themes pursued by this ‘sculptor of painting’ is the assembly of individual forms into a pictorial whole. This is also true of his later works. In Three women and a still life, one woman reclines horizontally across the picture in a kind of metallic opulence while, in front of her, the two angular figures standing with their arms around each other are fused into a single vertical figuration. In this painting, too, everything seems to have been assembled from individual modules, whereby in contrast to 1913, Léger now furnishes the various parts of his jigsaw of bodies with a homogeneous surface. The lying and standing spatial arrangement of the three figures is echoed in the flat, geometric structures of the background.

Nature morte, 1924
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Fernand Léger
Nature morte, 1924

Still Life
Oil on canvas, 92 x 60 cm
Photo: Peter Schibli, Basel

Powerful black lines – of which two additionally serve as table legs in a representational manner – fix the composition vertically in the pictorial plane, but leave enough space between them for controlled manifestations of three-dimensional space. Equally harmonious is the balance of rounded and angular forms and areas of light and dark, making this picture a masterpiece of modern painting between formal discipline and everyday simplicity.

Feuilles et fruits, 1927
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Fernand Léger
Feuilles et fruits, 1927

Leaves and Fruit
Oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm
Photo: Peter Schibli, Basel

Nature morte au masque de plâtre, 1927
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Currently exhibited at the Musée National Fernand Léger

Fernand Léger
Nature morte au masque de plâtre, 1927

Still Life with Plaster Mask
Oil on canvas, 88.5 x 130 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

In Still life with plaster mask, Léger’s particular interest in the representation of sculptural bodies in painting finds expression in the white plaster mask that dominates the composition. The illusion of spatial depth heightens as the eye draws closer from either side of the mask. The most important counter-element in terms of pictorial balance is the disc resembling a fan, which introduces a technological coolness into the composition. It establishes a certain contrast to the gravity radiating from the mask, reminiscent of a death mask. In the shape of a sculpture reproduced in a picture, so Léger seems to be saying here, even man becomes a nature morte.

Composition I (Décoration pour une salle à manger), 1930
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Fernand Léger
Composition I (Décoration pour une salle à manger), 1930

Composition I (Decoration for a Dining Room)
Oil on canvas, 141 x 291 cm
Photo: Cantz Medienmanagement, Ostfildern

As early as the 1920s, Léger devoted himself intensively to the design of pictures for specific architectural contexts. Large works such as Composition I (Decoration for a dining room) lend expression to this decorative dimension of Léger’s art. Here, in a sort of ballet that fills an entire wall, Léger allows a conglomerate of two floating female bodies to converge with the decorative elegance of monumental graphic designs.

Les perroquets (Les acrobates), 1933
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Fernand Léger
Les perroquets (Les acrobates), 1933

The Parrots (The Acrobats)
Oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

Standing against a luminous yellow background is a group of acrobats – which at least since Picasso had become a key theme of Modernism in France. The parrots (The acrobats) ranks among the most important of a whole family of paintings in which Léger combines the same or similar figures in changing variations. Characteristic of this is the fact that, although the present picture shows none of the parrots named in the title, one such can nonetheless be seen in a related composition. Overall, we find here a new expression of Léger’s additive principle, which is reiterated in the construction of the individual figures. Thus the arms of the female dancer in the upper left-hand corner, for example, resemble the loose limbs of a jumping jack, drooped in front of the torso. The casual quality of this corporeal construction generates a relaxed monumentality of mural-like character.

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Les deux cyclistes, la mère et l’enfant, 1951
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Fernand Léger
Les deux cyclistes, la mère et l’enfant, 1951
The Two Cyclists, Mother and ChildOil on canvas, 162 x 114 cmPhoto: Cantz Medienmanagement, Ostfildern
Léger’s late painting The two cyclists, mother and child shows an exciting new development in his art. The characteristic construction of the figures is here joined by the motif of a colourful palette that has been liberated from the figural drawing. In New York, Léger had witnessed colour projections of this kind on the street. This configuration of colour also cites the method of disengaging colour from drawing as applied by Picasso and Braque in their Cubist papiers collés, as well as heralding the work of artists such as Ellsworth Kelly. With regards to Léger’s influence upon American art, it should also be mentioned that his representations of trees, such as the one seen here top left, were quoted ‘verbatim’ by Roy Lichtenstein. Léger is thus the link between Cézanne and Pop Art!
Fernand Léger

1881, Argentan (Normandy) – 1955, Gif-sur-Yvette (nr. Paris) The French painter, designer and printmaker began studying art at a very young age and attended various schools, including the Académie Julian in Paris. At the turn of the new century he produced his first Impressionist-influenced paintings. Then, having been greatly impressed by Cézanne, he moved away from Impressionism and evolved a style of his own which was also influenced by the Cubism of Picasso and Braque. Having served in the French army from 1914 to 1917, he embarked on his “mechanical period”. In 1925 he designed his first mural painting for a building by Le Corbusier. In 1924, together with Amadée Ozenfant, he founded the Académie de l’Art Moderne in Paris, where he taught until 1939. In 1940, following the occupation of France, Léger emigrated to the USA, where he lived until 1945; there, he resumed work as a teacher in addition to his activities as an artist and filmmaker. In 1945 he returned to Paris and joined the Communist Party. From the late 1940s onwards he increasingly worked with ceramics.

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