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Fernand Léger – Composition

Sold for 300.000 SEK at Uppsala Auktionskammares evening sale ”The Neuman Collection”, 7 Dec 2016.

1001. Fernand Léger (1881‑1955) . ”Composition”.
Signed with monogram and dated F.L. 38. Gouache on grey paper, 32 x 25 cm.

Being one of the pioneers of twentieth century art, Fernand Léger was reinventing form and at the same time capturing his time as a brilliant colourist. By releasing his mind from the content, which he had learnt from Paul Cézanne, when approaching the modern subject of technique, the reality of the mechanics and the bustling rotating life of the city, he depicted the technological progress in an age of rapid industrialisation. He claimed that the expression of the image had changed because modern life made change necessary. This was partly because modern life made us register significantly more impressions than earlier, and this was something that art needed to express.

Fernand Léger in his studio. Fernand Léger (b/w photo) / Photo © Michel Sima/Bridgeman Images

Fernand Léger in his studio.
Fernand Léger (b/w photo) / Photo © Michel Sima/Bridgeman Images

Composition from 1938 is a typical example of Fernand Léger’s imaginative and skilful way of applying colours and forms. He created movement when letting the background grey paper shine through the composition in order to make it “breathe”. This shows “the manner in which Léger creates space between the scattered parts of the picture and establishes a relationship conferring them with higher aesthetical meaning. The unison of the object with the clenched energetic rhythm evoked by the artist secure the composition against disharmony” (Christian Zervos, Fernand Léger – Oeuvres de 1905-1952, p. 18). By the look of it, Léger’s more abstract works seem non-figurative but can often be related to a visual experience in reality. When observing every element on their own the viewer can discover geometrical forms, meticulously placed next to each other and brought to life by their movements. Léger was free and overwhelming in his brush strokes and his gouaches often vibrated with sensibility. The painting Composition from 1938 is painted with a palette of soft colours. It consists of many abstract forms, vertical, horizontal and diagonal bands of colour, circular and ellipse spheres and less clearly definable shapes that coexists in the composition. The coloured shapes tip and tilt although tied in to the whole mass. The bright colours communicate with each other across the surface. The vitality of the forms is such that at times they appear to advance towards the viewer who becomes involved in the image. The resulting aesthetic is a bold statement typical of Léger’s works.

Composition is from a period when Léger composed several still-lives. In the late 1930’s he travelled a lot which left less time for the artist to create larger artworks. In 1938-39 Léger worked on Composition polychrome (Composition à l’encrier) (Georges Bauquier, Catalogue raisonné, 1938-1943, no. 1039) where we find several corresponding elements to the “Composition” of this sale. The circular forms placed in the centre on top of each other and some of the pointed elliptical forms can be found in both. He often made several preparatory works before beginning working on a large canvas and these are often as interesting as the final work. The Composition polychrome (Composition à l’encrier) has several known preparatory works showing the work in different stages. The sketches were often more revealing of Légers search than in the final work where the dimension emphasized the simplicity.

Both Composition of this sale and Composition polychrome (Composition à l’encrier) were in the collections of the famous French art collector André Lefèvre (1883-1963). The financier André Lefèvre was a devoted collector of art, with a particular interest in the cubism movement. Among the works by Léger, apart from the two paintings from 1938, he also owned a well-known drawing for the Staircase from 1913 as well as some 30 other paintings by Léger. His collection also included artworks by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris. After his death part of his collection was donated to French art museums, but there were also prominent sales of his collections in Paris in 1964-1967.

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