Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
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Fernand Léger (1881-1955)

Contraste de formes

Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Contraste de formes
signed with the initials and dated 'F.L 13' (lower right)
gouache and brush and ink on paper laid down on board
25 1/8 x 19 3/4 in. (63.7 x 50.2 cm.)
Executed in 1913
Galerie Kahnweiler, Paris (no. 1517).
Galerie L'Effort Moderne [Léonce Rosenberg], Paris (no. 7972).
André Lefèvre, Paris.
Galerie Rosengart, Lucerne (no. 3321).
J. Cassou & J. Leymarie, Fernand Léger, dessins et gouaches, Paris, 1972, no. 19, p. 30 (illustrated upside down).
Paris, Galerie de Berri, 1952.
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Fernand Léger, 1955, no. 5.
Paris, Musée national d'Art moderne, Collection André Lefèvre, March - April 1964, no. 169.

Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.


Contraste de formes was executed in 1913 and, with its deliberately dissonant and rhythmic agglomeration of forms, its tumble of cylinders and cubes, clearly demonstrates Fernand Léger's pioneering exploration of new and more appropriate ways to depict the modern world. Contraste de formes is a rare work from a pivotal moment in Léger's career, as he moved away from the Cubism with which he had earlier been associated, alongside Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, towards a new, unique idiom. The composition of Contraste de formes finds its echo in a number of other works from the time, many of which are characterised, as is the case here, by the drum-like forms dominating a central axis, crested by a kite-like shape. Other pictures sharing this device, some in oils and some on paper, are held in collections such as the Musée national d'Art moderne, Paris, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Sprengel Museum, Hanover amongst others. Contraste de formes was formerly owned by the highly-successful stockbroker, André Lefèvre, whose collection comprised a number of works by artists of great import of the period such as Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso and Léger; indeed, he gifted a polychrome canvas entitled Contraste de formes to the Musée national d'Art moderne, Paris, among other works. The present work on paper was included in the exhibition of Lefèvre's collection held at the Musée national d'Art moderne in 1964.

The Contraste de formes series dominated Léger's work during 1913, and formed a natural bridge between two figurative strands in his work, despite being essentially abstract. Léger used this tumble of forms in order to create a dynamic, even plastic, sense of contrast. The forms essentially speak for themselves, through their juxtapositions the ones with the others: the sharp corners of some of the rectangles and rhomboids deliberately jar with the smoother circles of the cylindrical elements that dominate the composition. The vertical column of forms, crowned by the 'kite' formation, lends Contraste de formes the appearance of a figurative work, prefiguring later compositions such as the figures on the staircases of the works entitled L'escalier and also his Femme en rouge et vert. Indeed, a comparison between Contraste de formes and the studies for La femme en rouge et vert in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Musée national d'Art moderne reveal the shared evolution. In all of these works, the assemblage of cylindrical forms, which seem to act as analogues for a human torso, have a more angular element at the top, be it in the 'kite' of Contraste de formes or the more slender black-and-white egg-like forms of the two museum studies.

While the 'kite' in Contraste de formes can thus be seen as an equivalent of a human head within the composition, it is intriguing to note that Christopher Green identified the development of this device from a landscape origin (see C. Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven & London, 1976, pp. 61-69). Originally, it featured at the right of a work that Green illustrated under the title Dessin pour Contrastes de formes no. 2, but gradually became a central key to the compositional armature that would drive a number of Léger's pictures, ranging from black and white drawings such as Contraste de formes to the polychrome oils.

Green has pointed towards the landscape origins of the raw pictorial material which is at play in Contraste de formes in creating the deliberately jarring tension between the sharp and the smooth, the round and the angular. At the same time, with its vertical composition and its spectral sense of a lingering human presence in the assemblage of forms that dominate the central column, it recalls some of his earlier figurative images, especially those of female subjects. Indeed, it reveals the shift from the Cubism that Léger had espoused, joining the pioneers Braque and Picasso, towards what was soon known as his 'Tubism'. To some extent, this had already been in evidence in his earlier works such as La couseuse, in the Musée national d'Art moderne, in which the figure of the woman has been distilled down to geometrical forms shown in an ochre grisaille. These broke into smaller, more complex forms in some of his pictures, culminating in the almost blistered array of curves of La femme en bleu, now in the Kunstmuseum, Basel. Looking at Contraste de formes, it becomes clear that a similar aesthetic from that work, which Léger had shown in the Salon d'Automne in 1912, was at work. And indeed, another key bridge was the picture he showed at the Salon des Indépendants the following year, to the admiration of Guillaume Apollinaire, Modèle nu dans l'atelier, now in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. In that work, the arcs and angles that make up the essentially abstracted Contraste de formes can already be seen to be gaining a new autonomy. Indeed, Apollinaire linked the Modèle nu dans l'atelier to Orphism, rather than Cubism.

For Léger, this gradual development was the result of a logical progression, one that occupied him for much of 1913. This was the search for a new aesthetic means of depicting the world in a way that was suited to the modern era. Normal figurative art no longer had its place in Léger's opinion. Instead, in an article published in Montjoie - the review founded by the Italian writer Riciotto Canudo, a friend of Blaise Cendrars - Léger stated:

'The relationships among volumes, lines, and colours will prove to be the springboard for all the work of recent years and for all the influence exerted on artistic circles both in France and abroad. From now on, everything can converge toward an intense realism obtained by purely dynamic means. Pictorial constraints used in their purest sense (complementary colours, lines, and forms) are henceforth the structural basis of modern pictures' (F. Léger (1913), Functions of Painting, ed. E.F. Fry, London, 1973, p. 7).

Léger's new techniques gained immediate recognition from a number of influential people other than just Apollinaire. Indeed, it was in October of 1913, the year that Contraste de formes was executed, and less than half a year after his article in Montjoie, that Léger signed his first contract with the legendary dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, guaranteeing that the latter would purchase all of his output from that point onwards. This was a time of change, all the more so because the following year saw the outbreak of the First World War in which Léger would serve. His new, increasingly geometric aesthetic and his embracing of the modern world, both seen in Contraste de formes, would provide fertile ground for the seeds of influence of his experiences at the Front, marking an imminent change in direction in his work, yet one that was firmly rooted in his pioneering works of 1913. It is a tribute to the importance of these pictures, so many of which use abstraction in order to explore the titular contrasts of form, that though there are few of them, with only a little over a dozen oils of the title, nonetheless many of them are in museum collections worldwide.

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