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Léger painted Les femmes a la toilette as the penultimate work in a rare and important sequence of eight canvases done in 1920, half of which are now im museum collections, on the theme of a woman seated at her boudoir table and looking into her mirror, as she attends to her daily toilette (Bauquier, nos. 217-224). This cycle exists in two sets. The artist titled the first series Le femme au miroir, (B., nos. 217-221). As his conception of the theme grew more elaborate, he described his female subjects as "à la toilette" (B., nos. 222-224). In each of these three latter paintings two women share the dressing table, although in the final canvas, the largest of the set, the artist unaccountably reverts in his title to femme (singular), even while the picture appears to reiterates most of the elements seen in the the present canvas and the smaller version preceding it.
This series marks an important turning point in the evolution of Léger's work during the years immediately following the First World War. It shows the artist seeking out, closely analyzing, and then smartly bringing together various pictorial ideas that he observed around him as he navigated the many and diverse cross-currents of postwar modernism. The volubility and playfulness that one discovers in this painting, in its lively amalgam of contrasting colors and forms, gives a strong indication of how exhilarating and liberating it must have felt for Léger to finally witness the end of the war-- France alone suffered more than 5.6 million military casualties, and Léger himself had been gassed and wounded. The return to peacetime pursuits resulted in a euphoric non-stop party lasted until the end of the 1920s, "les années folles", as they are known in France, or in America, the Jazz Age.
Following a lengthy convalescence for a lung ailment, Léger was discharged from military service in early 1918. As he noted, "three years without touching a paintbrush" had gone by (quoted in C. Green, Leger and the Avant-garde, New Haven, 1976, p. 96), and now he was finally able to resume painting full-time. The artist's experience of front-line service during the war, in which he had witnessed mechanized killing on a horrendous scale, seared his memory, but it did not discourage his love of the machine, and he quickly revived the cylindrical, machine-like elements that he had introduced into his paintings before 1914, as seen most notably in his famous series of Contrastes de formes. He wrote to Léonce Rosenberg, his dealer, "As I soon as I was freed, I started to profit from those difficult years; I've reached a decision, and I'm modeling in pure, local colour and on a large scale without making any concessions The war made me what I am, I'm not afraid to say so" (quoted in D. Kosinki, ed., Fernand Leger: The Rhythm of Modern Life, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Wolfburg, 1994, p. 68). Léger viewed the Great War as an irrefutable sign that society had broken with the past and its outworn values, and was now entering a new and genuinely modern reality. He made the machine and the life of the city his chief subject matter, and to this end he did not hesitate to employ mechanical elements as his pictorial stock in trade.
While Léger had been at the front, the practice of Cubism back in the capital had entered its "crystalline" or classical phase, in which rational order, balance and clarity--a direct response to the senseless slaughter of the war--was being extolled at the expense of dynamism, simultaneity and modernity. Le rappel à ordre, "the call to order," had gone out, and soon became a notion to which most artists of the avant-garde would subscribe; its purpose was to revive the grand tradition of Gallic humanism and classical values in the arts. Unconcerned about swimming against this tide, and despite the reservations of Rosenberg, who found the artist's paintings difficult to sell, Léger remained true to the brash, anti-order convictions of his earlier years. He insisted on countering the increasingly conservative and escapist classicism of the postwar Paris avant-garde with his own message of wholly contemporary and cosmopolitan subject matter, which he cast in an uncompromisingly dissonant and dynamic pictorial syntax. While Picasso began to play with historical styles and cultivate his neo-classical Arcadia, Léger simply painted, as he put it, "what was going on around me" (quoted in ibid.). He stated, as his credo, "Modern Man lives more and more in a preponderantly geometric order. All mechanical and industrial human creation is subject to geometric forces" (quoted in E. F. Fry., ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, p. 52). During the years 1918-1920 there was no other major painter in Paris who stood so resolutely and unapologetically for modernity; only the recently arrived Dadaists with their anarchic and absurdist antics were staking out a territory that lay further beyond the newly redrawn lines of law and order in the Paris art world.
Positivistic, progressive and inclusive in his outlook, Léger was adept at understanding and bridging the contrasting notions in a dialectical framework. He was able to analyze, synthesize and then incorporate ideas that for others might have been irreconcilable; this method was true to his inclination for seeking out contrasts of all kinds. He was closely acquainted with the significant parties in the modernist polemic. By 1920 he sensed that there were potential benefits in adapting to the "call to order." Now that the Louvre and other Paris museums were reopening, and their master paintings had come out of protective wartime storage and were back on view, Léger felt a stronger awareness of tradition, with its primary emphasis on the human figure. At the same time, the formal distillation and equilibrium of the Purist style, as advocated by Amadée Onzenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (later known as Le Corbusier), also held interest for him, as did the rigorous and uncompromising abstract color grids of Piet Mondrian and his fellow Die Stijl painters. There were many routes to modernity, and in Léger's view, no one "ism" possessed the wherewithal to preclude any or all of the others. Picasso was already playing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in his work with alternating neoclassical and Cubist styles. Léger saw no reason why he could not take a polymorphic approach to painting one step further, and make even divergent aspects of modernist styles co-exist and complement each other on the same canvas.
The dialectical pendulum in Léger's work in 1920 was now in shifting from an emphasis on the machine to the presence of the human body, and the artist had begun to reinstitute the human form as a central plastic element in his compositions. He later recalled, "I needed a rest, to breathe a little. After the dynamism of the mechanical phase, I felt, as it were, a need for the static quality of the large forms that were to follow. Earlier I had broken up the human body. Now I began to put it together again. Since then I have always used the human form. Later it developed, slowly, towards a more realistic, less schematic representation" (quoted in J. Cassou and J. Leymarie, ernand Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, London, 1973, p. 47).
The figures that Leger had introduced into his postwar city paintings are male builders and workers whose closely cropped heads and muscular bodies easily synchronized and meshed with the hard-edged environment of geometrical architecture and mechanical forms in which the artist placed them. In 1918, when taking contemporary spectacle and urban leisure as this theme, Léger had chosen the acrobats of the Cirque Médrano as his subjects in a sequence of wildly fractured and simultaneist compositions (see Christie's sale, 6 November 2002, lo 41). Seurat's final masterpiece, Le cirque, 1890-1891 (De Hauke, no. 213; Musée d'Orsay, Paris), had been the model for that series; as the critic Florent Fels noted in 1924, "Seurat is unknown to the general public. But a reproduction of his work Le cirque is tacked to the wall of painters' studios all around the world" (quoted in A. Distel, eorges Seurat, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1991, p. 361). Léger had criticized Seurat's pointillist technique in 1914 as "a last stage and an ending" (in E.F. Fry., ed., op. cit., p. 17), but he was nonetheless drawn to the cylindrical, full-bodied volumes in Seurat's figures, rendered with only minimal modeling, as well as the coolly deliberate and rigorous manner in which Seurat constructed his compositions, in which the shape and placement of each straight and curved contour appeared to have been carefully orchestrated with the whole. It is very likely that Léger was considering these qualities in Seurat's Jeune femme se poudrant (La toilette), painted in 1890 (De Hauke, no. 200; fig. 1), when he commenced his own series of women before a mirror in 1920. There were other and older precedents as well; the theme of a woman looking in her mirror has a long tradition in western art, from Renaissance portraits by Titian and Giovanni Bellini ( fig. 2), to more recent paintings such as Manet's Nana, 1877 (Wildenstein, no. 259; Kunsthalle, Hamburg) and Degas's numerous images of women dressing their hair in intimate interior settings.
In contrast to the predominance of male subjects that preceded them, the paintings of the Femme au miroir and Femmes à la toilette series show the first sustained appearance of women in Léger's work since before the war. Léger had become increasingly aware around 1920 that the great masters of the past had staked their claim to posterity by painting the figure, and more specifically, by featuring the female form. Léger believed it was now time to assert his talents to this end.
By turning to the female figure as his new subject, Léger opened up a completely new area of contrasts in the development of his work. The presence of the female subject suggested an expanded availability of contrasting forms and a more varied range of colors. Léger could spotlight a recognizably softer and more curvilinear feminine subject against the masculine geometry of her surroundings. The artist had observed how "A contemporary fashionable party contrasts the men's severe, crisp black clothes with the prettier and more delicately colored dresses of the women. An epoch of contrasts... So I am consistent with my own time" (ibid., p. 30). It did not follow, however, that the advent of women in his work would feminize his mechanical style. Werner Schmalenbach has written:
"The woman is dominated by the objects and the geometrizing forms. Her head, barely distinguished by an eye on a yellow background, is half hidden by the looking glass... The 'womanly' implements on the dressing table speak the language of Léger's mechanical elements, and the table itself might just as well be a joiner's bench. There is not the slightest concession to femininity. Even the peeping eye, focused on the mirror, carries no trace of the seductive coquetry of the innumerable representations of women with fans that fill the history of art. This charade does not conceal a womanly secret. Léger resists the charm of the subject for the sake of the object quality of the forms and colors--in a word, of the picture. The human figure is made of the same material as all the other elements, both figurative and abstract; it is not a lot more alive than the objects and forms that surround it. The hair and body are segments of a circle; the face is a rectangle; the arms are cylinders... Geometry alone defines the character of the picture (in Fernand Léger, New York, 1976, frontispiece).
The stately, fully classicized grandeur of the female nudes in Léger's Le grand déjeuner paintings is at this point still a few months in the offing; for the time being, in the Femme au miroir and Femmes à la toilette canvases, Léger refused to soften, smooth over or "polish" the geometrical pictorial elements in his newly feminized interiors. Indeed, Léger pulled out all the stops in this series, as he laid down a densely compacted tangle of forms and set them off against a grid-like interior. He painted these canvases in as varied a palette of pure local colors as one may find in his work up until this time, and in fact for some time to come--a tendency toward restricted and even neutral tonalities would prevail in the more classicized compositions of the next phase in the artist's work. Léger has not hesitated here to fragment the human form and identify the figure only in terms of partial signs, such as an eye here and fingers there, the bend of an elbow, and the falling curve of a shoulder-length hair style. Léger piled one form on another to create the riotous effect of simultaneity, a concept developed by the philosopher Henri Bergson, which postulated that our consciousness of living is caught up in a constant flux of memories, thoughts and sensations which spontaneously interweave and dissolve within shifting and nonlinear modulations of space and time. Christopher Green has analyzed in this light the paintings the Femme au miroir series:
"Léger's subject here is...perfectly geared to his destructively ambiguous intentions. Enough legible features are left to announce the essentials of the subject...but these features are dispersed as merely partial clues in a loose disintegrated array of color planes, bars, metallic elements, and indeed, the fragmentary use of such clearly recognizable features...simply serve to intensify the effect of figurative disintegration--of destruction Léger works in terms of both flat contrasting planes and modeled elements, using the staccato effects of interruption developed during the previous two years to create a stylistically disunited result. The wholeness of the figure is challenged dramatically by the stylistic contradictions out of which it is built: the hair is both a series of corrugations and a dark, sweeping metallic surface, the right arm is a cylinder while the left is an overlapping pair of color planes. Not even pictorially can the figure be read as a coherent, interlocking structure, and in the comprehensiveness of its disintegration is conveyed Léger's continuing rejection of stylistic unity altogether" (in op. cit., pp. 195 and 197).
The five paintings in the Femme au miroir set are nonetheless relatively easy to decipher (B., 220: fig. 3); the elements lay flat on the picture plane like the parts in an exploded schematic. The introduction of the second woman into the Femmes à la toilette sequence, however, creates an altogether more complex spatial dynamic, compounding the effects that Green has described above. The present painting depicts these two women seated behind a dressing-table, the edges of which can be discerned in the foreground and at the right. Two oval mirrors with decorative pedestals have been positioned on the table, and two lipsticks are visible in the foreground. The face of the figure at the left is partially visible, along with her bright green sleeve and yellow wrist, while the second figure is identifiable only from her raised hand. The overlapping shapes and fragmented forms in this picture do not resolve into a literal structure; as Peter de Francia has pointed out, "Elements are incorporated into a structure of disparate objects, willfully juxtaposed to induce the maximum shock of incredulity" (in Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 50). This entangled clustering of visual elements, defying all logical understanding of space and time, clearly demonstrates the idea of simultaneity.
Léger titled the initial canvas in the second series Deux femmes à leur toilette and designated it "1er état." (fig. 4). Les femmes à la toilette, the present painting, is in effect the second statement of this theme. It is arguably the most successful of the three. It is about 12 inches (30 cm) taller than the first state; its scale is comparable to the penultimate La femme au miroir in Stockholm (B., no, 220; fig. 5). The third and final canvas in the series, a femme à la toilette (B., no. 224; fig. 6--again note the switch to femme singular) is larger still, but its very size appears to subvert the forces which pull and hold the elements together, causing the forms to flatten out on the canvas in a more decorative manner. The present painting, on the other hand, manages to display both formidable complexity and formal cohesiveness, in which the center does hold, if only precariously. It is indeed this tug-of-war between order and disorder, formulation and dissolution, as manifest in contrasts of all kinds, which is the very essence of the artist's simultaneist agenda in 1920, and even more fundamentally, lies at the heart of his love of modernity. Léger wrote:
"I apply the law of contrasts... I organize the opposition of contrasting values, lines, and curves. I oppose curves to straight lines, flat surfaces to molded forms, pure local colors to nuances of gray. These initial plastic forms are either superimposed on objective elements or not, it makes no difference to me. There is only a question of variety" (quoted in E. F. Fry, p, cit., pp, 24-25).
(fig. 1) Georges Seurat, Jeune femme se poudrant (La toilette), 1890. Courtauld Institute Galleries, London. BARCODE 25012613
(fig. 2) Giovanni Bellini, Young Woman at her Toilette, 1515. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. BARCODE 25012576
(fig. 3) Fernand Léger, La femme au miroir, 1920. Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris. BARCODE 25012583
(fig. 4) Fernand Léger, Deux femmes à leur toilette, 1er état, 1920. Private collection, formerly The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 25012606
(fig. 5) Fernand Léger, La femme au miroir, 1920. Moderna Museet, Stockholm.BARCODE 25012590
(fig. 6) Fernand Léger, La femme à la toilette, 1920. Konstmuseum Göteborg. BARCODE 25003765