Fernand Léger – a perfect example of Modernism

[02 Apr 2019]

Fernand Léger’s creations were highly unique and his spirit of independence and ‘avant-gardism’ continue to inspire to this day. Frequently shown by museums, his works are also popular with the market.

Fernand LÉGER’s discovery of Cézanne’s work in 1907 acted as an electro-shock: Cézanne was delving into Cubism and Abstraction. Taking up quarters in the famous La Ruche in 1910, he met the leading lights of the emerging avant-garde… Pablo PICASSO and Georges Braque. The young Léger was no doubt fascinated by what they were doing, but he seems to have kept a certain distance from the Cubist canons. While his palette remained bright (unlike the earthy tones adopted by Cubists), his graphics adopted a somewhat tubular approach. Indeed, Legers form of Cubism was so personal that the critics dubbed it ‘Tubism’… a distinctly cylindrical approach to spatial elements. In 1912, he showed his work at the famous Section d’Or exhibition and, a year later, signed an exclusive contract with art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Unfortunately – after an excellent year – World War I broke out and Léger was initially mobilised as a sapper/engineer and then as a stretcher bearer on the Argonne front near Verdun. After three years of traumatising experiences, including being gassed, Léger went into convalescence and started painting again. The war changed the man as much as his art. In the midst of the chaos of the bombs, the artist remembered having been dazzled by the sunset reflecting off the breech a 75-millimeter gunby the magic of light on bare metalThe war appears to have given Léger an enthusiasm for the aesthetics of machinery and a taste for all things technical.

After WWI Léger entered his ‘mechanical period’ producing works that belie an obsession with the machine… particularly visible in Le Disque (1918), a collision of geometric shapes and crashed planes. His instinctive embrace of modernism led him beyond traditional artistic media. Passionate about cinema and a fan of Charlie Chaplin, in 1924 he directed Le Ballet Mécanique, a 12-minute experimental film with the participation of Man Ray on camera. It is also marked the return of human figures in his work: acrobats, workers, women at the beach… anonymous men and women. In his monograph, Werner Schmalenbach recalled that the artist was obsessed with his duty as a painter of the present. Léger saw it as his mission to reconcile public attitudes with modernity.

Having been rapidly recognised by the major European museums, Léger was also given two American exhibitions in 1935, one at the Chicago Institute of Art and another at the New York MoMA. And, having survived one world war, he decided to avoid the second by moving to New York in 1940. He was not alone: lots of other European artists and intellectuals moved there too. In New York his style softened, playing on the transparency of coloured areas and dissociating them from the actual drawing. Back in France in 1945, Louis Carré organized a large exhibition of his American works. Already well known, the artist’s second major exposure in Europe assured him a key place in the history of 20th century art.

Increasingly high prices

An emblematic artist of the Modern era, Léger is one of the market’s favourites, whose best works elicit strong and passionate bidding. Re-sales of his works show substantial price jumps over relatively short periods. A painting entitled La Femme couchée (1920) added two million dollars in eight years. A typical tubular nude accompanied by a very ‘modern still life, the work is also a preparation for the masterpiece entitled Le Grand déjeuner, completed in 1921. Sold for $3.4 million in 2007 (Sothebys, New York), La Femme Couchée fetched $5.3 million (including fees) in 2015. This example of value accretion illustrates the extent to which the major players in the high-end art market appreciate Légers work. However, major works are obviously increasingly rare, a fact that could well push the prices much higher still possible even, one day, past the $100 million threshold. For now, his auction record stands at $70 million, a summit reached on 13 November 2017 at a Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Art sale in New York. An absolute jewel, Contraste de formes depicts an explosion of shapes and colors composed around a network of strong lines. It is a work from a rare series comprising 14 paintings, a quest for pure abstraction, beyond Cubism. The best of the best for any Fernand Léger fan. Howeveras Léger’s production was very diversified, there is a wide range of prices, and half of his works sell for under $5,000. New York is where most of his paintings change hands generating 82% of the artists turnover (since 2017). French auction houses capture 30% of the Léger lots sold every year… less museum-quality, but a great deal more affordable than in New York.

Fernand Léger’s work still exerts an enormous power of attraction with the general public and he is often in the limelight of art news. In the first quarter of 2018, the Bozar Brussels organized Le Beau est partout, a first major retrospective of the artist in Belgium since 1956 exploring Léger’s enthusiasm for the technologies of his era and highlighting the influence of his work and his teaching on a whole generation of artists like Louise Bourgeois, William Klein and even Serge Gainsbourg. At the start of 2019, the Tate Liverpool in England put on a show with some forty major works by the artist entitled Fernand Léger: New times, New Pleasures. In 2018, his works generated an auction turnover total of $69.2 million giving him 37th position in our world ranking behind Constantin Brancusi and Paul Gauguin.