This work is a still life in which mechanical elements take the place of the everyday objects traditionally depicted within this genre. In a letter of 1919 to his art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler Léger wrote, ‘I have used mechanical elements a lot in my pictures these last two years; my present method is adapting itself to this, and I find in it an element of variety and intensity. The modern way of life is full of such elements for us; we must know how to use them.’ (Quoted in Cassou and Leymarie 1973, p.45.)
Léger’s interest in the mechanical was wide-ranging. He did not limit himself to expounding his ideas through his art. In 1923-4, for example, he made the film Ballet mécanique, which employed what he described as ‘figures, fragments of figures, mechanical fragments, metallic (fragments), manufactured objects, enlargement with the minimum of perspective’. (Quoted in Green, 1976, p.282.) The film has been described by art historian Christopher Green as ‘an experiment in the controlled creation of movement ... using the photographic image, mobile or static, as the basic unit in a series of measured rhythmic sequences.’ (Green 1976, p.282.) The mechanical elements in Ballet mécanique were closely related to Léger’s exploration of the subject in his paintings.
In the mid-1920s Léger was in close contact with Amedée Ozenfant (1886-1966) and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965, better known as Le Corbusier), who were the chief advocates of the artistic movement known as purism. Although Léger’s work from that period is seen as reflecting some qualities of the purist style, in particular, clarity, starkness, stillness and frontality, he commented, ‘purism did not appeal to me. Too thin for me, that closed-in world. But it had to be done all the same; someone had to go to the extreme.’ (Quoted in Cassou and Leymarie 1973, p.87.) This work combines Léger’s signature mechanical forms with a calm and restraint that are absent from previous Mechanical Elements compositions and are consonant with the ideas of Ozenfant and Jeanneret.
A drawing for this gouache, in the collection of the Musée Fernand Léger in Biot, is inscribed ‘F.L. 32’. The artist originally gave this drawing to Raymond Abner, who attended his academy in the 1950s, and it is it is likely that he dated the work erroneously when dedicating it to Abner.
Jean Leymarie, ‘Léger’s Drawings and Gouaches’, Jean Cassou and Jean Leymarie, Léger: Drawings and Gouaches, translated by W.K. Haughan, London 1973, pp.45-98
Christopher Green, Léger and the Avant-garde, New Haven and London 1976
Giorgia Bottinelli, ‘Fernand Léger’, in Jennifer Mundy (ed.), Cubism and its Legacy: The Gift of Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2004, pp.66-71, reproduced p.69 in colour