Illustrated companion

In his formative period as an artist in Paris from about 1908-14, Léger was affected by Cubism, and found in Futurism a confirmation of his own fascination with the throb of modern life, its bustle, its people, its architecture, its machines, its methods of transport. To express this vision Léger developed a personal form of Cubism. Around 1912 his work became almost completely abstract in the series of 'Contrasts of Forms' paintings, in which numbers of tubular or blocklike forms are set in dynamic opposition to each other. By the end of the First World War however, he became convinced that his art should be based on objects in the world and be began to paint pictures of the city in which recognisable but fragmented elements of architecture, streets, machines and people, appear in dynamic, kaleidoscopic arrangements. But from 1920, influenced by the ordered abstraction of the De Stijl artists and the Purist group in Paris, Léger increasingly sought to reconcile his vision of modern life with a high degree of order and clarity. His 'Still Life with a Beer Mug' is a marvellous early example of this attempt.

The painting is constructed around three contrasting elements - the geometric grid-like background, mostly stark black and white, which represents the patterned floor, the wall and the window frame of the kitchen; the relatively naturalistically treated table with its plates of fruit and some other food, and pots of butter, painted in warm soft tones; and the beer mug itself floating in front of the table, painted in an apparently random pattern of brilliant orange-red, blue and white, within a simply drawn, instantly recognisable outline. These elements set up a dynamic relationship among themselves, and the vibrant interaction of the near-complementary orange-red and blue of the mug is reinforced by the considerable optical busyness of the background, particularly in the diamond pattern of the floor. All this activity is beautifully concentrated and controlled by the rigorous geometry of the main lines of the composition.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.168