The Acrobat and his Partner 1948 is a rectangular, horizontally oriented oil painting by French artist Fernand Léger. The painting depicts a male acrobat whose body is twisted into an unnatural circular pose and who appears to be somersaulting through the air while holding a pale yellow flowering plant. In the left of the composition is a woman with long blonde hair wearing a short white pleated skirt and a purple sleeveless blouse. She faces forward while hooking a large white ladder onto her left shoulder and draping it diagonally across her body. In the background of the composition and directly beneath the somersaulting acrobat is a large, irregularly shaped circular target composed of wide, wavy concentric bands in vibrant shades of red, blue, yellow, green, and white. The bands give the impression of weaving their way behind the woman’s ladder and through four other mechanical-looking elements positioned in the four corners of the painting. Beneath the acrobat, a cartoonish grey cat sits on an oversized and intricately patterned white, red and black dining chair. The cat is motionless, staring upwards at the unfolding performance, while the woman and the acrobat stare rigidly outwards at the viewer.
Léger routinely made several studies of the same subject before executing a final painting, and an earlier, smaller version of The Acrobat and his Partner exists entitled L’Acrobate dans le cirque 1948 (see Bauquier 1992, pp.230–1). The Acrobat and his Partner is rendered in oil paint on a linen canvas. Instead of using a traditional white priming agent, Léger applied a thin ground layer of neutral beige paint that mimics the natural colour of the canvas, and in certain areas he deliberately left the ground exposed. Léger applied the remaining paint with some areas of low impasto, but with very little evidence of brushstrokes. The work is inscribed ‘48/F. LEGER’ on its front at the bottom right corner, and the title ‘L’ACROBATE ET/SA PARTENAIRE’ is written on the back of the canvas.
Léger had been fascinated by touring circus troupes since childhood, when he had seen them pass through Argentan, his hometown in rural France. The acrobat, the circus and the big top are themes that run throughout his work (see, for example The Acrobats in the Circus 1918, Kunstmuseum, Basel; Marie the Acrobat 1936, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Argentina; and The Great Parade 1954, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). In post-war France, the circus had come to symbolise an egalitarian space, and many artists – including Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall – regarded the circus as an environment in which culture, music and the performing arts could be accessed by a much broader public. Like Picasso, who had become a member the previous year, Léger joined the Communist Party in 1945. Along with his more socially minded artistic contemporaries, he frequented the Cirque Médrano in Montmartre, Paris, and made many works in response to it (see,for example, The Cirque Medrano 1918, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). In a 1924 essay Léger described his interest in the circus:
The Big Top is an absolutely marvellous world. When I am lost in this astonishing metallic planet with its dazzling spotlights and the tiny acrobat who risks his life every night, I am distracted … I am caught up by the strange architecture of coloured tent poles, metallic rods, and ropes that cross each other and sway under the effects of the lights.
(Fernand Léger, The Functions of Painting, London 1973, p.40.)
When The Acrobat and his Partner was first exhibited in June 1949 at Salon de Mai in Paris, Léger described the importance of movement in the work and the overall juxtaposition of the forms as follows:
The acrobat and disk that surrounds him represent movement. The flower in his hand, composed entirely of curves, heightens the impression of movement; so does the shape of the cat on the chair. The straight lines of the chair, those at the edge of the canvas on the same side, the ladder, and the acrobat’s partner form the static part of the picture, which contrasts violently with the dynamic part. The more contrasts there are in a picture, the stronger is the painting.
(Léger in Schmalenbach 1976, p.154.)
The Acrobat and his Partner can be seen to reflect two central themes of Léger’s late paintings: human figures in motion, including acrobats and musicians, and the leisure activities of the working population such as cycling, swimming and picnicking. As curator Simon Wilson has observed, Léger saw these particular themes as ‘tangible symbols of human freedom’ and the acrobat and his partner as heroes in the work, representing for Léger the dynamism of modern life (Wilson 1991, p.207).
Werner Schmalenbach, Léger, New York 1976, p.154, reproduced p.155.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, revised edn, London 1991, p.207, reproduced p.207.
Georges Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue Raisonné 1944–1948, Paris 1992, reproduced p.233.
Supported by Christie’s.