Illustrated companion

Early in his career Léger developed a vision based on his love of the modern urban and industrial scene, and his fascination with what he saw as the beauty of machines. In the 1930s however, he became increasingly interested in the working people who animated this environment and in the last ten years of his career in particular, painted many pictures celebrating the leisure activities of the working population. These activities, cycling, swimming, picnicking, music and the circus, Léger saw as tangible symbols of human freedom. The circus was the most important of these themes, leading to his huge painting 'La Grande Parade' of 1954, filled with an entire cast of circus characters. Of these the acrobat seems to have been of special interest; in his 1926 essay on popular entertainments, Le Spectacle, Léger wrote 'The most marvellous world is the "Big Top",' and spoke of '... the little acrobat high up there, risking his life each evening, lost in that extraordinary metal planet, bathed in spotlights ...' For Léger the acrobat and his partner were heroes, and here he has made the acrobat the expression of the dynamism that he saw all his life as representing the essence of modern life. In a catalogue note on this painting when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1949 Léger wrote: '... the acrobat and the disc around him represent movement. The flower which he holds in his hand and which is entirely composed of curves reinforces the impression of movement as does the form of the cat on the chair.' Léger also pointed out the importance of the contrast of the static upright forms in the painting, which further emphasise the energy of the acrobat: 'the straight lines of the chair and those on the same side, near the edge of the canvas, together with the ladder and the acrobat's partner, constitute the static part of the painting which is in violent contrast with the dynamic part. The more contrasts there are in a painting the stronger the work is ...' The vivid, rather strange pattern of the chair upholstery adds to the 'dynamic part' of the picture and Léger also seems to have jokingly made the back of the chair look like a framed painting.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.207