When Robert Hughes described the rapid decline of early twentieth century Cubism, he was quick to characterize Léger’s work as a “sustained confession of modernist hope that one cannot imagine Braque doing, that he could make images of the machine age that could cut across barriers of class and education — a didactic art for the man in the street, not highly refined, but clear, definite, pragmatic, and rooted in everyday experience.” (Hughes, Robert, Shock of the New, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1980, p. 34)
Indeed, Léger made a life-long commitment to depict the common man and to create for him accessible art not limited to the world of fine art connoisseurship. During the 1940s and ‘50s, the automata persona and modeling of his early figures of tubes, barrels and linkages gave way to freely arranged bands of color juxtaposed with flattened forms of figures and objects outlined in black. The style, unabashedly simple and full of brightly lit positivism, resonated with American sensibilities and artists such as Stuart Davis and Keith Haring. The work was jazzy, fun, and readily consumed by the public. Léger credited the neon lights of New York City as the source of the innovation: “I was struck by the neon advertisements flashing all over Broadway. You are there, you talk to someone, and all of a sudden he turns blue. Then the color fades—another one comes and turns him red or yellow.” (Buck, Robert T., Fernand Léger: An Exhibition, Abbeville Press 1982, p. 52)
At the heart of that unfolding transformation is Léger’s decade-long devotion to his magnum opus, La Grande Parade (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) accompanied by more than one hundred preparatory studies — rehearsals really for the grand finale — that precipitated this masterwork. These studies, often fully realized works, provided the arterial sustenance that brought the project to fruition and rest upon Léger’s long and thorough process of ‘elaboration and synthesis in which “the slightest transformation was long pondered and worked up with the help of new drawing.” (Schmalenbach, Werner, Fernand Léger, London, 1991, p. 126).
Created in 1952, this large and substantive Étude Pour La Grande Parade is among the final preparatory works. It is one of his most visually stimulating works of the series that continues his dedication to all-over pictorial design with no singular focus but one which is infused and charged with more joyous dynamism and energy than usual. The arrangement of these flat, geometric color planes of green, blue, yellow and red, seemingly arranged as random swaths of color create a sense of space and movement that has an electrifying effect; one that highlights and fragments the figures in energetic relationship while also complicating any clear division between background and foreground. It is in this colorful world that an accessible arena exists in which all spectators are welcomed and can delight in the acrobats, dancers, musicians, and strongmen of Léger’s imagination. It arrives with the sincerity of a confirmed humanist, a quality that prompted Stuart Davis to observe that, ‘the essence of Léger’s work is directness.’ (“Papers of Stuart Davis 1918-1964”, Harvard Museums Archive).
The first owner of this version of Étude pour La Grande parade was artist and set designer Alexander Liberman who enjoyed a long tenure at Vogue Magazine. The work appears to be inscribed to him.
Fernand Léger 1954, The National Portrait Gallery, London Photo: Ida Kar
Fernand Léger as he poses in front of his work, New York, 7 October 1941 Photo: Arnold Newman/Getty Images
Fernand Léger, La gande parade (état définitif) (The Great Parade) 1954 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Étude pour la Grande Parade, 1952, Gouache and ink on paper, 12 1/2 × 17 in
- Léger was a central figure of the Cubist movement whose artistic influence is rivaled by few others.
- The graph by Art Market Research shows that since 1976, works by Léger have increased at a 6% annual rate of return.
- Paintings by Léger have sold for up to $70 million at auction. The record price for a work on paper is $4.7 million, set by another study for a major series.
- Currently, Léger works on paper present an opportunity to acquire a museum-quality Léger under $5 million USD. There is an enormous disparity between the prices paid for Léger oils on canvas and the works on paper, a prudent area of acquisition ahead of the market direction.