Lot 30 A. Fernand Léger (1881-1955) La grande parade (Le Cirque), signed and dated ‘F. LEGER 49’ (lower right), oil on canvas, 38 ¼ x 51 ½ in. (97.2 x 130.8 cm.) Painted in 1949. Estimate USD 6,000,000 - USD 9,000,000. © Christie's Image Ltd 2019.
Provenance: Acquired from the artist by the present owner, October 1953.
Literature: L.E. Levick, "Centuries Telescoped in Orbit of New Shows" in New York Journal-American, 3 March 1962, p. 7 (illustrated).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Léger: Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint, 1949-1951, Paris, 2003, vol. VIII, p. 64, no. 1353 (illustrated in color, p. 65; with incorrect provenance).
B. Mayer, The Passionate Collector: Robert B. Mayer's Adventures in Art, New York, 2011 (illustrated in color).
Exhibited: New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Fernand Léger: Five Themes and Variations, February-April 1962, p. 85, no. 104 (illustrated, p. 96).
Chicago, International Galleries, Fernand Léger, 1881-1955: Retrospective Exhibition, November-December 1966, p. 63, no. 47 (illustrated, p. 53).
Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Fernand Léger, October 1971-January 1972, p. 144, no. 224 (illustrated).
Note: Léger painted La grande parade (Le Cirque) in 1949, as he prepared to undertake the final, crowning achievement of his half-century-long career, La grande parade—he completed the état définitif, in 1954 (Bauquier, no. 1592). A large red circle, devised from two letter “Cs”, is the focal point in this large mural, since 1962 a centerpiece in the collection of the famously rotunda-shaped Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. The traditional circus parade is the customary sideshow of acrobats, clowns, dancers, and musicians, performing atop an elevated platform outside the entry gate, intended to entice onlookers among the gathering crowd to pay admission at the ticket booth, enter, and enjoy the star attractions within.
The Guggenheim La grande parade is Léger’s apotheosis of le cirquetheme, which threads its way through his oeuvre from start to finish. Having survived the horrendous carnage on the front lines during the First World War, Léger celebrated the November 1918 Armistice and a return to peacetime pursuits by completing seven canvases depicting the ring, acrobats, and clowns of the fabled Cirque Médrano on the edge of Montmartre (Bauquier, nos. 107-114). As the Cirque Fernando until 1897, this venue featured in paintings by Degas, Renoir, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Following the turn of the century as the Médrano, and before the war, this circus also provided entertainment and subject matter for Picasso, van Dongen, and Chagall, as well as their friends, the poets Apollinaire, Cendrars, and Max Jacob. Circularity became the fundamental, constructive element in Léger’s pioneering, virtually abstract compositions of spinning cylinders and cones, the series les contrastes de formes of 1913-1914.
During the 1920s, Léger touted the circus as the epitome of modern spectacle, a public phenomenon that, in its traditions and evolution, he believed to represent a genuine art of the people. “The 'Big Top' of the New Circus is an absolutely marvelous world,” the artist wrote in 1924. “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... There are more ‘plastic passages’ in ten minutes of an acrobatic spectacle than there are in many scenes of ballet” (quoted in “The Spectacle,” ibid., pp. 39-40).
Loose-limbed, elastic acrobatic movement guided Léger’s conception of the figure in major compositions during the late 1930s and 1940s, as bicyclists, divers and swimmers, even workers perched high up on construction scaffolding. The men and women in his paintings celebrate the active, athletic pleasures of modern living, as they participate in a “new outdoors reality," which the artist showcased in large figure compositions. “The new thing in this type of big picture is an intensity ten times greaterthan its predecessors,” Léger wrote in 1939. “We can get this intensity by application of contrasts—pure tones and groupings of form...soul. That is the solution for the big picture" (quoted in C. Lanchner, Fernand Léger, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 145).
During his five years of exile in America during the Second World War, Léger became a devotee of the spectacular, three-ring Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which then, as until its demise in 2017, performed annually in New York's Madison Square Garden. He painted several circus pictures before departing America (Bauquier, nos. 1205-1207), which presage the grande parade compositions of the later 1940s and 1950s. Having returned to France, the subject of the circus became even more compelling for Léger; as a beloved, popular tradition, le cirque was a stirring source of national pride. The Cirque Médrano and rival Cirque d’Hiver were still in operation. The grand circuses of Paris, together with smaller provincial troupes, represented for Léger an apt symbol of French esprit and joie de vivre, affirmative qualities that must be brought to bear to face the daunting challenges of postwar economic reconstruction and the revival of democratic government in the newly constituted Fourth Republic.
In 1950, Tériade published Le Cirque, Léger’s masterwork in print-making, a magnificent folio of 34 color and 29 black-and-white lithographs (Saphire, nos. 44-106). This compendium of the artist's circus subjects continued to inspire the imagery in the gouache and oil studies that preceded the Guggenheim mural, including La grande parade, 1er état, 1952—like the present painting, set against a dark blue background (Bauquier, no. 1517). Léger painted the Guggenheim état définitif (no. 1592) in his culminating, decorative mural style: a linear design of the figures and all other pictorial elements—executed in black paint, with some portions filled in with solid, local color—overlays large, swathe-like abstract shapes in solid primary and secondary colors. The latter appear to advance or recede, shaping the viewer’s perception of architectural space within the room. The present La grande parade was similarly conceived, then finished with the blue background, creating a dramatic contrast of light and dark that suggests stage-lighting falling on the performers in a darkened space or nocturnal setting.
"What grace is in the assemblage of curves and softened angles,” Léger wrote in Le Cirque. “The dance blends with the colored background. Carefully studied movement, its fixed phases, where a leg prudently returns to the floor after having risked space, lifted at arm's length, the free balancing of two rounded and pleasing limbs, the dynamic aggression of a collective mass that assaults the spectator. Speed, elevation, the instantaneous return to the floor and departure again; that with color, with lighting, with music to support the agile mass of feet, hands and bodies. The speed captures the motionless audience. It is most still when the action is furious. It luxuriates in this rapid, frothy interplay. This is what it came for" (quoted in ibid., pp. 173-174).
Christie's. Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale, New York, 13 May 2019