Léger commonly painted several different variations on each of his pictorial ideas, and many of the same elements in this painting appear in four others, arranged in similar interrelationships. Aside from what appear to be rods, wires, and the stenciled letters P, U, and V (presumably taken from some poster or sign observed on the street), it is impossible to identify specific objects. Judging from Léger’s more explicitly representational works of the immediate post–World War I era, however, the colorful fragmented and segmented forms, all geometrical in outline, are most likely related to elements of modern machinery and architecture. Already before the war, in a lecture presented in Paris, Léger stressed that condensation, variety, and fragmentation were the essential visual qualities of motorized, commercialized, twentieth-century experience and hence of modern painting.
Léger gave the Kimbell painting to his lifelong friend the poet and art critic Blaise Cendrars, who favored the rhythms of just such fractured and fragmentary observations in his influential writings. After the war, in which they both saw combat, Léger provided illustrations for Cendrars’s book I Have Killed (1918). Their close relationship is apparent in a poem entitled Construction, which Cendrars wrote in 1919: “Color, color, and more colors . . . / Here’s Léger who grows like the sun in the tertiary epoch. . . . Painting becomes this great thing that moves / The wheel / Life / The machine / The human soul / A 75 mm breech / My portrait.”
The work remained in Cendrars’s collection until acquired by the Kimbell in 1985. As a result, its condition remains pristine; never varnished nor relined, it provides a benchmark for understanding the delicate textures and matte surfaces essential to Léger’s aesthetic.
Given by the artist to Blaise Cendrars [1887-1961] in 1920;
by descent in Blaise Cendrars’s family until 1981;
Ellen Melas Kyriazi Collection, Switzerland (acquired directly from the Cendrars family);
purchased from (Ellen Melas Kyriazi, Lausanne) by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1985.
© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris