“Modern man lives more and more in a preponderantly geometric order,” Léger declared. “All mechanical and industrial human creation is subject to geometric forces... I would, then, bring about a new architectural order: the architecture of the mechanical. Architecture, both traditional and modern, originates from geometric forces” (E.F. Fry, ed., Fernand Léger: Functions of Painting, New York, 1973, pp. 52 and 53).
Léger painted Nature morte aux éléments mécaniques in a series of compositions that amounted to a manifesto of the aims and means he would pursue in his art following the end of the First World War. Hostilities on the Western Front had not yet ceased when in 1918 Léger fired the initial barrage of these high-explosive paintings in his single-artist campaign to bring machine-like elements, often derived from the latest wartime techno-industrial developments, into the realm of modernist painting. He sought to create and promulgate an art that was authentically contemporary and cosmopolitan in every respect, keeping pace with the drastic changes that were transforming the modern world at an unprecedented, ever accelerating pace.
“Although I may have been the first to employ this modern element for pictorial ends, I do not have the slightest intention of claiming ‘that’s all there is to it’,” Léger stated. “The mechanical element is only a means and not an end. I consider it simply plastic ‘raw material,’ like the elements of a landscape or a still life.” He extended this recommendation to his colleagues: “In accord with the individual’s plastic purpose, in accord with an artist’s need for the real element, I think that the mechanical element is extremely advisable for anyone who seeks fullness and intensity in a work of art” (ibid., p. 24).
In this Nature morte, Léger radically re-invented the traditional genre of a floral still-life placed within a well-appointed bourgeois setting, discarding any semblance to the particular manners in which Old Master and Impressionist painters treated this theme in their art. He instead configured the present painting as a boldly futuristic interior, like the set he would design five years later for Marcel L’Herbier’s film L’inhumaine. Upon a table top the artist erected an imposing structure of cones and cylinders, perhaps inspired by tapered drill bits and gear drives, in place of the conventional vase holding flowering plants.
“The modern way of life is full of such elements for us; we must know how to use them,” Léger wrote to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in 1919. “Every age brings with it some new elements which should serve us; the great difficulty is to translate them into plastic terms” (quoted in op. cit., 1973, p. 45).
Léger served in the trenches from the early months of the Great War in 1914. He was present at the killing fields of Verdun, and remained in the thick of action until he was he was gassed near Aisne and hospitalized in the spring of 1917. He witnessed firsthand the terrible mechanization of modern warfare. Machine guns were responsible for much of the slaughter, the first tanks lumbered into battle, while ever speedier and more agile warplanes clashed overhead. Léger found it no less fascinating to study the debris of smashed-up equipment than to observe the arrival at the front of long convoys bearing factory-new replacements. He understood how man himself had become a mere cog in an all-powerful, fateful machine, caught up in mercilessly grinding gears of destruction and death. France alone suffered more than 5.6 million military casualties during 1914-1918.
Discharged from the army in early 1918, Léger continued to convalesce, in and out of Paris hospitals, from pulmonary problems related to the Aisne encounter. He was finally able to resume painting full time at the beginning of the summer. As the artists who served on the front lines during the war returned to civilian life following the Armistice, they discovered that the state and styles of the Paris art scene had markedly changed in their absence. Having unloosed before the war a Pandora’s box of formal dislocations in the invention of Cubism, Picasso returned to the figure, and would soon begin to cultivate a vision of Arcadian antiquity. His new manner helped establish the post-war fashion for neo-classicism.
Picasso still painted cubist compositions alternately with his classical pictures, but late wartime and post-war modernism rarely demonstrated that same adventurous and provocative cutting edge that had so boldly expanded the boundaries of painting before 1914. Le rappel à l’ordre—“the call to order”—would soon go out, summoning French painters to revive the grand tradition of Gallic humanism and classical values in the arts. Cubism had entered its “crystalline” or classical phase, in which its practitioners enforced the discipline of rational order, balance, and clarity—a direct response to the senseless slaughter of the war—at the expense of dynamism, simultaneity, and the power of plastic contrast—aspects of pre-war Cubism and Futurism which had shaped Léger’s aesthetic outlook and continued to bolster his post-war stance.
Swimming against the classical tide then rising around him did not deter Léger from his avowed mission; he remained true to the brash, anti-order convictions of the pre-war period. The grim experience of modern warfare only served to strengthen Léger’s resolve. He insisted on countering the increasingly conservative, nostalgic, and even escapist tendencies of much post-war Paris painting with his own message of wholly contemporary and cosmopolitan subject matter, which he cast in an uncompromisingly dissonant and dynamic pictorial syntax. Léger would simply paint, as he put it, “what was going on around me.” He announced to Rosenberg, “I reached a decision; without compromising in any way, I would model in pure and local color, using large volumes. I could do without tasteful arrangements, delicate shading, and dead backgrounds. I was no longer fumbling for the key. I had it. The war matured me and I am not afraid to say so. It is my ambition to achieve the maximum pictorial realization by means of plastic contrasts” (quoted in P. Francia, Fernand Léger, New Haven, 1983, p. 42).
“I have never enjoyed copying a piece of machinery,” Léger wrote. “I invent images from machines, as others have made landscapes from their imagination. For me, the mechanical element is not a fixed position, an attitude, but a means of succeeding in conveying a feeling of strength and power... I try to create a beautiful object with mechanical elements” (E.F. Fry, ed., op. cit., 1973, p. 62).