Circus images began to appear in Léger’s work roughly twenty years prior to Marie l’acrobate (Marie, the Acrobat), from 1936; their style and substance were motivated by the artist’s experience during the First World War. Early in his career, Léger was influenced by Cézanne, undertaking explorations of form that identified him with cubism and especially with the artists of the Section d’Or group. Just prior to the outbreak of war, his work had developed openly toward abstraction, centered around experimentation that he denominated Contrastes de formes (Contrasts of forms) (1). During his time in the service, however, first on the front and later carrying stretchers, Léger developed a greater sense of solidarity with the people he encountered in the trenches as well as a new assessment of the underlying beauty in modern machinery. This transformed his way of seeing and drove him toward creating a new, relevant form of art. As the artist himself evoked: “Among [my new companions], I discovered the French people. At the same time, I was mesmerized by the chamber of a 74 millimeter rifle in the sun: the magic of light on white metal. This was enough to make me forget about the abstract art from 1912-13” (2).
When Léger took up painting again exclusively in 1918, the circus was his principal theme; he created seven canvases for the famous Cirque Médrano in the Parisian enclave of Montmartre. By selecting this theme, Léger was celebrating the end of hostilities and the return to everyday diversions in times of peace, although the artist would maintain this interest in the circus throughout his life in his search for a popular vocabulary. He considered it to be an environment where the emotion generated by the performance united spectators from all social strata. In Les acrobates dans le cirque (Acrobats in the Circus, 1918, Kunstmuseum, Basel), Léger’s acrobats are figures derived from mechanical devices, with cylindrical members that evoke the artist’s declared fascination for shiny machinery. Their solid, curved forms are clearly defined, but at the same time integrated into a composition that is a cacophony of intersecting flat colors and punctuated by striped canvas, dotted costumes and glimpses of the enthused public. The vertical axis across the canvas is the only stable element within its overall dynamism, where multiple planes of information offer a visual equivalent to the experience of modernity.
In France’s increasingly conservative cultural panorama following the War and its rappel à l’ordre, Léger’s dislocated mechanical forms increasingly gave way to figures with classical proportions during the 20s. During the 1930s, his concept of an art that would be relevant for the masses evolved toward iconography that would be even more readily legible and the creation of what he defined as “plastic beauty” (3). A substantial part of Marie l’acrobate’s form appears for the first time in 1933, in a work with the same title (private collection) (4). Deliberately serene and situated with self-assurance against a vibrant yellow background, the elegant acrobat is an indicator of the artist’s migration from pictorial devices that evoked modernity’s simultaneity and velocity toward others that offered relief from its inexorable rhythm. “In this accelerated and complex life that pushes us and tears us apart, we should have the strength to slow down and keep ourselves calm, to work beyond the destabilizing elements that surround us, to conceive of life in its most gentle and pacific sense” (5). In the artist’s terms, a popular pictorial form should provide an aesthetic break from the dissonance of modern life. In his 1936 version of Marie l’acrobate, Léger similarly presents a robust, monumental figure. With one arm raised and her pose ostensibly still, her solidity and firm, frontal position would seem to refute her occupation and the bodily contortions usually associated with it. In comparison to the previous work, in which Léger painted the acrobat beside an apparatus with a balance beam, here her figure floats serenely against a blue background, free and uncluttered, except for two cloud-like figures that softly round out the open space. The simplified composition in the later work also reflects the artist’s interest in the power of contemporary visual media. The isolation of the incomplete figure in Marie l’acrobate transfers Léger’s interest in cinematographic close-ups to the realm of painting.
The resulting absence of narrative in Marie l’acrobate also points to the artist’s own position in relation to the debates that were agitating all of France in terms of art’s role in society, requesting that artists create accessible works, illustrating the moment’s most heroic social themes. While Léger was looking for an ample audience for his work and had demonstrated his interest in the popular techniques of film, photography and publicity, he avoided exalted themes and the pseudo-documentary style that social realism demanded. His deliberate innocence in Marie l’acrobate’s anatomical construction and the abstract elements in her clothing affirmed the artist’s autonomy in deciding what form his work would take. While critics argued that the people had no access to modern art, in Léger’s mind the fault lay in the social order that denied them the time necessary to appreciate art: “Free time […] is the fundamental point of this discussion… At no point in world history have workers had access to plastic beauty, and the reason is that they have never had the time and freedom of mind necessary” (6).
Léger’s conviction that aesthetic education was impossible without free time stimulated his interest in seeing how the working class spent their leisure time, and Marie l’acrobate was one of the many works that consequently celebrated these forms of popular recreation. His choice of the circus and its actors as part of an accessible iconography was also motivated by the artist’s desire to involve the public in a series of formal experiments that would have been much less attractive otherwise. This motif continued to appear in Léger’s work during the Second World War and afterwards as well, at a time when the topic of public amusement offered a distraction from the anxieties generated on the front, and later it would prove to be a precursor to a return to diversion in times of peace (7). In 1948, Léger published a lithograph with the same title in which a large part of the composition was copied from the original painting, but varying the color arrangement: an acrobat wrapped in a blue suit appeared in front of a vibrant red background in which a single green cloud-shaped figure fits in (8).Kate Kangaslahti
1— For example, Contrast of forms, 1913, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
2— Fernand Léger, “Que signifie: être témoin de son temps?”, Arts, Paris, nº 205, March 11, 1949, p. 1.
3— Cited in: Florent Fels, Propos d’artistes. Paris, La Renaissance du Livre, 1925, p. 101.
4— Fernand Léger, Marie l’acrobate, 1933, private collection, reproduced in color in: Georges Bauquier, 1996, nº 836, p. 83.
5— Fernand Léger, “Color in the World”  in: Functions of Painting, edited by Edgard F. Fry. New York, Viking Press, 1973, p. 130-131.
6— Fernand Léger, “The New Réalisme Goes On” , in: Functions of Painting, op. cit., p. 116.
7— For example, Le jongleur et les acrobates, 1943, Musée national d’art moderne- Centre Georges Pompidou, París, and L’acrobate et sa partenaire, Tate Gallery, London.
8— Lawrence Saphire, Fernand Léger: The Complete Graphic Work. New York, Blue Moon Press, 1978, nº 21.
1996. BAUQUIER, Georges, Fernand Leger. Catalogue raisonne de l’oeuvre peint 1932- 1937. Paris, Maeght, no 835, reprod. p. 81 (erróneamente fechada en 1933 y 1934 en el catálogo).