Painting by Fernand Leger for Bonhams auction

A striking and intense painting by Fernand Léger is one of the highlights of Bonhams Impressionist and Modern Art sale on 5th February 2013. Estimated at £70,000 – 100,000, the painting is a highly personal work that communicates the artist’s strong stand on disarmament and against biological warfare. Painted in a graphic style which lends the figures a statuesque presence, the painting is titled ‘Composition aux quatre figures, affiche pour l’entente entre les peoples pour le désarmement contre la guerre microbienne’.

Léger’s strong internationalism is emphasized by his gift of this painting to famous Russian actress Lyudmila Ivanovna Kasatkina (1925-2012) in 1955. Celebrated worldwide, the movie starlet had played the title role in the film ‘Tiger Girl’ in 1954 to great acclaim. Kasatkina was wildly popular in Russia, and in 2010 was invested into the Order for Merit to the Fatherland by President Medvedev. The painting has not been seen on the market since Léger publically presented it to the actress at a dinner in the Soviet embassy during a visit to Paris.

Léger was deeply concerned about increasing militarism during the 1950s and was a member of the International Peace Movement and the French Communist Party. Prior to 1952, when the work is likely to have been painted, Léger frequently exhibited at peace exhibitions in France and abroad as well as attending the first Peace Congress in Poland, with fellow artists Picasso and Aimé Cesaire. His involvement in peace movements had a significant influence on many of his paintings at this time and had a direct impact on ‘Composition aux quatre figures’.

In 1952 the artist made an important statement on peace at the Vienna Congress, condemning the waste of human life for political ends. It was an emotional speech in which Léger drew on his personal experiences of two World Wars, especially alluding to the horrific scenes he had witnessed in the trenches as a stretcher bearer during the First World War.

In ‘Composition aux quatre figures’ Léger distilled his views on warfare into a striking and emotive image, which also addressed the rising contemporary fear of biological weapons. The group of figures represents the restoration of harmony between different races of the world. It is at once a yearning for world peace and a warning against the perils ahead, if disarmament was not achieved. While the main figures hold a peace treaty between them and a flower symbolizing peace, a motionless child lies in the arms of another figure. The viewer is left to question whether the child is an innocent victim of warfare or a symbol of foreboding for the future of humanity.

William O’Reilly, Director of the Impressionist and Modern Art Department said, “Fernand Léger’s striking image is an extraordinary work which deals with issues that were at the very heart of society during this period. The 1950s were a deeply unsettling time with anxieties over the Cold War and the ramifications of the Korean War. Peace movements were just beginning to take shape and Léger was an important figure in the campaign for disarmament.
“As well as the historical context of this painting, it is fascinating to think that it was a personal gift from the artist to a glamorous Russian film star. After half a century in private hands, it is a real pleasure to offer this great work for sale.”

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