This morning, Christie’s announced the auction of Fernand Léger work from 1913 that will set a new record for the artist, if this work that has never before been auctioned sells. The whisper number on the work is $65m, give or take, and it is being sold without a guarantee from the auction house or a third party. Clearly, the sellers are confident in the work’s market appeal.
The current top price paid for a Léger came in 2008 when La femme en bleu (study) from the same period made $39.2 million. Here’s Christie’s release explaining the work and its sale:
On November 13, 2017, Christie’s will present Fernand Léger’s Contraste de formes, 1913, the most important canvas by the artist offered at auction in several decades (estimate on request). This exquisite picture comes from Property from the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, and proceeds from the sale of this work will go towards the foundation’s philanthropic mission. Originally acquired from Léger at the end of 1913 by his dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Contraste de formes was bought in 1956 from Galerie Rosengart in Lucerne by Ludmilla and Hans Arnhold, an international banker and art collector. The Arnholds later bequeathed the painting to their daughter and son-in law, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen. Kellen was the CEO of the highly respected investment banking firm, Arnhold and S. Bleichroeder, Inc., as well as a distinguished collector and passionate philanthropist. The Kellens were deeply captivated by Léger and his work, often visiting the Musée National Fernand-Léger in Biot, France, with their children and eventually their grandchildren. Contraste de formes was a cherished highlight of the Kellens’ collection and it enriched their New York home for over 40 years.
November 13 will mark the painting’s first time at auction.
Conor Jordan, Deputy Chairman, Impressionist and Modern Art, remarked: “This is pure painting seen in its most exciting form, bursting with visual and intellectual ideas. The Kellen Foundation’s Contraste de formes, among the greatest Léger’s still in private hands, has a startling intensity. Executed just months before the First World War, Contraste de formes with its groundbreaking abstract conception and its thrillingly preserved physical state, is without question a major work of Modern Art. Standing at the threshold of 20th century art, this picture marks a departure from the purely figurative, leading the way for abstract art.”
Painted in 1913, Contraste de formes belongs to a series of paintings that changed forever the way we look at art. Across the course of just a few months, in a sequence of some fourteen canvases, Léger advanced beyond Cubism into a visual language that abandoned the representational concerns of his contemporaries, Picasso and Braque. Instead Léger made abstract shapes and colors, hinged on a network of forceful lines his only subject. The work of Léger during 1912-1914 is the story of the push towards pure or non-representational painting in France and the subsequent return to the subject in the months preceding the mobilization for war. The Contrastes de formes have long been considered cornerstones of important collections of modern art and thus nearly all examples from the series are today housed in major institutions.
In his Contrastes de formes series, Léger utilized simple geometric volumes composed of cylinders and planar elements which he rendered into multiple elements by means of line and color. He fabricated a tumbling surface in which shapes simultaneously appear to project out of the picture plane or recede into it suggesting volume. All the component lines, forms and colors are actively engaged as they play off each other to create a jolting, rhythmic composition. At first glance these surfaces display a helter-skelter appearance; however, there is a visual logic based on the simple aspect of his chosen component forms. In the second Académie Wassilief lecture, prepared as Léger was bringing this series of paintings to a close, he wrote, “Composition takes precedence over all else; to obtain their maximum expressiveness lines, forms, and colors must be employed with the utmost logic. It is the logical spirit that will achieve the greatest result.”