Featured Essay

Study for

Three Figures

Which is more beautiful: a ladder, or a woman? A flower, or a rope?

If you answered “neither” to both of these questions, then you might be thinking along similar lines as Fernand Léger. Considered an important ancestor to pop art, his work elevated the mechanical alongside the natural, destroying what he saw as outdated hierarchies of value and beauty. Once one let go of “prejudices” that ranked the fine arts above the machine, or the natural above the manufactured, and considered an object’s value for itself, then one would be able to see that “Le beau est partout”—beauty is everywhere.

To Léger, the human body was simply one object among many. We see this in his 1932 painting Composition aux trois figures, wherein three nude women stand alongside a ladder-like structure adorned with a rope. The yellow background draws the eye, but both the women and the mechanical elements are black and white, completely devoid of color except for a traffic light on the left side of the ladder. The monochrome equalizes the human and mechanical objects of the piece—neither is of greater importance. Additionally, the lack of color makes the women appear statuesque, whereas the smoke and traffic light suggest movement from the ladder structure. Léger later noted in 1945, “As long as the human body is considered a sentimental or expressive value in painting, no new evolution in pictures of people will be possible.” By taking the element of movement away from the human objects of his painting and giving it to the mechanical ones, Léger makes a visual argument for this theory.

In a study for that painting dated the same year, Léger sketched the three women separately. The only details they lack from the painting are shading and fingernails, and the flower held by the lowest woman is somewhat less elaborate. Their bodies are composed of thick dark lines forming hard separations between their arms and shoulders, breasts and torsos, and legs and hips, emphasizing the impression that they are mechanical assemblages of parts, like dolls. Yet they are hardly delicate; their forms are rounded and sturdy, dominating the frame. The faint traces of a grid that remain on the paper betray the architectural precision with which Léger arranged the figures’ seemingly casual poses. If the finished Composition argued for equal appreciation of mechanical and natural beauty, then this sketch honors the natural by reducing it to its structural elements. The study makes a bold beginning to what would become a bold painting, relying on the geometry of the figures’ bodies to speak for themselves.