Fernand Léger (1881 – 1955)
Composition with Fruit
Paris, 1938. Oil on canvas
Purchased 1985 (No. 85.1)
The use of the word ‘Composition’ in the title suggests music to me, and there’s something innately pleasing about the arrangement of shapes and colours here, like well-structured music. The colours appear at first to be solid blocks, but on closer inspection there are fine gradations and textures, making the picture warmer and less mechanistic. Then there are the wriggling worms in the fruit, to me humorous and mischievous, but also bringing an awareness of impermanence and decay to the statuesque calm which is the prevailing mood of the painting.
Andrew Killeen, Author and Barber Writer-in-Residence, 2012
Here we see a traditional genre – still-life painting – transformed by a radical, modern technique. Colour and form have been ruthlessly simplified in a manner that is sympathetic to modern machine-made and mass-produced objects.
Since the early 17th century, still-life painting provided an opportunity for the artist to explore form, colour and technique, but also to create images riddled with ambiguous and paradoxical symbolism. Often there is an underlying message of vanitas, where the pleasures of existence fade into insignificance upon pondering the transitory nature of life. Other interpretations highlight the irony of meditating upon a priceless painting to consider the fruitless pursuit of pleasure and wealth.
Joseph-Fernand-Henri Léger was a French painter, sculptor, and filmmaker. He had initially trained as an architect, indeed for a time earned a living as an architectural draughtsman, and the influence of his early career can be seen in the bold structural elements of the Barber’s painting. His Composition with Fruit, a still life freed from the moralising preaching of previous centuries, blatantly celebrates the objects of consumer culture in contemporary society. In his worship of the machine age, which is expressed in the geometric forms that he observed around him in the city; in his desire to appeal to the masses, making work which he hoped everyone could understand; and in his fascination with the objects of consumer society, Léger can rightly be called the originator of Pop Art.
Tess Radcliffe, Learning and Access Officer