Three Women (Le Grand Déjeuner). 1921. Oil on canvas, 6.25’ x 3.25’, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
I used this artist in a joke some time back and I’ve felt bad about it ever since. He didn’t deserve the lack of respect, so I’m here to make it up to him by discussing this painting which in French is called “The Grand Luncheon” but over here in good old America, for the purposes of search engine optimization, I am calling “Live, Nude Girls!” Apparently in France at least one in every five paintings must have the word “Déjeuner” or “lunch” in the title. (Presumably so stuffy old museum curators won’t ever forget that it’s time to eat.) Nevertheless, I don’t think this painting is a direct reference or homage to any other artist.
When Léger painted these ladies he could not imagine that someday plastic surgeons would render his women suddenly lifelike. But if you visit any of our modern day fine establishments with the signs out front proclaiming “Live, Nude Girls!” chances are you will see chest artillery shaped exactly like the ordinance on these ladies. But as we have seen in other articles, artists seem to have this instinctual power to peer into the future subconsciously and slather it on a canvas for the rest of us.
Originally, the colors of the Live, Nude Girls! were all alike, but he went back later and changed the skin tone of the woman on the right to this rich brown. He seems to like the way this emphasizes how the first two ladies are blending in with their surroundings. The couch acts as a kind of middle ground echoing both the firm curves of the ladies and their cups, vases, and bowls as well as the stark straight lines of the background. Gentle orange waves suggest the drapes. The more you look the busier the picture becomes. Ooh, look! There’s a cat! If you keep staring you almost get a magic-eye effect as individual details begin to pop and float in three dimensions. Picture elements we initially perceive as depth cues seem to vanish when studied.
Léger wrote of “Geometric Order and Truth” in something he called “the Machine Aesthetic.” His art is greatly influenced by the things he experienced in the front line trenches during World War I. He spent most of his spare time sketching. He took time during leave to paint. He was greatly impressed by the similarities between the machines of war and human beings. He used the same conical configurations for cannon to render arms and thighs. Cannon ball breasts fit well with the cubist style and with his own sensibility. Further, it suited his dedication to communicating clearly, allowing him to be plain spoken for his perceived audience of the common people while remaining highly stylistic. He was the son of a farmer and completely devoted to the average poor of the world which would lead him to communism in the forties. It was during his two years in the Argonne that he came to reject the abstraction of his earlier work and commit to more representational work once he resumed his life as an artist. Before the war his feelings of connection with the hoi polloi might be dismissed as no more than the clichéd interest of an artist intellectual. No more. He had been to war with these people, had nearly died from a mustard gas attack. He wanted to communicate with them, to touch them. He didn’t want his brothers-in-arms to stare at his work and wonder what the hell was going on.
We are all part of the machine aesthetic, he seems to say. We, the sons of the poor and common, we are the real machines of war. We are rolled out as surely as the caissons of cannon to be loaded and tamped and blown to bits for some wealthier, better off class of people who can stay at home and wear ribbon pins on their lapels so all our widows will know when they see them that they are for the troops.
For the rest of his life, by God when Léger created something you at least knew what the hell it was. Live, Nude Girls!