We pause in front of Léger’s eight-foot-long canvas we had been hearing so much about. The colours sharp and lacquered. The subject modern, energetic, and self-possessed; a bit more downtown than we expected. “Curious that it was painted in 1921”, Julie recites, “when at the same time…”, I know what’s coming, and brace myself. I pull in a short breath. Julie lets her peacoat drag on the marble floor, the tip of her suede bootie catches in the jacket’s pocket. She’s distracted, excited to add layering from her encyclopaedic reserves. Nothing else comes into her field of view… “when at the same time, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize, Coco Chanel launched Perfume No. 5, the Spanish Flu infected 500 million people, Hitler became the leader of the Nazi Party”…. I tune out, staring intently at the figure on the right. I could swear she just took a sip of her tea, lifted up her cup to her lips, supped, and set it back down on its saucer. I peer. Intently. There is no after image, no tell-tale. I glance at Julie, she is motoring on, no change in diatribe, so I shake it off, decide I must be feeling light-headed from her droning….”when it was the Roaring Twenties, a decade of prosperity and debauchery—the era of bands, bootleggers, raccoon coats, bathtub gin, flappers, flagpole sitters, and marathon dancers”…. Gobsmacked now—the figure in the foreground is turning the page in her book, forefinger and thumb lightly grabbing the corner tab and folding it over—she’s looking directly at me, do I register that I just saw her do that; how crazy, as if she’s waiting for me to react…. I shake my head, ridding the image. Julie continues obsessing about laying down context, but I’ve heard enough. I inch a few paces left to read the Exhibit Label, and she follows my lead:
Fernand Léger Three Women 1921-22
Oil on canvas
6′ 1/4″ x 8′ 3″ (183.5 x 251.5 cm)
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
MoMA, Floor 5, 514 The David Geffen Wing
“Fernand Léger’s precursor to California Valley Girls, in his large-scale, Three Women 1921-22, excites all the senses in this stylish salon setting. The three nudes depicted here in ochre, kasha, and sand, with ‘sideswept hair gleaming like sheet metal’ reflect the hidden recursive impulses of the then modern-day subjugation of gender norms while offering a nod towards an indeterminate centrifugal binary world. Colours and lines are clean and sharp resisting autumnal dissection. – An honest piece.”
“What the hell is that crap?” she tousles her hair, removes her boot from her peacoat, and slides on to the next painting and the next history lesson. I don’t dare look back at the canvas.
The three beauties roll their eyes and settle in for the next viewing.
Fernand Léger ‘Three Women’ 1921-22, Oil on canvas Dimensions 6′ 1/4″ x 8′ 3″ (183.5 x 251.5 cm) Credit Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, MOMA