Cirque, published by Verve in 1950, is Léger’s lithographic masterpiece. After Rouault’s Divertissement in 1943 and Matisse’s Jazz in 1947, although before Chagall’s Cirque in 1967, this was the third book on the subject commissioned by Tériade. The latter was of Greek origin and worked as an art critic in Paris, indeed, he wrote the second-ever monograph on Léger in 1928. He founded Verve and became one of the major art publishers of the 20th century. On his return from exile in America in 1945, the painter accepted Tériade’s commission. As he felt that the novella which Henry Miller had initially been asked to write was too dark, he wrote the text himself. There were 300 copies of the 113-page book printed by the famous Parisian lithographers Mourlot Frères. The spoken tone of the manuscript alternates with colourful gouaches and black ink drawings. Léger recycles some of his previous writings and applies his aesthetic of contrasts – which is itself worthy of a cinematographic montage – to the images.
“We are experiencing space more than ever before. Man is growing and expanding in all directions; there’s a competition to escape and leave behind all earthly constraints, to flee what is solid and concrete. A nervous mobility is taking over the world. Everything is moving and escaping from traditional constraints. Being a painter and feeling so totally unable to resolve this spectacle on a canvas.”Fernand Léger, Cirque, Éditions Verve, 1950