Fêtes de la Faim signed and dated 'F.L.48.' (lower right) brush and black ink on paper 32.6 x 25.4cm (12 13/16 x 10in). Executed in 1948
PROVENANCE Kay Hillman collection, New York. Martha Jackson Gallery, New York. Chrysalis Gallery, Southampton, New York.
This work will be included in the archives of the Comité Léger under reference no.26101001.
The present work is an illustration for Arthur Rimbaud's poem 'Fêtes de la Faim' ('Feasts of Hunger'), one of a number of compositions which Fernand Léger agreed to design in 1947 to illustrate Rimbaud's unfinished anthology Les Illuminations (1872-75).
It has been suggested that 'Fêtes de la Faim' was written in 1873 during Rimbaud's stay in London with Paul Verlaine, with whom he had begun a tumultuous relationship. Surviving only on a small allowance from Verlaine's mother, their lives in England were difficult and their bohemian lifestyle led them swiftly into poverty. Their relationship was further endangered by a reliance on absinthe and hashish, but the struggles that they faced may have been the inspiration for the hunger portrayed in the poem. It appears more likely however, that the poem was written in July 1872, when Rimbaud and Verlaine stopped in Brussels on their way to England.
Beyond the literal hunger and adversity described in 'Fêtes de la Faim', Rimbaud focuses on a greater appetite or desire to possess and discover the world; a hunger for exploration and freedom (L. Forestier, Poesies, Une Saison en Enfer-Illuminations, Paris, 1965). The first verses portray the longing for discoveries ('My hunger, Anne, Anne, flee on your donkey' verse 1, line 1) while the end of the poem refers to the ripe fruit, lamb's lettuce and violets, suggesting that he finds what he aspired to. The anecdotal sense is substituted for a vision of life. Rimbaud's evocative words and surrealist style create hallucinatory and dreamlike effects.
Leaves have appeared on earth! I seek out the flesh of overripe fruit. At the furrow's dug I feed On lamb's lettuce and violets. (verse 6)
Léger's interpretation of the poem is a very personal one, which appears to focus on the optimistic ending of the poem. He chooses the peaceful and reassuring face of a woman staring into her open hand, surrounded by flowers which echo the newly discovered wonders of the world.
Although Léger was commissioned to illustrate 'Fêtes de la Faim' as part of a project relating to the anthology Les Illuminations, the poem is thought not to be part of that collection. Rimbaud composed two versions of the poem, one in Vers Nouveaux (also entitled Derniers Vers) and the other in Une Saison en Enfer. The poems included in Les Illuminations were written in no particular order and it is very possible that some earlier editions had wrongly attributed 'Fetes de la Faim' to that collection. This would perhaps explain why this illustration was included in the edition on which Léger worked.
Kay Merrill Hillman was the renowned art dealer and collector who acquired an impressive collection of important modern and contemporary art throughout her lifetime. After her death, works by Joan Miró, Albert Gleizes, Paul Klee and Paul Cézanne were bequeathed to major public collections such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.