Still Life with a Beer Mug
At the centre of this painting is a tankard-like beer mug, shown in profile with its handle on the left. It is considerably larger than the table on which it ostensibly sits. The viewer’s line of sight is slightly above the mug so we can see down into the top third of its interior. The inside is painted in a steely grey with a strong vertical line of dark grey shading down the centre. This line makes it appear as if the mug is made from a curled sheet of metal, but instead of the two edges being welded together, one appears to overlap the other. In contrast, the external surface of the mug is a mass of different geometric patterns in bright red, blue, orange and white. The pattern is totally flat and makes no allowance for the theoretically curved surface of the mug, thereby contradicting the sense of volume set up by the shaded grey interior. The handle of the mug is predominantly scarlet except for two horizontal strips of orange. The top half of the mug is scarlet with a white band just below the rim. There is a white half-moon shape on the left side of the mug aligned to its handle and opposite, on the right, is a vertical white wavy line that seems to mirror the handle’s profile. The bottom third of the mug is painted a bold ultramarine blue that is separated from the red upper section by three horizontal strips of pattern. The first, above the blue, is a white undulating line. Above this is a band of grey with darker grey dots placed in the dips of the crested line beneath. Finally, below the red upper section is a striped band of orange and white.
The mug dwarfs the square-topped table on which it sits. It is shown parallel to the picture plane, that is to say, if the picture were a window through which we were seeing a beer mug on a table, then the mug is situated parallel to what would be the pane of glass which is, in reality, the surface of the canvas. In contrast, the table is shown as if it were being tipped up at an angle towards the picture plane. The effect is to make the mug appear to be floating above rather than sitting on the table.
The table is not facing squarely to the viewer, but instead it is on an angle so that its square top is orientated more like a diamond. Its warm orangey wooden legs are unnaturally long and thin for its size and disappear off the bottom of the canvas. Underneath the table top and facing the viewer are two white fronted drawers without handles. The surface of the table is a citrus yellow while the items of food and crockery placed on it are all painted in the same metallic greys and whites as the inside of the beer mug. All of these forms been severely simplified.
To the right of the mug and disappearing behind it is a plate of plumbs. The plate is a flat white half-moon disc on which are placed five shaded grey plums. Since we only have the shape rather than the colour to recognise the plumbs by, the only clue to prevent us mistaking them for eggs are the stalks attached to two of them. Painted along the bottom edge of the plate is a heavy curved black line, suggesting that the dish is not entirely flat, but instead has a sunken well and a wide rim that is throwing a shadow. Above the plate and jutting out from behind the top of the mug are two parallel tubular shapes that can’t be clearly read. Perhaps they are rolled-up napkins, or maybe a couple of bread rolls. In the bottom left corner of the table are two rimmed pots, of the type used by restaurants to serve butter and next to these, an even smaller pot which might contain salt. Above these is a T shaped object, again looking as if it were made from metal piping. At the left hand end of the T is a shape that looks slightly like the handle of a corkscrew, or a key, or the figure 8. Again it is difficult to interpret this object.
Above this and behind the mug’s handle is a smaller plate carrying oval objects that are smaller than the plums and without any identifying foliage. They also are painted in an ambiguous way so that they could be discs and therefore biscuits or slices of salami, rather than solid ovoid forms like eggs. Finally, just above this plate and still behind the mug and the handle are three strange shapes. Two are dark grey and shaded curved lines; the third is an orange worm-like object. All three are impossible to read with any certainty.
Running down the right hand edge of the canvas and close to the edge of the table is what appears to be a heavy dark blue curtain. About halfway down its length it is pulled in by two paler blue horizontal bands, as if by a tie-back. This makes the top half of the curtain swag outwards. Once again, the way that Leger has modelled the curtain makes it appear to be made from shiny blue metal rather than soft material. Underneath the table and glimpsed in the narrow gap between the table and the curtain is a black and white chequered floor. In a similar way to the beer mug, the floor does not follow the laws of perspective by converging away from us and towards a vanishing point at the back of the room. Instead the pattern is flat to the picture plane, as if it were a decorative, vertical hanging. This makes the floor appear to be behind rather than underneath the table and to be squashing the table and the beer mug up against the surface of the canvas.
In the top third of the painting behind the table are a series of thick black horizontal and vertical lines. Although surrounded by other lines, blocks and circles of colour, the black lines appear to be describing a low balustrade or balcony railings to the right of centre and a wall on the left. The combination of these architectural features, the curtain and the still life on the table suggest that the setting could be a café. The low railing is surmounted by a series of horizontal bars of colour progressing from orange at the bottom, through black, white, brown and then red. These colours and their shapes echo those in the still life on the table and so tie the background into the foreground. The orange strip at the base of the railing has an undulating bottom edge that mirrors the undulating line on the tankard below, while the colour matches the colour of the table legs. Similarly the top strip of scarlet matches the colour of the beer mug. However, whereas the scarlet of the tankard is interrupted by curvaceous lines and discs of white, the red strip above the railing is interspaced with cubes of white paint. So the visual echoes are not exact repetitions which might become boring, instead the variations keep our interest.
If the right half of the painting behind the table is articulated with loosely recognisable architectural elements like the chequered floor, the large curtain and the balcony railing, then the left half of the painting is entirely abstract, flat and patterned. The majority of this pattern is composed of rectangles and squares of black, white, grey, grey-blue, dark browns and ochres, and animated still further by contrasting circles and wavy lines. Initially this pattern might appear random although rigorously geometric. However, Léger has been careful in his placement of pattern and colour so that they precisely mirror each other across the canvas. So above the beer mug is a rectangle of citrus yellow that repeats the colour of the table top. In the bottom left corner, a linear star burst effect in brown and grey paint repeats the colours of the balustrade in the diagonally opposite corner. Similarly the undulating line originally set up by the tankard’s handle and repeated several times on the mug itself, is replicated across the background pattern like a recurring phrase in music. Even the blank white drawers in the table are echoed in the white rectangles interspersed in the top left section of the painting, while the white disc of the beer mug’s rim occurs in various sizes across the canvas in the plates, butter dishes and spots.
Léger’s use of colour, shape and line is rigorous and precisely controlled so the clarity of the central object is never lost amongst the riot of pattern. Similarly, the vivid reds, yellows and blues are kept in check by the sharply delineated lines that define and enclose each element, as well as the more sombre monochrome tones. It is this controlled tension between order and the seemingly chaotic that gives Léger’s work its impact.
Léger himself drew parallels between his artistic style and that of street advertising. Like posters and neon signs, his paintings are bold, graphic and colourful statements about modern life. Throughout his career, Léger never lost his love of the simplified mechanical form, describing it as "a means of succeeding in conveying a feeling of strength and power…"
"It is necessary to retain what is useful in the subject," he explained "and to extract from it the best part possible. I try to create a beautiful object with mechanical elements."