After starting out as an Impressionist, Fernand Léger switched his aesthetic allegiance to Cubism in 1909. With its chaos and destruction, the First World War was a profound caesura for Léger and his generation, and a newfound consciousness of destabilization and fragmentation was reflected in the arts as well, in such new forms as collage, assemblage and montage. Modern life in the age of the machine continued to furnish the dominant theme of the postwar period.
Léger began to reduce forms to stereometric bodies, a phase which reached its high point between 1912 and 1914 in the ‘Contrast of Forms’ series, inspired by the mechanization of the world. Like many of his contemporary colleagues Léger was fascinated by the all-encompassing technological transformations wrought by modernity. The world of the machine became the focus of his work, a world in which even human beings appear as mechanical constructions.
His designs, composed of cones and cylinders striped in red-white or blue-white, mutate into mechanical robotic creatures. The picture achieves its effect thrugh its combination of contrasts: cylindrically rounded appendages contrast with angular steps. Léger juxtaposes the primary colours red, blue and yellow with black, white and grey.
In the principle of contrasts Léger found the means to capture and represent the dynamics of the modern world. The Stairway is one of the early manifestations of his unmistakable style of architectural order in the visual arts.