By Carter B. Horsley
Fernand Léger (1881-1955) set himself
an agenda to make abstract art relevant to its contemporary culture
and to forge a non-elitist polemic for it.
Art, for him, was not for art's sake - it was
a visionary responsibility to coalesce meaning from the blurring
Unquestionably one of the greatest artists
of the 20th Century, Léger, nevertheless, has often been
rather casually dismissed from the top hierarchy of the painters'
pantheon. His bold, but limited palette, his stark contrasting
compositions, his preoccupation with the aesthetics of the Machine
Age, his burly self-image, his seeming lack of sophistication
and subtlety all have contributed to an underplaying of Léger's
As Michael Kimmelman wrote in his February
13, 1998 review of the exhibition, "Léger's interests
encompassed a dizzying variety of early-20th-century-isms: Fauvism,
Orphism, Futurism, Purism, Neo-Classicism and Neo-Plasticism,"
adding that "Léger had a way of adopting elements
of these movements while staying independent of them."
Indeed, Léger was not a great innovator
but a great synthesist and his oeuvre is full of surprises, hits
and misses. In retrospect, however, Léger may well be the
foremost artist of the city and the leading Art Deco artist, as
well as one of the century's most important art theoreticians
Perhaps the most startling and impressive paintings
in the excellent show are some large Cubist works Léger
executed before World War I, most notably "La Noce"
("The Wedding") from 1911, "Les Fumeurs" ("The
Smokers") from 1911-2 and especially "La Femme en bleu"
("Woman in blue") from 1912. The first two manifest
complex compositions with vague tubular figures discernible arising
from a fragmented whitish envelope/environment. The third is more
sharply delineated and much stronger in its coloration, an extremely
vibrant composition of confusing but fascinating dimensionality,
a work, in fact, that easily holds its independence and individuality
beside the Cubist works of Picasso and Braque that are simple
In 1913, Léger embarked on a very successful
series of paintings that employed a "disk" geometry,
a very bright palette of yellows, reds and blacks and the quite
definite stylistic heritage of Cézanne's painterly fragmentation.
One of the best of these is "La Sortie des Ballet Russes"
(Exit the Ballets Russes), shown below.
After serving in World War I, Léger's
art changed and he focused on mechanical objects and the significance
of billboards and advertising. He also visited New York and would
exclaim, in a 1931 to his friend Le Corbusier, the architect whose
own paintings resemble his: "I'm still constantly astonished
by the vertical urge of these people drunk with architecture.
From my room on the thirtieth floor, the night is the most astonishing
spectacle in the world, nothing can be compared to it....This
city is infernal. A mixture of elegance and toughness."
In her essay in the exhibition's superb and
thought-provoking catalogue (softbound edition published by the
museum, $29.95), Carolyn Lanchner wrote"
"Most critics saw and see Léger
as a painter of hard, precisely drawn contours and of smooth slick
surfaces that conceal the trace of the brush; but this is the
myth. If a viewer takes the trouble to look, it becomes obvious
that Léger was a painter in love with paint, and most every
canvas exhibits his enjoyment of it. He leaves pentimenti
visible, edges are more often than not skewed, one side of a form
is generally asymmetrical with the other, and large areas of bright,
saturated color often cohabit with smaller patches of strange,
pastel, bedroom hues. As Léger never tired of saying, his
paintings are not copies of things in the visible world, but their
equivalents in paint."
She quotes a review in The New Yorker by Lewis
Mumford praising Léger for his "honest architectural
intention," adding that "If Le Corbusier is more of
a painter than Léger, it is equally true that the latter
is a sounder architect than Le Corbusier." Such sardonic
wit may have delighted the magazine's readers, but was hyperbole
for though Le Corbusier was an interesting painter and Léger
absorbed with architecture, Le Corbusier was a great architect
and Léger was a great painter.
A more important criticism of Léger
would be that his art was often too decorative, too blatant, too
simplified, not always finely detailed and finished, but while
these observations would be accurate for many post-World War II
artists, they miss Léger's intellectual intent, his emphasis
on content. Léger's works abound in contrasts and juxtapositions
Léger's influence, Lanchner observes,
can be found in the works of Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning,
Philip Guston, Milton Resnick, Louise Bourgeois, Richard Lindner,
Arshile Gorky, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Brice Marden, Frank
Stella, Tom Wesselmann and James Rosenquist, among others.
In another catalogue essay, Jodi Hauptmann
wrote that Léger "found the essence of the modern
in the city" and quotes the artist as saying "Present-day
life, more fragmented and faster moving than life in previous
eras, has had to accept as its means of expression an art of dynamic
Léger observed that "If pictorial
expression has changed, it is because modern life has necessitated
it," adding that "the thing that is imagined is less
fixed, the object exposes itself less than it did formerly. When
one crosses a landscape by automobile or express train, it becomes
fragmented; it loses its descriptive value but gains in synthetic
value. The view through the door of the railroad car or the automobile
windshield, in combination with the speed, has altered the habitual
look of things. A modern man registers a hundred times more sensory
impressions than an eighteenth-century artist."
It is this incisive perspective that makes
one long for Léger to be still alive, still painting in
this age of information overload!
"Léger," Hauptmann continues,
"expresses the new complexity and simultaneity, crowds and
chaos, primarily through his use of fragmented planes and of contrasts
and ruptures in shape and color. He believed that La Ville was
revolutionary because of its ability to achieve depth and dynamism
without resorting to old-fashioned imitative techniques like chiaroscuro
and modeling. Overlapping and layered planes depict urban density,
and fragments show the speed of urban experience. The broken views
of billboard texts and images indicate not only the multiple stimuli
available in the city but, even more, the speech with which residents
traverse urban space."
Léger was involved in many collaborations
and many disciplines. His illustrations in 1919, one of which
is shown below, for Blaise Cendrars's La Fin du monde filmée
par L'Ange N.-D. (The end of the world filmed by the angel
N.-D.[Notre Dame]), for example, "uses typographical elements
[to] both interrupt and define the composition, Hauptmann notes.
"Most striking about this work is the
confusion of negative and positive space. Léger's lettering
- both handwritten and 'stenciled' - seems at once to define the
surfaces of city walls and to cause their disappearance, leaving
letters suspended like reflections of an electric sign or words
caught in a mirror," Hauptmann comments.
"The role of the modern artist, Léger
believed, was to interpret the extraordinary spectacle of the
material quotidian. And if he took inspiration from that spectacle
in developing his art, he hoped in turn to express - indeed to
transform - contemporary perceptions of the everyday. An investigation
of the means of production underlying contemporary material and
mental existence provided a logic for Léger's aestheticisim.
It also suggested a way to relate modern painting to the social
world," observed Matthew Affron in his essay in the catalogue.
"Léger attacked the Renaissance
for a slavish imitation of nature that quashed aesthetic inventiveness
and for a decadent preoccupation with official subjects and aesthetic
hierarchies. This preoccupation, handed down as bad cultural education,
had blinded subsequent generations to the truly dynamic and changing
essence of beauty," Affron wrote.
Léger, Affron notes, maintained that
"The Beautiful is everywhere; perhaps more in the arrangement
of your saucepans on the white walls of your kitchen than in your
eighteenth-century living room or in the official museums."
"There is a need for beauty scattered around the world....It
is a question of a quantity and demand. It is a matter of satisfying
it. Now I realize that we [artists] are still very useful 'as
Not all of the artist's many projects came
to fruition. One of the most interesting was a "cinematic
mural" for Rockefeller Center in 1938-9, consisting of seven
studies for a proposed moving mural to be projected on a marble
wall. One of the sketches is shown below.
Among the best works in the show are "Femme
et nature morte" (Woman and still life), 1921, from the Scottish
National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, "Nature Morte
a la chope" (Still life with a beer mug), 1922, from the
Tate Gallery in London, "Elément mécanique"
(Mechanical element), 1924, from the Kunsthaus Zurich, "Nu
sur fond rouge" (Nude on a red background), 1927, from the
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, and "La
Grande Parade, état définitif" (The great parade,
final state), 1954, from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
One of the artist's most popular series of
paintings were of construction workers, an example of which is
Léger enjoyed considerable fame in his
lifetime and the Museum of Modern Art had given him major shows
in 1935 and 1955. This show and its excellent catalogue admirably
demonstrate that a new generation needs exposure to his concepts
and his art. He was not as brilliant and facile and consistent
as Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Klee and not as radical as the
Russian Constructivists or lyrical as the Fauves and the German
Expressionists, but his fabulous compositions and the élan
of his dynamism are undeniably impressive.