Fernand Léger

The Museum of Modern Art

February 15 to May 12, 1998

"La Ville," ("The City"), oil on canvas, 1919, 91 x 117 1/2 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art, A. E. Gallatin Collection

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 of progress.

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 important achievements.

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 and moralists.

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 comparison


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.

"La Sortie des Ballets Russes" (Exit the Ballets Russes), 1914, oil on canvas, 53 1/4 by 39 1/2 inches, The Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Mr. And Mrs. Peter A. Rübel (partly by exchange), 1958

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 and wit.

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 divisionism."

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.


Illustration for La Fin du monde filmée par L'Ange N.-D., 1919, The Museum of Modern Art, The Louis E. Stern collection, 1964

"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 producers.'"

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.

One of seven gouaches for an unexecuted "cinematic mural" to be projected on a marble wall at Rockefeller Center, 1938-9, The Museum of Modern Art, given anonymously, 1966

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 shown below.

"Les Constructeurs, état définitif" (Construction workers, final state), 1950, oil on canvas,

118 1/8 x 89 1/4 inches, Musée national Fernard Léger, Biot

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.

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For a reproduction of a very handsome glazed ceramic by Léger see The City Review article on the May 11, 2000 auction of Impressionist & Modern Art, Part 2, at Sotheby's


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