Fernand Léger's career brings into focus the central issue of modern art: the relationship between public-oriented, even populist representation and the transcendentalist esthetics of esoteric abstraction. Such early works as Woman Sewing and Still Life: Alarm Clock, both 1914, tilt toward the latter. Dramatic configurations of contrasting curves -- red and blue, adding to the tension -- they make the Constructivist aspect of Cubism explicit.
Three musicians, 1944, and Leisure, Homage to David, 1948-49, tilt toward the former. Figures drawn from everyday life -- very much in the tradition of Seurat's La Grand Jatte, 1884-86 -- are lined up as though posing for a group photograph. They are somewhat stiff and flat, if colorful and idealized, and have an allegorical presence.
Indeed, most of Léger's works, whether tending to the representational or the abstract, are upbeat allegories of the contemporary world, premised on Baudelaire's idea of the "heroism of modern life." Correlate with this is the idea of giving avant-garde style a heroic cast, that is, turning what seemed experimental into a grand manner. The point was to consolidate its gains in a socially acceptable way.
In Léger's case, this meant bringing out the possibilities of grandeur latent in Cubism and celebrating the most obvious "truth" of modern society -- its mechanical character. Propellers, 1918, and The City, 1919, are explicit examples of the mechanics of everyday modern life. In the same decade, Robert Delaunay painted his "Eiffel Tower" series, Homage to Bleriot, 1915, and began his "Disk" series. As though in homage to Delaunay, Léger painted The Disks, 1918, and Disks in the City, 1920-21. The modern machine was made of standard interlocking disks, which made it work and move, and both Delaunay and Léger glorified its mechanical dynamics as though they were a sacred mystery.
Both men allegorized and stylized -- treated in a grand social way and in a grand artistic manner -- mechanical movement, for them the heroic aspect of modern life. Léger turns the organic figure into a kind of heroic machine -- most famously, perhaps, in Three Women, 1921. The leaves that appear in Holly Leaf on Red Background, 1928, and Holly Leaves, 1930, look like blueprints or colored X-rays. That is, they have a stylized mechanical look, as though stamped out by machines.
The machine look is Léger's model, and the model is Procrustean. Again and again Léger strives to create the emblematic image of mechanical modernity. In my opinion he is most successful in the modest works of the late '20s. Judiciously integrating representation and abstraction -- using fragments of planes to piece together the image of an object, which never quite comes into perfect focus -- he creates a number of icons of modernity. Indeed, Léger's Mechanical Element, 1924, Mirror, 1925, Ball Bearings, 1926, and Nude on a Red Background, 1927, seem like sacred fetishes: they have a symbolic, ceremonial presence, as though they are objects of veneration in the secular religion of modernity.
(Many early 20th-century artists took to the machine model with glee, as though it would decisively liberate them from Old Masterism, that is, the traditional mode of expression of a less than modern -- mechanical -- world. Some, like Duchamp and Picabia, used the machine ironically, to mock woman and express their disillusionment with life and art. Others, like Léger and Delaunay, took great pleasure in it, for it was a new fountain of artistic youth, the gift of the young century, the first unequivocally modern century.)
I have to say that all of this looks quaint and trying from today's perspective, when technological modernity seems like the God that failed, if still the only God. There is a studied, somewhat forced naïveté to many of Léger's works, even a condescending naïveté, for they were meant to appeal to "the people," more particularly "the working class," with whom Léger identified. They were the people, after all, who used machines to build more machines. In Construction Workers, Final State, 1950, The Country Outing, First State, 1952-53, and The Great Parade, Final State, 1954, among other works, Léger is mirroring them at work and play: showing them to themselves, supposedly the way they want to be seen, in mechanically idealized form.
But such mechanical idealism -- lyric mechanalism? -- strips their lives of its hardship and turns them into dumbly happy comic strip creatures. They all have a glazed idiot look. Their social reality, with which Léger professes to be concerned, becomes a kind of artistic joke. Indeed, the vernacularized abstraction results in a modernist potboiler, esthetically speaking. Léger's modernism is as imbecilic as his people. Both his figures and his style have the look of waxworks.
Presumably, this is what Léger's proletariat public -- his intended audience -- believes art is: neither high nor low --sacred nor profane -- but a kind of middle-of-the-road compromise between the extremes, neither of which is given its due. The result is an insult to both art and the public: an empty tour de force and the trivialization and dismissal of the suffering of so-called ordinary people.
Léger's art is a grand betrayal of his audience and a monumental artistic deception. It is a kind of false art, in that it does not convincingly convey the heroism of everyday life and its style is not convincingly grand. For all the intricacy of their design and complexity of their color, Léger's paintings look peculiarly brittle, as though obsolescence was built into the dream they invent.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.