"I like the forms necessitated by modern industry and I use them; a smelting furnace will have thousands of colored reflections both more subtle and more solid than a supposedly classical subject. I consider that a machine gun or the breech of a 75 is more worth painting than four apples on a table or a Saint Cloud landscape," wrote Leger in a 1922 letter.
Of all the Cubists, Leger was the most in touch with the real world. His work embraced the everyday subjects of mass culture, whether early abstractions of propellers and disks or ambitious late canvases of workers up on the high iron of skyscrapers. No nudes in the studio, or bohemians in the cafe for Leger!
Leger is now the subject of a long overdue retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (to May 12, 1998), a condensed version of an exhibition that appeared earlier this year in Paris. MoMA last presented a Leger show in 1955, as a memorial thrown together days after the artist's sudden death.
Born in the countryside of northwestern France to a family of cattle breeders in 1881, Leger was steered into architecture by his parents, who thought it a safer career choice than painting. But soon he was in Paris at the prestigious Academy Julian. In 1908 he moved into the famous artist's building, La Ruche (The Beehive) and made the vital friendships with the great names of the day: Brancusi, Archipenko, Lipschitz, Chagall, Robert Delaunay.
By 1911 he had transformed the Cubism of Braque and Picasso into an idiom uniquely his own -- one based firmly in 20th-century life. Unlike the other Cubists, Leger was not interested in traditional subjects like the still life and the portrait -- instead he painted the city in all its glory and tawdriness. His great idea to combat unemployment in Paris was to offer the suggestion "that all walls be whitewashed by the unemployed at one and the same time," thereby potentially setting into motion the very first "performance art."
A pivotal painting of this period is Exit the Ballets Russes (1914). It takes its inspiration from Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase of l912, but Leger uses the strong primary colors of modern advertising and posters, rather than the more subtle duns and tones found in the typical Cubist palette. Leger's insistence on a volumetric Cubism, too, seems a direct link to the machined geometry that characterizes modern life.
During World War I, Leger was drafted into the French Army, which turned out to be a revelation. He felt close not only to the machinery of war, but also to his fellow soldiers, who he celebrated in The Card Game (1917). Here are the helmeted soldiers in cylindrical form, indicating shell casings and artillery pieces smoking their inevitable pipes. The soldiers' fingers are presented in the form of fork tines, their cat eyes blinking at the uncertain future.
Leger's celebration of the common people was to be later elaborated in his great canvases of workers, picnics and circuses. One of his few essays into the typical artistic subject, however, can be seen in MoMA's own Three Women or Le Grand Déjeuner (1921). Even here he renders the human form in terms of machinery, as cylinders and sheet metal constructions rather than flesh and blood creatures. Only the long black hair and the far-away eyes provide the human element. The breasts of the three nudes suggest nothing so much as ball bearings.
In the 1920s, with his friends Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, he formed a new post-Cubist movement called Purism. It was an attempt to create a new decorative art of starkly defined color patterns and strong basic shapes. Between 1924 and 1927, Leger created a colorful series of paintings in praise of everyday objects, such as umbrellas, bowler hats, soup plates and most significantly, ball bearings.
Ball Bearings (1926) is the most dramatic painting in the series. It is characterized by strong black borders, rich deep colors and the visual center showing the casing holding eight bearing balls. When questioned Leger stated firmly that "he could see beauty in the arrangements of a set of pots on a white kitchen wall."
Another key image of the period is The Syphon (1924), a Purist painting inspired by a Dubonnet poster. Colorful and precise, the painting shows a firm male hand aiming the syphon into a cocktail beaker while a scale and a variety of cylindrical and vertical shapes provide the backdrop.
During this period he also began to branch out into the theatrical arts. He provided sets for the ballets Skating Rink based on the music of Arthur Honegger and La Creation du Monde by Darius Milhaud. He also produced and directed one of the first silent movie features. Interestingly, actual objects were used rather than drawings of objects.
Leger first visited the U.S. in 1931. He raved about the colors, vibrancy and lights of New York. He returned a number of times, staying during the Nazi period. From this period comes the sober, neo-classic painting of Three Musicians (after a drawing dated 1924-25), that also resides at MoMA. Those who view Leger's people only as automatons will discover his warmth in this 1944 painting.
Leger's greatest painting is The Great Parade (1954) at the Guggenheim. The "great parade" is traditionally the procession through town of acrobats, clowns, dancers and riders that announces the arrival of the circus. The circus and its performers are standard fare for French artists and many have immortalized the images, including Daumier, Seurat, Rouault and of course we must not forget Picasso's Saltimbaques. Leger's sketches for Great Parade go back to 1919. They were recast many times until Leger was satisfied. This painting more than any other sums up the work of this great French artist whose humanity, warmth and joyous renditions of "everyman" and our modern times have enriched us all.
The MoMA show brings together 60 paintings and some 20 drawings encapsulating Leger's entire career.
Spend some time with the drawings. They are masterly renditions in pen, graphite and gouache, and clearly reveal Leger's academic training and how he managed to overcome it.
"Fernand Leger" at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 15 - May 12, 1998.
FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.