If pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has necessitated it. The existence of modern creative people is much more intense and more complex than that of people in earlier centuries. The thing that is imagined is less fixed, the object exposes itself less than it did formerly. . . . 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. . . . The compression of the modern picture, its variety, its breaking up of forms, are the result of all this.
—Fernand Léger, 1914

I once had a student who wrote a term paper in which he compared the forms in Fernand Léger’s Three Women (1921), in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, with the forms of the engine room of the Navy submarine in which he had served during the Korean war. While older and with more experience of the world than the other undergraduates I was then teaching, this student was new to the mysteries of modern painting. Mine was the first art-history course he had ever signed up for, and he had never before entered an art museum before I assigned the class to study certain pictures at the Museum of Modern Art—not slides or other reproductions but the actual paintings—as a preliminary to reading anything about them. His reaction to Léger was instant and electric. He seemed to understand everything about the painting, including its humor.

One of the things that was interesting about this response to Léger was its relation to the student’s wartime experience. For there was no way, in that early stage of his study of modern painting, that he could have known of the role that Léger’s own military experience in the First World War had played in the development of his art. About the effect of that experience on his artistic thought, Léger was nothing if not explicit and unequivocal. “During those four war years,” he later recalled,

I was abruptly thrust into a reality which was both blinding and new. When I left Paris my style was thoroughly abstract: period of pictorial liberation. Suddenly, and without any break, I found myself on a level with the whole of the French people; my new companions in the Engineer Corps were miners, navvies, workers in metal and wood. Among them I discovered the French people. At the same time I was dazzled by the breech of a 75-millimetre gun which was standing uncovered in the sunlight: the magic of light on white metal. This was enough to make me forget the abstract art of 1912–13. A complete revelation to me, both as a man and as a painter. . . . Once I got my teeth into that sort of reality I never let go of objects again.

It was not that Léger was ever inclined to glorify the violence of the war. Whatever his affinities with the Futurists in other respects, he did not share their cult of violence. Nor, for that matter, was his conversion to a modernism based on machine forms quite as sudden, perhaps, as his later account of it implies. He had, after all, reflected on the way machine technology had “altered the look of things” in 1914, prior to his wartime encounter with “the magic of light on white metal,” and the abstract paintings he produced in the Contrast of Forms series in 1913 had already infused the Cubist aesthetic with a machinelike dynamism quite unlike anything to be found in Picasso or Braque.

Yet what John Golding has written about the effect of the war on Léger’s artistic thought—that “no other artist of his generation was to extract such positive conclusions from its squalor and horror”—is certainly true. Léger came out of the war with a clear conviction that modern technology, both as an experience to be encompassed in art and as a determinant of its pictorial form, had something important to contribute to modern painting, and it was upon that conviction that all of his subsequent achievements were based.

It wasn’t quite the case, however, that in the pursuit of those achievements in the decade following the war Léger had altogether forgotten his interest in abstraction. Almost alone among the luminaries of the School of Paris in the early decades of the century, Léger understood the importance of Mondrian and the De Stijl group. In an essay on “Abstract Art” for Cahiers d’Art, in 1931, Léger said of these Neoplasticist painters that “they are right to say that Cubists’ works cannot go as far as their own inquiries do,” and hailed them as “the true purists.” Abstract art, he wrote, “is the most important, the most interesting of the different plastic trends that have developed during the last twenty-five years,” and predicted it would have staying power. Yet he readily acknowledged that as a painter “I have stayed at the ‘edge’ without ever involving myself totally in their radical concept.”

Did he nonetheless derive something from their example? I think it is undeniable that he did.

Did he nonetheless derive something from their example? I think it is undeniable that he did. There would scarcely be such a preponderant use of black, white, and brightly colored geometric forms in Léger’s paintings of the late Teens and early Twenties if not for the innovations of Mondrian and his circle. “They have daringly used as the ‘main character’ the colored plane which has obsessed painters since 1912,” Léger wrote, adding that “the geometric shape rigorously limits it. . . . Color is locked in and must remain fixed and immobile.” Even a painting as crowded with curvilinear forms as the Three Women contains much that answers to this description.

It is often said of Léger that, alone among the early masters of the School of Paris, it was he who took Cubism out of the studio and into the street—which is to say, into a fateful dialogue with the iconography of modernity. The nod to Futurism, just before the First World War, and the bow just after to its polar opposite—De Stijl—certainly bears this out. What he wanted for his painting was the dynamism of the former, minus its violence, and the order of the latter, minus its mysticism and metaphysics. Once Léger adopted Cubism as the key to his pictorial ambitions, moreover, he seems to have felt impelled to endow it with a more impersonal profile than would be possible in an art that drew its subjects from the intimate objects of the studio of the familiar haunts of an artists’ bohemian milieu. Before the war, he solved this problem most successfully by turning away from objects altogether in favor of Cubist abstraction in the Contrast of Forms pictures. During the war, that was a solution that no longer commended itself to his chastened view of the place he wanted his painting to occupy in the social order to which he had been awakened by the war itself. Hence what looks like a retreat into the quasi-Futurist figurative Cubism of The Card Game (1916). This is not to say that the latter isn’t a terrific picture, but it has the period look of the prewar avant-garde.

This is why, in the “Fernand Léger” exhibition that Carolyn Lanchner has organized this spring at the Museum of Modern Art, our encounter with one of the first of the big postwar paintings—The City (1919)—has the effect of a clash of cymbals announcing a new era.1 This is a far more original picture than is commonly acknowledged, and not the least amazing thing about it is its buoyant affirmation of modernity. The modern city that is celebrated in this painting is, however, an entirely visual rather than an existential or social phenomenon. There is no throng, no traffic, no momentum that derives from the depiction of an urban mass enacting the grueling rituals of workaday life. There is no suggestion of urban anxiety, either. In Léger’s City, “the colored plane,” here given an insistently vertical accent, is indeed the “main character,” while what traces remain of the city’s shadowy inhabitants are reduced to the status of robots or silhouettes—in other words, abstractions. For that matter, Léger’s entire conception of the modern urban scene in this painting is a variety of visionary abstraction—a syncopated gloss of impressions in which the painterly dabs and touches of, say, Pissarro’s city pictures of the 1890s, with their gray weather and distant vistas, are cheerfully transmuted into the close-up, immaculate, highly colored, hard-edged, fragmentary forms of a twentieth-century metropolis. It was also, of course, a largely imaginary metropolis, for the actual city of Paris in 1919 was anything but the model of modernist geometric construction that is depicted in The City.

In this respect, it hasn’t been sufficiently noted that The City was a remarkably upbeat painting for an artist in Léger’s position to produce at that moment in modern history, scarcely a year after the armistice that ended the First World War. The war had been an immense trauma for the men of Léger’s generation, and the cause of widespread cynicism and demoralization in its aftermath. Compare the effect of the war on minds as different as Bertolt Brecht and Max Beckmann in Germany, T. S. Eliot in England, and Ernest Hemingway in America, and you might suppose, if you didn’t know better, that the war had scarcely touched Léger in any adverse way. In neither The City nor in the pictures that Léger produced in the decade that followed—the decade in which he painted his greatest pictures—is there a hint of anything like the anguished disillusionment and cynical detachment that we find in Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities or Beckmann’s paintings of the 1920s or Eliot’s The Waste Land or Hemingway’s In Our Time. Nor is there the least suggestion of the kind of angst that permeated the work of the New Objectivity movement in German painting that is exactly contemporary with Léger’s paintings of the 1920s. There is instead an almost utopian vision of a technological order in which models of beauty and perfection are drawn from the world of machine-made objects.

Underlying Léger’s modernism in the 1920s, then, is a certain dissociation of sensibility—for his was a modernism accompanied by a rejection, which we must suppose to be deliberate, of everything that was dark and desperate and unresolved in the experience of modernity. It was not at all the case that Léger was himself indifferent to the failings of modern society, but he seems to have reserved his feelings about all that for his politics—the politics of a sentimental leftism that eventually brought him into the orbit of the French Communist Party. In his art, however, he specialized in a kind of comic modernism, a modernism of happy endings. There is certainly a deadpan comic undercurrent in paintings like The Mechanic (1920), Woman and Still Life (1921), Reading (1924), and the delightful Composition with Hand and Hats (1927), which obviously owes a lot to the movie comedies of the 1920s. The Three Women is itself—among much else, of course—a comic masterpiece.

By the 1930s and 1940s, this comic vein in Léger’s paintings lost some of its deadpan humor as the pictures got bigger and their subjects more traditionally satirical. From his version of Adam and Eve (1935–39) to his not very amusing Leisure, Homage to David (1948–49), Léger becomes a more problematic artist. The element of visionary abstraction that served as a kind of pictorial conscience in Léger’s masterpieces of the decade following the First World War is largely gone, supplanted by a larky pictorial vaudeville that often degenerates into mural-scale cartoons. In this connection, I think it is fair to say that Léger’s interest in the movies contributed far more to his painting than his interest in modern architecture did. It was always a fallacy that modern painting would somehow achieve some sort of higher social redemption by placing itself at the service of modern architecture, and Léger—owing, no doubt to his political sentiments—was in his later years much tempted by that false prospect. In a lecture called “The Wall, the Architect, the Painter” (1933), Léger welcomed such collaboration with modern architecture. “The simplified and rational architecture that is going to conquer the world must serve as a possibility for reviving this collective art that created immortal masterpieces before the Renaissance,” he said. “The evolution of society may be tending toward this new order. Easel painting survives—and will always survive—but it can be broadened by the Renaissance mural.”

But the “simplified and rational architecture” that did conquer the world proved to be deeply inimical to a modernist revival of the Renaissance mural. As late as 1950, Léger was still harboring the illusion that mural painting might still be revived, and now he saw it as a vehicle for abstract painting. “I believe and I maintain,” he wrote, “that abstract art is in trouble when it tries to do easel painting. But for the mural the possibilities are unlimited. In the coming years we will find ourselves in the presence of its achievements.” He was wrong on both counts, about abstract easel painting no less than about the possibilities of abstract mural painting. The net result for his own painting, however, was to render it more and more superficial, not only in its imagery but in its command of feeling. And it wasn’t as if the result succeeded with the public, either. George Heard Hamilton was surely right when he wrote that “there is little evidence that Léger’s efforts to create an art with wide popular appeal has met with much response from the people for whom he intended it.” Léger’s modernism remained an art of the museums.

It is interesting, in this regard, to see Léger’s modernism in the 1920s in relation to the turn that Picasso’s modernism took in the same period. On this subject, John Golding’s essay on “Léger and the Heroism of Modern Life” must be regarded as the classic text.2 Writing about what he calls Léger’s “Neo-Classicism”—a term I should myself hesitate to apply to the artist’s machine-form pictures of the Twenties— Mr. Golding observes that “he avoided all the overtly classicizing attributes in which Picasso rejoiced; there are no white draperies; no garlands of leaves and flowers, and his figures wear a garb that is strictly contemporary and yet timeless in its simplicity.” And further:

The pitchers and the urns, which can transform a Picasso figure into a caryatid or a river goddess, become, in Léger’s work, the implements of domestic, workaday life. The latent sensuality of Picasso’s nudes, and the languor that characterizes the contemporary work of Neo-Classicizing artists such as Derain or La Fresnaye, these were qualities completely alien to Léger’s art. He treats his figures, not without an underlying compassion, but with a detachment that was fundamental to his vision of the modern world; his figures are geared to contemporary life, and it is as part of the mechanism of life in general that they achieve significance.

Yet the similarities are found to be just as striking as the differences:

Both adopt for their figures static, monolithic poses, and both make use of similar, heavy, generalized forms to render their limbs; the heads are composed of simple, almost geometrical shapes and the features are rendered in the same incisive, scuptural way. At times Léger’s figures echo those of Picasso so closely that one cannot help suspecting him of consciously trying to inject a quality of contemporary slang into Picasso’s Neo-Classical vocabulary.

Mr. Golding misses the comic element in Léger’s parodies—if that is what they are—of Picasso’s Neoclassicism, but he is otherwise correct about the parallels, and this raises the question of whether Léger’s up- beat 1920s modernism was any less of an escape from the traumatic effects of the First World War than Picasso’s fantasias on a classical dream world. In retrospect, both now seem to have been in flight from precisely the kind of ill-fated modernity that the war itself represented for an entire generation.

The exhibition that Ms. Lanchner has organized in “Fernand Léger” is not, alas, the full retrospective one had hoped it would be, but it is a splendid exhibition all the same. It is certainly odd that in an era that has witnessed the rise and fall of Pop Art and of so much machine-made Minimalist art, no New York museum thought to mount a retrospective of Léger’s work as a relevant point of reference. But it may be that Léger himself, while still an undoubted classic of modern painting, no longer looms as the master artist he was once thought to be. In the absence of a full retrospective, the question remains open, but in this abridgment of Léger’s oeuvre it looks more and more as if the Léger destined to survive is the Léger of the years 1910–1930.

Go to the top of the document.

  1.   “Fernand Léger” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on February 15, 1998, and remains on view through May 12. A catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Carolyn Lanchner, with essays by Ms. Lanchner, Jodi Hauptman, and Matthew Affron and contributions by Beth Handler and Kristen Erickson, has been published by the Museum of Modern Art and distributed by Harry N. Abrams (304 pages, $60; $29.95). Go back to the text.
  2.   See “Léger and the Heroism of Modern Life,” by John Golding, in Visions of the Modern (University of California Press, 1994). Go back to the text.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 7, on page 11
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now