Two artists more dissimilar in character, background, attitudes, and achievement than Fernand léger and Henri Matisse would be difficult to find. Yet during the same years, from the late Twenties onward, Matisse and léger were almost alone in choosing to confront in their work what might be called the problem of the age: how to salvage quality in a world henceforth ruled by quantity. Economists and political and social thinkers had of course been concerned with this for some time, but artists were quite unaware of it, with the exception of Matisse and léger.
This might seem a rash statement when one remembers the Russian avant-garde of the Twenties. The Russians, however, did not really regard the problem as a problem: their solution was to immolate quality on the altar of quantity—to give up painting in favor of designing chairs, workmen’s clothes, or shoes—and this sacrifice was seen as the proof of the artist’s revolutionary spirit. The Bauhaus was only apparently more willing to risk the confrontation. There the qualitative (art, as traditionally conceived) and the quantitative (design suitable for mass production and architecture) existed side by side but seldom had much to do with each other: Klee’s and Kandinsky’s paintings were simply hung on Breuer’s prefab walls.
Matisse and léger were not content to sacrifice the traditional craft that both had been trained to practice. Nor were they satisfied with entrenching themselves in a small but safe reserve, within the brave new world. Instead, they attempted—and in this I believe they remained unrivaled for almost a quarter of a century—to find a place for the qualitative amid the quantitative.
The triumph of mass production of objects and design brought about changes so fundamental that one is tempted to call it a mutation. These changes forced themselves upon artists in a number of ways. The private, the intimate, gave way to the public, the collective. Easel painting had been adapted to work aimed at the happy few: was it suitable for work addressed to the unhappy many? Could it command the stentoriousness required if one wished to be heard in an environment that was crowded, noisy, bombarded by myriad visual appeals? The artist could, of course, go on practicing the old handicraft as if the machine age did not exist, or give it up as obsolete. Both léger and Matisse, however, were determined to maintain, if not the traditional craft of painting, at least the values that were usually considered as inseparable from it, in a new environment that seemed to be excluding them.
léger’s efforts to reconcile modern art with modern life have, of course, long been recognized, not least by léger himself, who said he was the “primitive of a century to come.” Peter de Francia in his new book about léger adopts this conventional view, but his passionate admiration for the artist lends it new life and excitement. Enthusiasm is a virtue so rarely found in art …