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Simply Himself


Léger’s true originality lay in his instinctive conviction that he could fashion any aesthetic tendency he encountered to suit the ongoing demands of his own art. In this he was on the whole astonishingly successful. He was born in rural Normandy in 1881 (the same year as Picasso). His earliest surviving canvasses, painted after he studied in Paris, show him working in a somewhat debased Impressionist fashion. Next, he responded briefly to Fauvism before succumbing to Cézanne, whom he initially reinterpreted in a reductive, even somewhat brutal manner. Cubism came to him as a revelation and he always saw himself as being one of the initiators of the movement. Because of his artistic stature, writers and above all exhibition organizers have tended to accept him as such. This has worked to his disadvantage. Picasso confided to Françoise Gilot that he, Braque, and Gris, the “Three Musketeers of Cubism,” saw Léger as being simply himself.

More than any other major figure in French art Léger responded to Italian Futurism. He also showed a greater awareness of successive developments in revolutionary Russian art; his own painting had played a part in provoking some of its initial explosions. After the First World War he became drawn to Neo-Classicism and put it to more far-reaching ends than any other artist save Picasso. Simultaneously he was reacting to the pure, brightly colored geometric abstraction of the Dutch de Stijl movement. His belief in a machine aesthetic allied him to Purism, the movement led by Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, which emphasized technology and saw itself as the successor to Cubism. His own students who had worked at the Bauhaus kept him in touch with what was going on there in the 1920s. Surrealism made him uneasy but he felt he couldn’t ignore it. During the 1930s and afterward, he went on to produce his own, very personal, brand of Social Realism.

All this should go toward making Léger the most representative figure of the first half of this century in the field of the visual arts, and in a sense he was. Yet at the same time he remains a figure oddly apart. A great, bearlike man, he was the son of a Normandy cattle breeder, and proud of his background. He was a total individualist, while rejecting the idea of individualism in art. He was also possibly the most confrontational painter of his age. He wanted his pictures to make an immediate impact on the viewer, and so they almost invariably do. In 1919 he stated, “It makes me happy if a painting of mine dominates a room, if it imposes itself on people….”

He was a fighter. In 1955, the year of his death, he published a statement in connection with an exhibition of his work: “It was on my feet, warring against society, that I conceived and made these living works.” In private life he was gentle and warmhearted, and he was open-minded in his appreciation of the work of fellow artists. But he was also fiercely competitive. Secretly, I suspect, he would have liked his pictures to wipe all others off the wall. This applied to those of the the past, too. In 1925 he declared that

Each artist possesses an offensive weapon that allows him to intimidate tradition. In the search for vividness and intensity, I have made use of the machine as others have used the nude body or the still-life.

He summed it all up when he said, “To achieve a maximum of power, even violence, on a wall; that is my ultimate aim.”

Of Cézanne he said, “It took me three years to discard Cézanne’s influence. His hold on me was so strong I had to go right into abstraction to throw it off.” When, in 1913, Léger declared that Cézanne was the only painter to come out of Impressionism who saw what was lacking in it, he was reaffirming the fact that Cézanne had reintroduced into painting new structural values and a renewed three-dimensional sense of solidity. Léger’s La Femme en bleu, a masterpiece of 1912, is in a sense a farewell to his mentor and also a recognition of the fact that Cézanne’s distortions of objects and natural forms gave his work a dimension of pictorial abstraction that made his art particularly relevant to the concerns of young twentieth-century painters. Léger’s own innate compositional gifts—his ability to structure a picture in such a way that it asserts its presence as a two-dimensional object of compelling power while simultaneously creating an internal spatial dialogue between its component parts—were possibly stronger than those of any of his contemporaries in French art. But his movement into total abstraction in 1913 with his Contrastes de formes series, arguably the most seriously abstract pictures yet to have been painted (decorative and “musical” abstraction had been around for some years), was not an answer to Cézanne but to Cubism.

Léger had entered the Cubist orbit in 1909-1910 with his own independent variants of Picasso’s first fully Cubist pictures which, in the words of a contemporary critic, “tubified” the Spaniard’s innovations. As opposed to Picasso’s, however, they showed that Léger was still thinking of, and would continue to think of, ambitious subject matter. For example Nus dans la forêt, 1909-1910 (see illustration on following page), described by Apollinaire as depicting “trees and their torturers,” shows a group of woodsmen in the process of destroying a rural setting, symbolic, in retrospect, of Léger’s imminent glorification of urban values.

Cubism struck a second time when, together with Delaunay, Léger visited Kahnweiler’s gallery in 1911 and saw canvasses of Picasso’s and Braque’s fully developed Analytic Cubist manner, works organized in linear grids that supported complexes of transparent interacting planes, out of which the subject could be reconstructed, only to be reabsorbed into an overall abstract pictorial scintillation. This “cobweb” painting—the term was Delaunay’s—helped to give birth to the theory of contrasts that governed Léger’s entire subsequent production.

It was now that Léger turned to the urban scene. Whereas the Cubists had picked simple subjects and limited the range of their iconography in order to pursue their formal innovations, Léger looked for subjects that would confirm his pictorial theories. He continued to do so for the rest of his life. The range of his art was to be staggering, comparable only to that of Picasso. But his theories were simple. And although much later in life his attitudes toward nature and the machine swung around not quite full circle, his pictorial principles remained dogged.

In 1911, and presumably after his visit to Kahnweiler’s, looking out of his studio window Léger was struck by the way in which billowing clouds of smoke from burning autumnal leaves activated and brought to life the dry, angular architectural forms surrounding them. His theory of pictorial contrasts had been born. In a lecture of 1914 he stated:

Contrast = dissonance, and hence a maximum expressive effect. I will take as an example a commonplace subject: the visual effect of curled and round puffs of smoke rising between houses…. Here you have the best example on which to apply research into multiplicative intensities.

He was still seeking variants of his theory when he began his last great ser-ies, Les Constructeurs, in 1950-1951. While out driving he saw

three pylons for high-tension cables…being built along the road. Men were perched on them, working. I was struck by the contrast between them, the metallic architecture which surrounded them and the clouds above…. Modern life consists of daily contrasts. These must form part of our present outlook.

The Cubist dialogue between abstraction and representation was fundamental to Léger’s development. But there were aspects of true Cubism which he deliberately ignored, some he even misunderstood. He seized on the dismissal of traditional, single-viewpoint perspective because this liberated him in the composition of his pictures and allowed him to achieve the more dynamic, syncopated effects he sought. On the other hand, with the exception of the months spent battling with Nus dans la forêt, he was never interested in the analysis of volumes and spaces that provoked Picasso’s and Braque’s researches, or in the conclusions they drew from them. He never shared Picasso’s interest in giving his subjects a sculptural plenitude by, so to speak, walking around them, perceiving them from all sides. Nor was he interested in Braque’s exploration of tactile space, with optically touching the untouchable. The Cubists questioned the very nature of perceived reality. Léger was from the start anchored to visual facts, visual certainties.

Léger’s paintings in the series from 1913 and 1914 known as Contrastes de formes (see illustration on page 11) consist of aggressively modeled cylindrical shapes or fragments piled up on top of each other and played off against other flat, two-dimensional passages that, by their angling, suggest recession in and out of space, sometimes in a traditionally perspectival way. All the shapes are encased in bold black contours and are scrubbily rendered in primary colors, played off against whites and blacks, used not as lights and darks but as color equivalents. These paintings are Léger’s answer to the ambiguities and subtleties of Analytic Cubism, whose use of transparency, for example, was totally alien to him. Within the space of a few months his initial, amorphous puffs of smoke had hardened into taut, white parabolas. For Cubism’s mystery and its flux Léger substitutes dynamic fragmentation. For all their complexity, the Contrastes represent the language of painting stripped bare. Unlike the slightly later abstractions of Mondrian, Malevich, and Kandinsky, they do not look to the future. Rather they present us with a visual here and now.

The Contrastes are spelled out by figure pieces, still lifes and landscapes, handled in exactly the same way. These dominate Léger’s output of 1914. The fact that the purely abstract phase in his art was so short-lived can perhaps be explained by the fact that, having achieved abstraction, Léger had nothing left to confront, and confrontation was essential to him. If there had been other abstract art around in Paris to challenge him he might have prolonged it, but there wasn’t. The Cubism of Picasso and Braque had by now moved into its Synthetic phase. Having analyzed their subjects and the spaces surrounding them to the point of dissolution, they were now putting them back together again, out of abstract pictorial elements. To this extent their art had become one of reconstitution, in a sense even of wholeness. Léger did not respond to this. His own sense of wholeness always lay in his fealty to the totality of a picture’s surface. The aesthetics of true Cubism were for him too sophisticated, too rarefied.

The war, in which Léger served in an engineers’ regiment, marked a watershed in his life, socially, psychologically, visually. “I discovered the people of France…. I found myself on an equal footing with the whole French people.” Léger subsequently idealized his experiences and at least obliquely implied that his had been a more stalwart war than had in fact been the case.* But the war, in which he was gassed in 1916, brought him into contact with men whose daily routine involved handling machinery identified with destruction, but even more immediately with survival. The war confirmed the already popular aspirations of his art. There is even a sense in which it provided him with an attitude of mind. In 1925 he stated: “If I face up to life, with all its possibilities, I have a preference for that, which for want of a better word, is generally called a state of war.” The war also strengthened the anti-intellectual bias of his art. He always saw himself as an intellectual and possibly overestimated his own mental abilities. He enjoyed debate, read quite widely if not always deeply (he was an obsessive devourer of newspapers), and continued to write and lecture on contemporary art until the end of his life. But basically he felt that good art came from the gut.

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