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.
It is characteristic of Léger’s nature and vision that he was able to extract totally positive conclusions from his wartime experiences. His La Partie de cartes—“the first picture for which Ideliberately took my subject from what was going on around me”—painted in Paris in 1917 while on convalescent leave, is one of the few truly great paintings to have come out of the war. It shows three soldiers playing cards and reconstructs a theme dear to Cézanne in its military and mechanistic imagery. The deliberately rough handling of paint of the immediately pre-war years has here given way to smoother, more polished effects, and the figures and their surroundings look as if they had been forged out of polished steel. Henceforth there is almost always a touch of the metallic to Léger’s work, even much later on when he had turned to nature for inspiration. Here color is muted and the work exudes an odd combination of camaraderie and gravitas.
Parallels have been made between this picture and Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu of 1916, the most distinguished French wartime novel. These parallels work, but only up to a point. Like Léger, Barbusse was proud to have served on an equal footing with workers and peasants; but the writer was already a committed socialist, and it was the war that helped to confirm Léger’s subsequent political direction. In the work of both men there is an element of detachment, even of reportage. On the other hand, Barbusse’s view of war was disillusioned and pessimistic. His letters from the front, unlike Léger’s, are tinged with nobility. The writer most directly relevant to Léger was Blaise Cendrars, a literary vagabond untroubled by aesthetic preoccupations, with whom Léger roamed the streets of Paris. Pâques à New York (Easter in New York, 1912) contains some of Cendrars’s best poetry, a kind of fractured prose, and is prophetic of Léger’s subsequent view of the city and of America.
If Léger saw the war as monochrome, color for him represented peace and liberation, and was intimately connected with “beauty,” a concept on which he harped more insistently than any other French painter of his generation. He had no difficulty in reconciling this with a populist and anti-aesthetic position, and could well have viewed any conflict between the two as an extension, on an intellectual level, of his theory of contrasts. “‘Four Years Without Color.’ …Color takes over. It is going to dominate everyday life,” he now said. Much later he declared, “Color is a vital necessity. It is raw material indispensable to life, like water and fire.”
Interestingly enough it has been suggested that Léger may have been partially colorblind, able to recognize every variant of red but not those of green. Certainly green is the color he used least well, and he tended to avoid it. When, after the war, he adds secondary colors to his primaries, the oranges and purples hold their own against the reds, yellows, and blues, but the greens often don’t. Although Léger in his writings sometimes equates color and luminosity, his works don’t generate a sensation of light, only of intense brightness. They catch and hold the eye but are sometimes tiring to look at for protracted periods. Because of this we are constantly rediscovering them; on each fresh encounter they surprise and delight us.
Color reasserts itself instantly in the postwar works and reaches a unique degree of intensity in Les Disques (1918) and La Ville (1919). La Ville (see illustration on page 8) is arguably Léger’s most important single canvas and the greatest ode to twentieth-century city life ever to have been painted. It is composed of irregular, mostly upright elements, some of them solidly rounded, some angular and flat. Some of the compositional elements are totally abstract, others become space cells containing easily identifiable imagery: letters, suggestions of pylons and other architectural elements. Léger’s new compositional procedures owe something to the products of Synthetic Cubism, which were influenced in turn by the principles of collage and papier collé. But Léger’s shapes don’t overlap and fuse as they do, for example, in Picasso’s work. Rather they coexist, tying instead into the picture’s overall contrapuntal rhythms and stretching it taut, like a gigantic drum.
In the bottom center of La Ville human presences, rendered in grisaille, descend a flight of steps. They are machine men but not robotic or inhuman, and they are not dwarfed by the city but fit naturally into its rhythms. It is one of Léger’s greatest achievements to have subsequently for a period substituted machines and objects for men and women but to have kept alive a sense of the human presence which was ultimately his greatest concern. Here the three-dimensional figures are played off against their flat counterparts imposed on billboards. La Ville was indirectly inspired by the Place de Clichy, where busy streets converged under a welter of billboards that were plastered with posters and illuminated at night by garishly colored lights. Léger talked about billboards in connection with this painting, and scholars have suggested that this is in a sense painting as billboard. But basically it is painting in competition with billboards and visual advertisement. It was a match Léger well knew that he could win—hence the exhilaration.
While reintegrating himself so joyfully into postwar modern urban life, and in confident confrontation with the beauty of mechanically produced artifacts, Léger was also mopping up, so to speak, the art of contemporaries and colleagues whose work and ideas had interested him earlier but whose aspirations he saw as being unfulfilled. The Futurist painters Boccioni, Carrà, and Russolo had visited Léger’s studio when they descended on Paris in the autumn of 1911 on a reconnaissance trip, preparatory to attempting to take the city by storm when they exhibited there in February of the following year. Léger cannot have been all that impressed by what he saw of their work at the Bernheim Jeune Gallery. But he was certainly excited by the movement’s exaltation of modern life and the machine, although he would have thought it pointless to destroy the art of the past when it had so much to offer the present, represented by himself.
Nor was Léger interested in night life as a subject. He was repelled by the Futurists’ bombast and by the murkier side of Futurist ideology. But La Ville, seen in confrontation with Boccioni’s La Città Sale (The City Rises, 1910-1911), a pivotal picture in the history of Futurist painting, which is visionary in intent but also strangely tragic and visually backward-looking, demonstrates that it was Léger who found a totally new visual vocabulary to express almost everything that was most positive in the Futurists’ aims.
Similarly, the disks that appear in the studies for La Ville are derived from the pre-war work of his friends Robert and Sonia Delaunay. The Delaunays saw their concentric circles as emblems of modernity, light, and speed, and their work had inspired Cendrars to commemorate it in his poetry. The Delaunays’ disks had also initially had astronomical and cosmic implications, although subsequently in their hands disks often became a visual device too easily exploited, despite their undeniable sensitivity to color.
Léger, too, revered the circle. Circles begin to appear as important compositional elements in his circus paintings of 1918, and in his very last works he appears to have seen the circus ring as an emblem of life itself. Initially, however, he saw the disk as yet another enrichment to his theory of contrasts in that they triggered off the syncopation of his compositions. His mural-sized Les Disques of 1918 is in many ways a more highly abstracted counterpart to La Ville and a masterpiece of the same order. Léger had a genius for biding his time, seizing on preexisting ideas and visual effects when the moment to exploit them was for him dead right. One is reminded of Cendrars’s dictum on the truth: “Wait for it, lie in ambush for it, kill it.”
It is in a sense ironic that after the war Léger’s return to the subject co- incided with a temporary move back toward abstraction. The different versions of Le Typographe of 1919 come closer in appearance to the Contrastes de formes of 1913 than to the configurations of La Partie de cartes. Léger appears to have seen the typographer as an exemplary figure, possibly because he was employed to communicate to a wide public through the use of machines. Léger was at the time working on the illustrations for Cendrars’s La Fin du monde filmée par L’Ange N.-D., and helped supervise the typographical layout.
But it is in the next step in Léger’s work that we appreciate most nakedly his ability to get the best of all picto- rial worlds while maintaining, even strengthening, his own artistic identity. In 1920 he painted Le Mécanicien, one of his most daring paintings. It shows an anonymous hero, vested, tattooed, and smoking a cigarette. This is the poilu of the trenches, returned to peacetime. He looks as if he might have stepped down from a popular poster advertising a circus strongman yet has about him a somewhat Assyrian air. (The original Assyrian and Egyptian galleries in the Louvre had recently been reopened after being closed during the war.)
The mechanic looks as if he had been welded together by one of the machines he manipulates. So does the background against which he has placed himself. But whereas he is aggressively three-dimensional, the background is totally flat, derived from de Stijl abstraction. Léger’s dealer, Léonce Rosenberg, was largely responsible for introducing de Stijl’s art and aesthetics to the Parisian public. Léger had also seen Mondrian’s work in 1920 and had instantly recognized that here was a force to be reckoned with. No other painter than Léger could have brought off, with total conviction, this marriage of two seemingly irreconcilable visual worlds.
The wave of Neo-Classicism that swept over French art in the years succeeding the cessation of hostilities, and most notably in the early 1920s, was to condition, both directly and indirectly, virtually all Léger’s subsequent production. In the final analysis it was to be as important to him as had been his contacts with Cubism. The most important work of Léger’s first Neo-Classical phase is Le Grand Déjeuner (Three Women) of 1921. It was Picasso, more than any other figure, who had provoked the Neo-Classical revival in French art, and this painting invites, indeed demands, confrontation with one of the greatest of Picasso’s works in the idiom, his Three Women at the Spring, executed in Fontainebleau during the summer of 1921.
Léger’s masterpiece was carefully plotted over a two-year period, so it owes nothing to this particular painting by Picasso, and there is even the possibility that Picasso may have seen the Léger before he embarked on his own. Yet there can be little doubt that Léger saw himself as offering a modern, up-to-date counterpart to Picasso’s reaffirmation of Mediterranean values. Léger avoids all the overtly classicizing attributes in which Picasso’s Neo-Classicism rejoices; there are no flowing white draperies, no antique urns and pitchers, no wreaths and garlands. Rather Léger’s historical precedents are to be found in French art. In 1922 he named his artistic sources for this phase of his work: Renoir, Seurat, Ingres, and David; he mentioned also Delacroix (Les Femmes d’Alger is particularly relevant here), Le Nain, Cézanne, Poussin, and Fouquet.
Many of these artists had drawn inspiration from the South, but Léger’s Neo-Classicism was to be of the North. His figures are more wildly distorted than Picasso’s. It might seem they couldn’t “work,” just as his counterparts to machinery couldn’t possibly function; but they do, because of the total assurance with which they are painted. (The “take it or leave it” aspect of Léger’s art was one of the things that was to endear him to American artists of later generations.) Again his women look as if they had been forged out of metal, their hair out of corrugated iron. Oddly enough these suburban goddesses, odalisques of the Monoprix, are not unsensuous. Surrounded by simple domestic equipment, fruit of the labor of their men, they sit and recline against a predominantly abstract background that contrives to be both Byzantine and intimate.
Purism, more than any other post-war movement, took into consideration most, though by no means all, of Léger’s aesthetic preoccupations. Purism was launched in 1918 by Ozenfant and Jeanneret (later to find infinitely greater fame as Le Corbusier) with an exhibition and the publication of a text, Après le Cubisme. As the title of their manifesto suggests, the Purists saw themselves as heirs of the Cubists, but they expressed grave reservations about the parent movement. As Ozenfant put it: “Let us assume that Cubism represents that which is most most modern. Place it in the context of science and industry. There is a flagrant contradiction.”
The Purists felt that art was in a state of decadence because it had followed a path of romantic disorder and had shown itself indifferent to modern life. They saw art as being on a par with technology, and complementary to it. Their demand was for an art that was both intellectual and humanistic. In his highly influential book L’Art (1928), Ozenfant stressed that Purism was not just a form of art but a “super-aesthetic,” an attitude of mind, and as such it was a Neo-Classical form of life that was being advocated. The new age was to be one of classical objectivity. Not since Pericles, the Purists claimed, had thought been so lucid, and it was the modern age that would realize the true aims and ambitions of the Greeks. Plato’s Philebus was a favorite text.
The Purists’ subject matter was basically a limited variant of Cubism’s. During the high years of the movement they restricted themselves almost exclusively to still life, and they used simple machine-made objects: musical instruments, bottles, cups, plates and jugs. They chose their subjects partly because they were mostly of simple, geometric design but also because their very banality deprived them of any intrinsic interest and ensured an avoidance of any anecdotal or associational quality; the aesthetic effect produced by their pictures was to be achieved through the artist’s manipulation of objects and not because of their intrinsic beauty. Color, they felt, was a secondary factor in painting, subservient to form or “structure,” which was all-important.
At their best the Purists produced pictures of a pearly, somewhat bloodless beauty, and their works often give the somewhat strange sensation of being blueprints, designs for objects that are already in existence. It might be fair to say that Léger was attracted to Purism because he saw it as objectifying and classicizing the ideas of Futurism. He never subscribed to the Purists’ emphasis on mathematics, and their mystique of number meant nothing to him. For a while he muted his color, but not all that much. He found Purism “too self-contained and therefore too narrow.” Nevertheless he went ahead and painted the best of the paintings that can be related to their movement.
If Léger’s wartime experiences helped to shape his aesthetic, Purism allowed him to articulate it. His most succinct articles on the machine aesthetic were produced between 1923 and 1925—significantly, when the movement was beginning to crack apart. It was now that “the object” began to play an increasingly important role in his art, at first in still lifes, and then in a more iconic fashion, as a subject in its own right. In 1924 he declared, “now a work of art must bear comparison with a manufactured object.”
But Léger’s choice of machine-made forms was much more daring, much more original, and much more truly up-to-date than that of the Purists: goose-necked reading lamps, typewriters, soda-water siphon bottles, ball bearings, all these and a wealth of other unexpected images make their appearance in his art, alongside the more traditional subject matter inherited from Cubism. Léger reveals his Cubist heritage by the fact that every object in his paintings has been transformed by his imagination into a totally independent, original pictorial form. The object, he insisted, was “matière première,” raw material to be manipulated by the painter, not an end but a means. He said, “I felt the object which had been neglected, overlooked, could replace the subject.” He saw in orthodox Purism an element of “imitation,” which he condemned.
Yet when Léger proposed his own theory of the “object/subject,” his concepts arose to a large extent from his assimilation of Purist aesthetics. As always Léger’s theory was linked to concrete visual experiences. His interest in the cinema went back to the pre-war years. As its title acknowledges, Cendrars had conceived his prose poem La Fin du monde filmée par l’Ange N.-D. in a cinematic way, as something like a film script, and Léger had appreciated this in his illustrations for the text. Through Cendrars, Léger met the great filmmaker Abel Gance, who invited Léger to watch the filming of La Roue, first screened in 1922. Based on an indifferent novel by Pierre Hamp, the film comes to a climax with a train crash (in the novel, a sadly pallid reflection of the almost unbearable cataclysm in Zola’s La Bête humaine of 1889-1890), filmed in closeup.
Léger wrote an appreciative review of the film and acknowledged that its visual effects—images intercut to different rhythms, the juxtaposition of single and repeated frames, some printed in negative—had “turned my head around.” He contemplated giving up painting for a career in films. His own venture into the medium, Ballet mécanique, of 1922, was the first film to be made without a scenario or script. Executed with the collaboration of Dudley Murphy and, in its initial stages, Man Ray (a musical score by George Antheil sometimes accompanied screenings), the film still provokes arguments about its quality but its originality is undeniable. Objects and fragments of objects, buttons, phonograph records, artificial limbs, an eye, a fingernail, pieces of twine and rope, were all photographed with the same visual impersonality and objectivity, brought into a new reality by their isolation, or by the way in which the camera focused on them in closeups, or by the unusual confrontations between them.
“Thanks to the camera I then made objects move,” Léger later said. This helped to endow his most Purist-influenced canvases with a surface vitality that the pictures of the movement’s progenitors lacked. The sensation of the closeup is most conspicuous in Léger’s work of the mid-1920s, but in 1927 the results of his cinematic experiments were transferred even more directly to his paintings, in which the objects now tended to float in or revolve in an undefined space. The effect is to further emphasize the object as an independent entity, divorced from its physical surroundings and associational connotations; the result might be described as the transformation of the nature morte into the nature vive. To the end of his life Léger was to be preoccupied with the problem of objects and figures revolving in free space.
The juxtaposition of isolated objects in strange combinations inevitably raises the question of Léger’s relationship to Surrealism. Léger knew many of the figures involved in the movement and had taken part in the early 1920s in some of the activities—congresses, debates, and so forth—that helped to lay its foundations in that they were attempts to extract some more positive conclusions from the nihilism of Dada.
Basically Léger’s art stood for almost everything that the Surrealists opposed. He was a rationalist with a strong classicizing bias to his art and thought. He was at the time wholly committed to a machine aesthetic. The Surrealists distrusted the machine profoundly and made use of it in their art and literature only in a humorous or satirical fashion.
Although the Surrealists cast their cultural net possibly wider than any other intellectual or artistic tendency hitherto, they were simultaneously elitists and great excluders and excommunicators. If the Surrealists disliked Léger’s work, he was nevertheless aware of Surrealism’s omnipotence in the artistic climate in Paris in the decade between 1925 and 1935. I myself believe that Surrealism disturbed and disoriented him more than has been recognized.
Léger’s art shows its anti-Surrealist bias when he makes unlikely confrontations between objects, juxtaposing, for example, a cluster of keys against an umbrella rendered at the same scale, or against an image of the Mona Lisa, and each object simply becomes more entirely itself. The sexuality that tinges virtually all Surrealist art is completely absent from Léger’s. Yet in the open, floating backgrounds of Léger’s paintings executed between 1929 and 1932, which seem similar to the limitless dreamscapes of Surrealism, there is a weakening in his art. The linear scaffoldings with which he continues to structure the picture surface become frail compared to the ones which preceded them, and now sometimes seem at odds with what is going on behind them. The dialogue between the component parts of the painting, between abstraction and representation, has lost much of its previous impact.
The other threat that Surrealism posed to Léger lay in its insistence on the use of metaphors, many of them Freudian. The idea of one thing standing in for another was totally foreign to Léger’s cast of mind. But the Surrealists’ use of metaphor encouraged him, during the 1930s, to resort increasingly to analogy, which the Surrealists, with their ultrasophistication, tended to avoid: it is easier to compare one image with another than to turn it into something else. The Surrealists had declared that a tomato was not like a child’s balloon but was a child’s balloon. The workings of Léger’s mind would not have allowed him to accept such a proposition. The analogies that Léger had previously employed were almost exclusively between man and machine or between women and machine-made forms.
La Baigneuse of 1931, a turning point in Léger’s art, is weakened by the obviousness of the way in which woman is visually equated to abstracted forms personifying the forces and fecundity of nature. Léger would undoubtedly have seen his subsequent equations or analogies—between ropes and branches, between tree trunks and metal fence posts, between figures and clouds—as an extension and enrichment of his theory of contrasts. Visually the analogies are mostly satisfying because they are being made by a great artist, completely sure-footed in his skills. But the ideas being expressed are all too often banal. La Baigneuse is redeemed by the grandeur and rigor of its composition, although the compositional procedures Léger is now employing are no longer modernist but traditional. A decade earlier he had been able to produce a brand of Neo-Classicism that dovetailed in a miraculous way with his own mechanistic view of the modern world. His simultaneous apprehension and rejection of Surrealism forced him to reconsider his classicizing tendencies in a new way.
The 1930s were, from a visual point of view, the most restless and disjunctive decade of the century. Léger never lost his sense of wonder at modern life, yet profound changes were taking place within him. Interestingly enough, these can best be charted by his attitude to America. He visited it first in 1931 and then twice more before deciding to sit out World War II in New York. Léger’s motives for travel were partly financial; he was hoping to find a wider market for his art. Above all he hoped America would commission the murals he was now longing to paint. Abstract mural art had preoccupied him briefly in the 1920s and his interest in the form had grown in proportion to the deepening of his friendship with Le Corbusier.
Léger’s initial reaction to America was not uncritical; he disliked its consumerism. He was initially bothered by New York’s verticality. But the city stunned him. He had been exhilarated by the modernization of certain aspects of Paris and its expanding suburbs. Faced with the archetypal modern metropolis he felt, as he readily admitted, that he simply couldn’t compete with it in his art. He never represented New York in either his easel or his mural paintings, although sketches exist for an unrealized cinematic mural (images were to be projected on walls of Rockefeller Center by movie cameras).
About to return to France after the war, Léger said, “Nowhere else could I have found such an energetic and dynamic atmosphere. The French public will be amazed when it compares my American painting with my pre-American output.” But secretly he was confounded by America’s vastness. In 1946 he remarked, “It is not a country—it’s a world. In Europe each nation is aware of its boundaries…. [In America] all is without limits. One has the impression that there is too much of everything.” America helped to change his attitude to both nature and the machine. He said, “For me the contrast in the United States between the mechanical and the natural is one of great anti-melodic intensity.”
Previously Léger had seen the machine as being wholly beneficial, at the service of man’s attempt, through labor, to achieve a better quality of life; he continued to believe that used judiciously it could do just that. In America he became aware of the ruthlessness of machines and of their obsolescence. In an odd sort of way he actually came to pity them. He was struck, for example, by the way in which farm equipment was left to rust and decay in yards and fields and by the way in which creepers and trees grew up and around it, providing a habitat for birds and other wildlife. Earlier his own particular brand of Futurism had met Neo-Classicism and had been inspired by it. Now a once-despised Romanticism was coloring his aesthetic.
During the 1920s Léger had often introduced fragments of landscape into his mechanical universe, enhancing, through contrast, its modernity. Of one of his Paysages animés of 1925, in which the black and white of vernacular Normandy country architecture meets the rigors of de Stijl abstraction, he had said, “Above all it isn’t the work of a landscapist.” Now he was to assert that “the great threat of science has caused us to forget the natural extent of earthy values,” and that “the artist must make something as beautiful as nature.” Yet he also realized that he was now engaged in a battle that could not be won. Of trees he said,
In fact they are my great love and I can’t rest when I am surrounded by them. I have a great temptation to paint them and yet I know I can never do so as I see them. How could one give them more expression than they already have? One is beaten from the start.
Hitherto Léger had painted his greatest pictures out of a sense of confrontation with modern life, and in competition with other modern painting. Now he was in competition only with himself, and he once complained that America was bad for painters because there they received no criticism. His relative isolation made him vulnerable to his limitations as an artist. His tree and forest paintings are tinged with a nostalgia hitherto foreign to his art. Despite his protestations to the contrary he had very little feeling for nature. His flowers, for example, have the distinction of being the ugliest and most repellent ever to have been painted. His birds aroused amused derision in Picasso’s circle.
His Plongeurs series, inspired by divers he had seen in Marseilles and subsequently in New York’s public swimming pools, and which became the major project of his wartime production, raises the question of taste. Much earlier on Léger had inveighed against accepted ideas of what constituted good taste, and his own art had been immeasurably strengthened by his rejection of them. He saw aspects of American life as being in bad taste and he capitalized on them when, on his return to Paris in 1945, he painted La Grande Julie, a latter-day female counterpart of his Mécanicien of 1920, and an undisputed masterpiece. But was he aware that, with the grotesquely tangled limbs of his divers, rendered in unfeeling grisaille against backgrounds of crudely colored biomorphic shapes, shapes that did not come naturally to his hand, he was simply exposing a bad taste that was innate in his makeup and unique to himself? I wouldn’t be too sure.
Léger’s renewed concern with grand subject matter, heralded by his Composition aux trois figures of 1932 and confirmed by Adam et Eve of 1935- 1939, must be viewed in the context of his growing political involvement. He had been a popular artist from the start, in the true sense of the word; this was one of the things that had set him apart from his Cubist peers. Now increasingly he was anxious to produce an art about and for the people. By 1931 he had decided that abstraction, which he later associated with “free art,” with the liberation of pictorial elements and values, led to elitism in art. (Léger used the word “abstraction” in two ways: to describe totally nonfigurative art, but also to describe the formal properties of paintings.)
On the other hand, until the end of his life he continued to affirm his belief that the masses had to be educated to appreciate “beauty” and must not be allowed to impose their own criteria on it or upon artistic production. In 1932 Léger signed the manifesto Misère de la Poésie, issued by the Surrealists in support of Louis Aragon, when the publication of his poem “Front Rouge” faced him with the threat of a five-year prison sentence. He was active in the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, founded in 1932 and concerned with transmitting culture to proletarian workers. He joined the organization officially in 1936, when it found a home in the Maison de la Culture, in the rue du Navarin.
It was during this period that he expressed his admiration for Roman-esque art, which spoke to ordinary people of spiritual matters in direct, intelligible terms. He claimed to be influenced by its distortions. The mechanized limbs of his figures of the 1920s had by implication, at least, looked like spare parts of the human body, theoretically at least interchangeable from figure to figure. In fact one of Léger’s greatest strengths lay in the fact that even when he believed himself to be painting in an impersonal and precisionist fashion, his enjoyment in handling paint, his wonderfully gruff touch comes shining through. He was incapable of replicating a form exactly, so each distorted limb is unique.
In 1936, a key year in French politics, Léger shared in the euphoria when the Popular Front came to power and the Communist Party became involved for the first time in government. He joined the Party in 1945, while in America, two months before his return to France at the end of the year. As in his art, so in his politics: his sympathies were quick but it took him a while to digest the implications of things. During the 1930s he had lectured to workers and had even welcomed some of them into his school. On his return to Paris he began campaigning even more actively for an art accessible to the working classes. Paul Eluard, who had in many ways been responsible for Picasso’s much-publicized membership in the Party in October 1944, was increasingly at his side. Aragon, whose views were both more doctrinaire and more volatile than Léger’s own, was a regular sparring partner in debate.
The Jacques-Louis David bicentennial celebrations in Paris in June 1948, which centered on the exhibition of his work at the Orangerie, indicated to Léger the direction that his “revolutionary” painting must take. David’s art was noble and spare, and above all much of it had been politically motivated. Léger stated: “I wanted to mark a return to simplicity by means of an art that was direct—unsubtle, understandable to all…. David obtained the maximum that it is possible to derive from imitation, and it is for this reason that the atmosphere of the Renaissance is completely absent from his painting.” In fact, without the example of Raphael (together with Leonardo, anathema to Léger) the art of David would be unthinkable, but despite Léger’s basic intellectual honesty he also had the peasant’s capacity for double-think.
Revealingly, Léger also remarked that David had “approached”—but only approached—the solution to painting “great subjects.” In other words Léger was once again in confrontation with great art and free to solve problems posed by others in his own way. David’s Marat Assassiné, one the most famous of his images, was brought over from Brussels for the David exhibition and Léger borrowed its pose for the reclining woman in Les Loisirs, hommage à David, the painting that was the centerpiece of his own retrospective at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in 1949 (see illustration on page 10). As an easel painter on a monumental scale, the director of an art school, and potentially an “ordinateur des fêtes” (he had grand ideas about transforming the streets of Paris and New York for special occasions), Léger felt his claim to be David’s successor was assured.
Les Loisirs is one of Léger’s most spatially conventional works, and although it would have pained him to acknowledge the fact, the Renaissance is making itself felt. Workers endimanchés, in their Sunday best, are joined by what at first sight might appear to be circus acrobats, also on their day off, and they have all bicycled off into the country on an outing. (The two right-hand figures are in fact dressed in special cycling outfits.) The bicycle, propelled by man, was the only machine that still interested him. None of the figures in Les Loisirs is remotely as attractive or endearing as Le Mécanicien or La Grande Julie, and oddly enough they all look inexorably bourgeois. The picture may be an homage to David, but what it surely represents are the Popular Front’s first “paid holidays,” so definitively chronicled in the photographs of Cartier-Bresson.
In the 1920s Léger’s views about the dignity of labor had been conditioned, if only indirectly, by the turn-of-the-century social theories of Georges Sorel. Les Loisirs is more of an update of the pastoral idylls of Jean-Jacques Rousseau than of the historically commemorative art of David. It is difficult to analyze or understand why Les Loisirs and the works that accompany it fail to achieve their aims, which are presumably to uplift, to suggest that a better, fuller, more leisured life beckons to one and all. These pictures are certainly accessible, but perhaps they try too hard to please, and their air of naiveté is too knowing.
The Constructeurs series of 1950- 1951 (see illustration on previous page) shows Léger returning to a truly modern subject and treating it in a modern way, and hence being back on his own true home ground. Workmen in work clothes parade along or are suspended between great iron girders boldly slashed through space and across the picture surface in a fashion that recalls the distribution of pictorial elements in La Ville of 1919. Léger was now describing the products of the machine as “rigid, hard, hostile.” But looking at these paintings, one senses that his reassessment of what had provoked his finest and most truly original paintings was encouraging him once more to go into battle. That is where he belonged.
Léger’s paintings from the 1930s onward had been uneven in quality. But his skill and sensitivity as a draftsman, like his compositional sense, had never faltered. The monochrome Constructeurs in several versions and the drawings associated with them are galvanizing. In the definitive canvas of 1950, color and line, black and white, abstraction and representation acquire an exact equivalence. The series was shown at the Maison de la Pensée Française in 1951. In the Léger memorial exhibition held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 1956 (he died in 1955), these same paintings were shown in a vast space, suspended from metal scaffolding. The impression they made was unforgettable.
The current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art is the first large-scale Léger retrospective to have been seen in America for over forty years, although a large survey was mounted at the same institution as early as 1935. This show is a smaller version of the one seen in Paris at the Centre Georges Pompidou last year. There the exhibition was praised by artists and crit-ics but created surprisingly little interest among the general public. It was most imaginatively curated (by Isabelle Monod-Fontaine) and contained a wealth of documentary material which gave a flavor of Léger’s enjoyment in collaborative ventures—with writers, architects, cinéastes, musicians, and with the theater and the ballet.
The exhibition then moved on to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, having lost three major masterpieces: Nus dans la forêt, La Partie de cartes, and La Ville. A slightly smaller version of Les Loisirs was substituted for the definitive version. Seen in the great white vaulted halls of the Reina Sofía, with their rough-hewn stone doorways and white marble floors, the pictures looked truly stunning. I visited the exhibition there three times and the visitors barely outnumbered the guards on duty. This is strange, for Léger saw himself as the people’s painter. Now the masterpieces denied to Madrid have been restored to the New York display.
Each of the three museums has produced its own version of the catalog. The one offered by Paris contained no fewer than ten essays (plus interviews with three eminent artists) and perhaps inevitably they are uneven in quality. The catalog issued by MOMA will prove to be the most useful. Carolyn Lanchner, who is curator of the exhibition there, has provided the lead essay, “Fernand Léger: American Connections,” which charts the subject in depth and with great clarity. Matthew Affron contributes an important and original piece, “Léger’s Modernism: Subjects and Objects.” The introductions to the various sections of the exhibition, by Beth Handler, are especially worth reading.
May 14, 1998