Fernand Léger Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, May 29-September 29, 1997; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, October 28, 1997-January 12, 1998; Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 15-May 12, 1998.
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.