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Fernand Léger (1881 – 1955)

Leger, Fernand: French painter. He was originally trained as an architect's draughtsman and photographic retoucher. Having failed the entrance exam to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1903, he studied at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs and the Academie Julian. In 1909 he ranked as one of the three major Cubists and became a member of the Puteaux group in 1911. He was the first of the Cubists to experiment with non-figurative abstraction, contrasting curvilinear forms against a rectilinear grid.

He renounced abstraction during the First World War, when he claims to have discovered the beauty of common objects, which he described as 'everyday poetic images'. He began painting in a clean and precise style, in which objects are defined in their simplest terms in bold colours, taking cityscape and machine parts as his subject matter. In 1924 he made a 'film without scenario', Ballet Mecanique, in which he contrasted machines and inanimate objects with humans and their body parts.

During the Second World War, Leger lived in the USA where he taught at Yale, returning to Paris in 1945, when he opened an academy. His large paintings celebrating the people, featuring acrobats, cyclists and builders, thickly contoured and painted in clear, flat colours, reflected his political interest in the working class, and his attempt to create accessible art. From 1946 to 1949 he worked on a mosaic for the facade of the church at Assy, produced windows and tapestries for the church at Ardincourt in 1951, as well as windows for the University of Caracas in 1954. In 1950 he founded a ceramics studio at Biot, which, in 1957, became the Leger Museum. In 1967 it became a national museum. Leger was one of the giants of French painting this century, whose influence has been almost as great as his reputation.

- From "The Bulfinch Guide to Art History"  

The following review of the Leger retrospective held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998 was written by Dr. Francis V. O’Connor, Editor, O’CONNOR’S PAGE.

I do not like Fernand Léger.

Thanks to MoMA's good enough exhibition, I have been able to come to this judgment of an artist, whose last major show in New York was in 1953, and whose work has been seen around piecemeal ever since. So I never saw enough to form an opinion. I did read Alfred Barr's famous put-down about Léger being a noisy artist chasing fire engines, the business about him being a champion of the machine, and the clever mot about "Tubism." Now these eighty objects (the twenty drawings included are calmer and more elegant), are all lined up for inspection, and the paintings have earned their demerits -- in my eye at least.

First off, I think Barr was right; the visual noise from the walls of this exhibits rivals that of several recent shows at MoMA and elsewhere about town, of contemporary junk blaring actual noise from recordings and videos (vide Viola at the Whitney). Léger's noise is worse, in that it rivals that felt in the eye of the French poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire by a red and green awning opposite his window. Yet even the old Op Artists were tolerable in their optical vibrancy, whereas Léger is relentless, vulgar and visually debilitating. Further, the show is packed into MoMA's downstairs galleries, where each painting can hardly be seen without its neighbors lending their din. This is the kind of work that needs room -- but even spatial soundproofing would not redeem these ranks of visually cacophonous disasters.

As for Léger being an artist of the Machine Age, celebrating the rise of our century's technology, I'll take Picabia, Sheeler and Diego Rivera any day. If Léger managed to get the roar of the factory, the squeal of a drill press, and the screech of the unoiled gear, into his paintings, it was an achievement I, at least, do not much appreciate. Going through the River Rouge auto plants when I was working on an essay about Rivera's murals of the Ford assembly line for the Detroit Institute of Arts' retrospective, revealed those vibrant old factories as far more organic and chthonic, if not downright hellish, than Léger's fantasies of the worker's environment, where everything is neat primary colors -- and the rust, heat, grunge and quaking are totally absent.

Further, the essence of a machine is its interconnectedness: one part relates to the other, and all the parts join to perform an action that is specific and useful. If you look carefully at any Léger, you see immediately that it is an extremely complex, but fundamentally unintegrated, pattern. Nothing really connects to anything else--not even arms and legs!

As for "Tubism" and its relation to Cubism, it is too bad that he did not stay with the latter. The 1911 works influenced by the Cubists are superb. But he does not develop these marvelous paintings; rather he grew more raucous and colorful--and noisy. By c. 1914 he is deafeningly insufferable. His motif for this visual noise starts early and these works all contain a formal complex that he used over and over throughout his career -- a balancing act of small, tightly clustered forms countering large, expansive, planar forms. Early on these consisted of hands and their rows of fingers. Later, there are steps, grills, stripes, smokestacks, girders, nets, ropes and so on. The rest of the works, all using this ingenious device for inducing visual static, are the most vulgar, loud, mechanomorphic junk I have ever seen.

These paintings are portraits of a singular chaos--and if all art is, on one level, self-portraiture, they say much about Léger that explains the overall failure of his art on any level other than irony. Indeed, if I were doing a psychodynamic study of Léger, I would start with the origins of that infinitely elaborated stacked finger motif -- not his much-touted infatuation with a cannon during World War I -- which is too simple an explanation for the personal etiology of these curious, pesky images.

But, if you think such stuff is "fun" -- or has "edge" -- or sounds like an exciting disco -- don't miss this visually annoying exhibit.

[This review was first published on February 15, 1998]

- ©1998, Dr. Francis V. O’Connor, Editor, O’CONNOR’S PAGE. Reproduced by permission.

-Source: artchive.com

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