Léger, Fernand (1881–1955)

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LÉGER, FERNAND (1881–1955)


French painter.

Born in Argentan, Normandy, on 4 February 1881, Fernand Léger began painting at the age of twenty-five after starting out studying architecture. His first pictorial endeavors echoed the various phases of cubism. His palette was dull, while his entangled cones, cylinders, and cubes recalled the geometrism of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) or the "Orphism" of Robert Delaunay (1885–1941). Léger described himself as a "tubist," and he followed his own path amid all the new experimentation then under way. Between 1912 and 1914, he painted a series of nonfigurative pictures known as Contrast of Forms. Short as it was, this period allowed him to articulate an aesthetic approach that he outlined in the review Montjoie! (June 1913). The canvas, he suggested, should be organized around a set of contrasts: contrasts between colors themselves (red/green), contrasts between primary colors on the one hand and black and white on the other, and contrasts between lines and forms. Together, these should set in motion a dynamic susceptible of evoking the modern world and its machines. This dynamic interplay of tubular forms was oriented directly toward the spectator, who was meant to perceive only the reality of the picture itself in its materiality. Thus both arrangement and combination were necessary. In La partie de cartes (1917; Soldiers playing at cards), human figures, now also contrasted, were transformed into a set of geometrical forms intermingled with the forms in the background.

During the First World War, Léger was mobilized, as were most of the cubist painters, first to the Argonne forest (1914–1917) and then as a stretcher bearer at Verdun for three months in 1917.) In letters Léger told his friend and future first wife, Jeanne Lohy (1895–1950) of the horrors of war. Many drawings he made in the trenches, on the pages of notebooks or the lids of boxes, served as studies for his oils on canvas and serve as a testimony, in a dull palette, of the activity of anonymous soldiers at the front, "his new comrades," such as Le soldat à la pipe (Soldier with a pipe) in 1916.

At the end of World War I, Léger delved into industrial reality. His practice centered on his Disks series, his Éléments mécaniques, or his La ville (City)—works that celebrate modern mechanics and the industrial object by filling the canvas with brightly colored stairs, façades, chimneys, robots, or mannequins. Human figures, reintroduced into urban settings or interiors, themselves operated as mechanical elements on a formal par with the machines. "It was not simply that I treated the human figure as an object, but that since I found machines to be so plastic I wanted the human figure to have that same plasticity" (quoted in Mathey, p. 31; translated from the French). In Le mécanicien (1920; The mechanic), a visionary worker in profile view stood for the beauty of a machine. Connecting rods, cogwheels, or gears constituted sign-systems of elements transported from reality to the painting.

In 1920 Léger began working with the architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret; 1887–1965), publishing articles in the purist review L'esprit nouveau (The new spirit). The machine, the basis of Léger's iconography, was simultaneously addressed in architectural terms by the theories of Le Corbusier. In Léger's easel paintings, as for example La lecture (1924; Reading), the background, which has its own spatiality, coexists with plastic-volumetric forms, squarely facing the viewer, that symbolize modern monumentality. Léger's interest in plasticity extended to the cinema. In the film Le ballet mécanique (1924), codirected with Dudley Murphy and accompanied (at least as intended) by George Antheil's "musical synchronism," the juxtaposition of diverse objects (hat, shoes, geometrical forms) is rhythmically associated with close-ups of machines in action. In the industrial society of the late 1920s machines were producing a multitude of manufactured objects, and Léger's purpose in his canvases or drawings was to transpose and study them (The Siphon; Nature morte à la chope [Still life with beer mug]). As early as 1926, he began to take inspiration from the graphic practices of advertising in contemporary life, experimenting with large surfaces reminiscent of the gigantic billboards of the time. "The modern street with its colorful elements, its lettering, has very often served me (for me, it is raw material)" (Léger, 1965, p. 26).

In 1931 Léger made his first visit to the United States, where his reputation as a modern painter had been established since the exhibition of works of his in the Armory Show in New York and Chicago in 1913. During a second stay (1935–1936), he realized that the Works Progress Administration (WPA), for which architects were being commissioned to design public housing and painters to decorate public buildings, was having a dynamic impact on artists, and that the murals of New Deal America embodied a vision at once social and artistic that resembled his own. The policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) corresponded to Léger's belief that art should have a social function and the artist a clear task, namely to intervene everywhere in the life of the city.

Léger was in the United States again in 1938–1939 and stayed there from 1940 to 1945. In the summer of 1941 he taught at Mills College in Oakland, California. His iconography changed at this time, as he introduced the idea of a "new realism" and incorporated typically American elements into the structure of his work. His American and New York landscape paintings treated colors, geometrical forms, and human figures in space with much greater freedom. His series of "Cyclists" and "Divers" suggested motion by means of elements at once static and dynamic. His women, now emphatically modern, wore shorts instead of skirts. Narrative returned, and henceforth Léger even referred to history painting (Les loisirs—Hommage à Louis David, 1948–1949) as a symbol of modernity that exalted reality in its banality and functionalism. Finally, in the context of the 1950s, a work such as Les constructeurs/Construction Workers imposed the idea of a form of painting perpetually under construction and governed, still, by the concept of contrasts: "If I was able to get very close to realist representation here, it was because the violent contrast between my worker figures and the metal architecture into which they are inserted is AT A MAXIMUM.… Our modern life is made up of everyday contrasts" (quoted in Centre Georges Pompidou, p. 248). A prime commentator on his own work and on the machinist aesthetic, Léger contributed vigorously to the dissemination and clear explanation of his theoretical positions. He died in 1955 at Gif-sur-Yvette.

See alsoArchitecture; Cubism; Painting, Avant-Garde; Picasso, Pablo .


Primary Sources

Léger, Fernand. Functions of Painting. Preface by G. L. K. Morris, edited by E.-F. Fry, translated by A. Anderson. New York, 1965.

——. Fernand Léger: Correspondances. 3 vols. Paris, 1993–1996.

Secondary Sources

Centre Georges Pompidou. Fernand Léger. Paris, 1997.

Garaudy, Roger. Pour un réalisme du XXe siècle: Dialogue posthume avec Fernand Léger. Paris, 1968.

Kosinski, Dorothy, ed. Fernand Léger, 1911–1924: The Rhythm of Modern Life. Munich and New York, 1994.

Mathy, François. Fernand Léger. Paris, 1956.

Caroline Tron-Carroz