Monday, October 17, 2016

"The advent of modernity lies in this above all."

Ever since transcribing and posting William Carlos Williams' "The Descent of Winter" a couple of years ago, I've been fondly interested in Cubist and modernist art—particularly the work of Picasso, Klee, Delaunay, Braque, Metzinger, and Léger.

I had a really uncanny moment last year when I turned a corner unawares in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and kerplunk, there it was, Léger's epochal masterpiece The City! HOLY SHIT, I said, making myself the object of several security guards' and Chinese tourists' attention.

Fernand Léger, La Ville (1919)
(The canvas is nearly eight feet tall!)

I'm fascinated by the visual artists of the modernist era for the same reason I'm enamored of their contemporaries in the poetic sphere: their work is a reaction to a sea change in society. In the aftermath of the industrial revolution and World War I, and in the midst of accelerating globalization and consumerism, the complexion of human life was qualitatively changing. The old stylistic perspectives of arts and letters, predicated on bourgeois sensibilities crystallized during the century of Napoleon, Queen Victoria, the steam engine, and The White Man's Burden, had become outmoded; the mirror they held to humanity no longer reflected a recognizable face. The flourish of modernist art was a series of experiments not only toward devising ways of depicting the new human reality, but to understand its inner workings and foresee the costs/benefits of social and technological progress.

Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis
is a very nice and thorough overview of the 2013–4 Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition of the same name, showcasing the work of Léger and his contemporaries as it anatomizes the newly modernized city beside the usual profusion of curatorial exegesis that maybe 2% of the people who buy these big glossy art books actually read. It also features interviews and essays by Léger, and I find these especially interesting in light of their familiarity: in the twentieth-century painter's fascination with the effects of electric lighting, the automobile, the motion picture theatre, and the ubiquity of graphic advertising on urban life, one hears an assonance with our twenty-first-century confabulations about the possibilities and implications of the internet of everything, self-driving cars, social media, and augmented reality.

Some excepts: a few words from Mr. Léger about advertising, architecture, and the arrow of progress. I have my own thoughts and contentions with some of his points, but I'll save the editorializing for another occasion.


The eye, a major organ with thousands of responsibilities, controls the individual now more than ever. It records without pausing, from morning until night. Speed is the law of the modern world. Moreover, commercialization has reached such a height that, in terms of visual spectacle, the parade of mannequins in a luxury clothing store rivals and even outdoes a number of everyday street scenes. Thus, the demand on posters in the street far exceed those of exhibition spaces——hence the need to organize the "Spectacle of the Street."
The Cadum soap baby.

But we find ourselves faced with two kinds of poster: the Cadum Soap Baby poster, which is a raw object devoid of artistic value, and the work of Cassandre, an indisputable innovator in the "Art" of  the billboard. A Cadum poster is a "hole in the wall"——it makes a clear break with everything surrounding it. A Cassandre poster is a vertical composition that has no depth, but seeks some relationship with its surroundings (a precise art-conception). Which is better? Strictly from the point of view of publicity, I don't know. Perhaps the Cadum? In any case, from the point of view of the street, it's Cassandre's method. So, inevitably, I end up asking myself this question: what should the poster pursue? The effects of the crudest possible advertising, or the effects of art? Which is more effective? I think Cassadre's posters for Bûcheron astonished people, making them stop and look just as much as the Bébé Cadum did. And if what I think is really true, then obviously Cassandre wins because he introduces an additional, superior component.
Cassandre, ad for Bûcheron (a cabinet maker).

But I think this, too: the street is far too busy. It's irritating and exhausting. We lead such tense, hectic lives nowadays, we ought to have calmer, more orderly streets——ones that would relax our nerves rather than excite them. You tell me which is more calming: the recurring, hallucinatory effigies of the Bébé Cadum, or the images Cassandre creates? The latter, right? So the truth in posters lies not in poster-persuasion, but in poster-art (I did not say "artistic posters"). Psychologically speaking, posters should not be composed like jazz, but more like orchestration. I think we are living through the age of the barbarian poster. As I said before, we need to organize the pandemonium out there into a system that accords each visual value its proper place. If you will, this means nothing more nor less than creating a polychrome architecture (for color has always been an attractive quality, like light), which would encompass every manifestation of industrial and commercial advertising——the makers of which,  moreover, would be nothing short of thrilled at such an arrangement.
And so the city will veer in the direction of the visual serenity it needs. Let us use the rich domain of forms, colors, and lights——and hope that pretentious laws and decrees won't stand in the way of life, preventing the posters for Pill X from assuming their place within the frame of a "landscape" already in existence. What is a "landscape"? Where does it begin, and where does it end? What court is presumptuous enough to define which elements should compose it? And if a poster is beautiful, why shouldn't it be one of those elements?
Cassandre, cover for the newspaper L'Intransigeant
From "La publicité moderne: Fernand Léger et Robert Delaunay,"
Louis Cheronnet, L'Art Viviant,
December 1, 1926
Trans. Liesl Yamaguchi


Modern life——compressed——cut short——sensual in the proper sense of the term——we are using our senses now more than ever——our eyes——our ears——our hands——our feet, to touch everything, hear everything, see everything. ——The fatal march toward speed, it's all one and the same——moving quickly means "experiencing everything life has to offer as quickly as possible." The eye in particular becomes the dominant organ, with thousands of responsibilities: it must assess, decide, respond in a fraction of a second, behind the wheel as well as behind the microscope. ——The lives of thousands of people depend on the eye of one man. The war further catalyzed these developments. For ten years now, rhythm (speed) has accelerated steadily, mechanically. ——Success and authority belong to swift, exacting minds.
Were are living in an era of photographic "focus" [mise au point], of "evaluation" [mise en valeur]. The most significant development of our time is the reevaluation [mise en valeur] of the object, of objects.

We have searchlights that stir up and illuminate the most obscure corners——we see through bodies. ——These new means have endowed us with a new mentality. We want to see everything clearly; we want to understand mechanisms, functions, motors, all in the most intricate detail. Assembled entities do not satisfy us anymore——we want to feel and grasp the details of their assembly——and we perceive that details, fragments, once isolated, now have their own lives. 

The cinematic close-up is a consecration of this new vision.

Fernand Léger, Charlot Cubiste (c. 1920)

It was only a few years ago that we saw nothing but figure, just a body——and now, curiously, everyone is interested in examining this figure's eye, its mouth, its ear——the advent of modernity lies in this above all. We have discovered objects, fragments of objects, and what's more, we are discerning "their beauty," for each possesses its own beauty, particular and intrinsic to itself.

A shoe as beautiful as a painting. A painting as beautiful as an X-ray.

These objects contribute to the spectacle of the street. ——They are isolated and exemplified in stores and shop windows.

That humble clerk from the shop next door will amaze you. ——Give him three neckties, two umbrellas, a car, twelve pairs of silk stockings, and four blouses, and he will arrange them, put them in order, and transform them into a work of art.

Women's legs, women's feet, the toe of a woman's shoe, her arm, her finger, the tip of a finger, he fingernail, the reflection in her fingernail, everything has been put "in the spotlight" [mis en valeur]. The whole ensemble functions like a watch, a revolver.

Every detail of an ensemble set in the spotlight [mis en valeur], that is the mark of our time.

A modern butcher shop, an architecture of lamb's legs, of sides of beef, beautiful as a Gothic church——that butcher has made a church. This butcher does not believe in God, but he believes firmly that his meat will sell better if he arranges it like this. Economic genius is closely tied to artistic genius (this too is of our time).

Make something useful, and you make something beautiful. It isn't beautiful because it's useful; that would be too simple. But we endeavor to make "objects themselves" beautiful, rather than to embellish them with decoration (this too is of our time).
Fernand Léger, Eléments mécaniques sur fond rouge

I also think there is another massively important event linked to this new taste for objects. I think you might call it the advent of a northern civilization. ——Of course, I'm not equipped to identify and study the contemporary phenomena that would support this thesis, and maybe it relates to some philosophical concept, but I can't help pointing out that certain developments in the visual order of the world lead me to imagine this new state of affairs.

Roman, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean civilizations have created and contributed their remarkable works. Their intense power and quality are such that it is indeed difficult to extract oneself from their grip. And yet today, before an audience of northerners, I do not hesitate to point out these new developments, which I think are destined to renew the world's spirit.

As an example of the visual order I mentioned earlier, I'll take that of the modern architectural creation, which is a specific, actual, built reality, and is entirely the work of northern artists. Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, France, Russia, Poland, Germany, and America all possess considerable numbers of young architects, all of whom conceive of architecture in a manner absolutely opposed to the decorative spirit of the old, bourgeois traditions.

They announce a taste for simplicity, precision, and clarity. These are without doubt qualities of the Occident. ——Contemporary visual Rationalism does not come from the Mediterranean or the Middle East, it comes from the North. ——The fact that architecture, a major Art in every age, finds itself in these new circumstances leads me to conclude that a weakening of creative power in the Mediterranean is also a very real fact. Charm, seduction, ambiguity, fluidity, and excessive fantasy and spirituality are the preoccupations that characterize contemporary Mediterranean cultures. The golden ages of the Mediterranean, so exact, so rational——are no longer entirely appreciated by the races that created them.

Rather, it has been the North that has grasped the real problem. Younger, quicker, and less cultivated, those in the North were able to perceive more clearly the problems modern life presented for contemporary construction. And everything follows logically from there. If architecture has a will of its own (and it does), it won't tolerate anything within its interiors except those objects that share its spirit——architecture and its objects will then be accepted by the initiated or tolerated by the majority, who will get used to them and accept them in their own good time.

The decadent strain originating in the tangled ornaments of the Italian Renaissance has persisted in bourgeois art right up to the present.

The new architectural order of the North represents as radical reaction against that state of affairs.

Perhaps the only danger of this modern approach is its excessive need to synthesize: "excessive simplification, excessive theorization."

Life, in the primary sense of the word, cannot function in a state of tension, a state of revolution. A revolution needs a simplistic, basic, and direct imperative in order to overturn and destroy its object: but once this destruction has been accomplished, difficulties set in. You have to establish a new balance in which to rebuild.

"Only in balance can man survive."
Fernand Léger, Passage à niveau (état définitif) (1919)

Art has always existed in a state that tends toward a state of revolution (a condition of reacting against something)——which is not whole——a visual entity, whatever it may be, must always be valid "in itself" and not because it is a reaction against something else. Precisely the same is true when it comes to economic and social issues.

Thus, any "Revolution" demands in its wake the establishment of a state of equilibrium that is extremely difficult to achieve. There lies the entire problem of the contemporary West. To try to clarify the question, I turn to a simplistic but reasonably clear illustration.

I will call the tendency toward a state of revolution "no. 2." The state of achieved, lasting equilibrium "no. 3."

What is no. 2?
What is no. 3?

2. —— It is black and white.
2. —— It is round and square.
2. —— It is night and day.
2. —— It is vertical and horizontal.

What is no. 3?

3. ——It is white, black, and gray.
3. ——It is round, square, and oval.
3. ——It is night, day, and twilight.
3. ——It is vertical, horizontal, and oblique.

It is my opinion that a painting, for example, no matter how ingenious its author, will not work out with a circle and a square, nor a vertical and horizontal (no. 2); but that it has "a better shot" at coming together with a circle, a square, and an oval, or a vertical, a horizontal, and an oblique (no. 3).

If we take no. 3 as the figure for life and balance, all new art and civilization should tend toward this figure——for it is the figure of maturity. If you are no. 2 at twenty-five years of age, personal development should lead you to no. 3 by the age of forty.

The danger of young civilization lies in remaining at no. 2 and thinking that they can achieve equilibrium on that basis.

That is the primary danger now facing our nascent northern civilization; it is frequently no. 2. ——For example, America.

The frenzy in vertical building has created this phenomenon in which a house with 100 floors spews out——at the same times, and at the same points——a quantity of human refuse such that all circulation is brought to a halt for who knows how long.

Failure to anticipate consequences. Thus, no. 2. ——If vertical building is to exist, it will have to consider the problem of human waste, which is closely tied to that of natural balance (thus, no. 3: balance).

Fernand Léger, Le Transport des Forces (1937)

No. 2 is also, as it were, a lack of moderation, a romantic state. No 3. is moderation; it's a challenging state, the state of maturity.

There is a second danger, which lies in the cultural environment——young races have a tendency to seek balance by drawing an older, neighboring civilizations. In art, that can become a negative force.

Spontaneity and instinct should form the basis for all artistic creation. Creation comes when "genius burns." ——Culture is analyzed in the spirit of "cold criticism."

The nefarious taste for culture has given birth to comical monstrosities——in America, for example, you have Gothic skyscrapers, Louis XVI phonographs, and toothpicks out of the Renaissance. I mention these extreme cases to demonstrate the error that lies in hankering after materials that are old and out of date. ——The modern spirit. Northern civilization must come into being of its "own capital." It would be better for it to remain longer at no. 2, if that meant it would reach no. 3, its stable equilibrium, on its own terms, by means of its own creative grace.

And when this civilization has reached maturity and attained this state of equilibrium, we will be able to discern, I hope, the advent of a new religion: the religion belonging to the cult of the Beautiful in which we live, which we create ourselves. A concrete and objective idealism, which advantageously will replace the old religions, whose steadfast aim was to put the world to sleep in the opium dream of a vague, deceptive, unproven afterlife. Henceforth, we are going to live in the light, in clarity and nudity. Therein lies a source of joy that is entirely new, our Future.

Berlin, March 1928

Variétés, no. 10
February 15, 1929
Trans. Liesl Yamaguchi


  1. I doubt Léger was happy to find out how right he had been.

    Less than a year after this interview, No. 2 economic arrangements between rival trading blocs brought on the Great Depression and with it an era of violently No. 2 politics, whose leaders went on to produce destruction on an unequaled scale across most of his Northern Civilization.

    Since you're such a conspicuous omnivore I'll recommend a book on this subject: Postwar by the late Tony Judt. It's a history of the reconstruction of Eastern and Western Europe. It's a rare work of scholarship, but I'm recommending it, really, because the author's prose is such a joy to read. It is elegant, poised, sharply ironic and easily authoritative at the same time. In one section I tried counting how often I said "oh, wow" to myself, or something similar, and got one every one to two pages.

    And if you're interested in the cultural and economic arrangements that prevail today, this is vital background reading. It tells you how things got this way and what it would take to change them (surprisingly, not as much as you'd think). You could blog about it.

    1. I bet the atomic bomb compelled most of the remaining futurists to eat their collective hat.

      I'll add Postwar to the list; thanks for the recommendation! (Feel free to prod me about it from time to time. Sometimes it takes me a while to get around to reading stuff.)