Thursday, December 7, 2017

Fernand Léger: some words and pictures

August 19 [1955]—This journal records too many deaths. Now it is Léger's. He was the greatest artist of our time. He will not only live, he will father an art.

—John Berger, A Painter of Our Time (1958)

For several months now I've been in the employ of an art museum, though my job is really only enviable for its setting (if anything). Not long ago the gift shop was cleaning out its storage space and came across a trove of Fernand Léger postcards left over from a 2013 special exhibition. Many of the cards feature artworks that were on loan from other museums and private collectors, and even if there were willing buyers for 1000+ of these things, the expiration of the temporary reproduction rights makes selling them somewhat dicey from a legal standpoint. So the only thing to do was toss them out. I intervened to rescue a batch from the dumpster, so I'm pretty much set for my epistolary life. Some of them I'm going to tape to my walls. When you're wealthy, you acquire original artworks to display in your home and impress your guests. When you're poor, you grab postcards of artworks to stick up in your bedroom to suit yourself.

Léger has become one of my favorite painters. I was introduced to him pretty much accidentally three years ago, when I was reproducing William Carlos Williams' The Descent of Winter and searching for visual art I understood as 'modernist' to align with Williams' diary entries/poems/miniature essays. That was how I first came to know Léger and his 1919 opus La Ville (The City). A lake of curatorial ink could be spilled (and has been spilled) in the exegesis of this painting, but the work needs nobody to speak for it. The composition, its title, and its date tell the whole story, and all the rest is critical salary work. La Ville is a dream or hallucination of the modern metropolis, looming and labyrinthine, blazing with electric lights, thrumming with motor traffic, and checkered with vivid pictoral adverts. The city as a dense human settlement has existed since at least 4500 BC, but it was only in the first decades of the twentieth century that the city as we recognize it emerged onto the world. This new composite organism of humanity and machinery so captivated Léger that he made it the singular focus of his oeuvre during the years between World War I and the Great Depression, the moment of his artistic prime.

The knowledgeable and persnickety might protest the use of the word "impressionistic" to characterize Léger, who is certainly not an impressionist like Renoir, Pissarro, or Van Gogh were impressionists. (He might be like Cézanne, to whom every painter associated with cubism owes a debt of gratitude for piercing the veil in theory if not fully in practice.) But Léger's constructions of urban tableaux and panoramas have as much of the impressionistic in them than the cubistic. He uses the praxis of cubism in pursuit of the impressionistic. Behind of the virtuosity and fascination of Gris' still lifes, Picasso's portraits, and Metzinger's nudes, one sees the execution of an aesthetic or academic exercise. Like Monet, Léger wanted convey the visual sensation of the scenes around him, though post-WWI Paris (i.e. Paris In The Twenties) was a qualitatively different environment than pastoral Giverny. Rendering its spectacle in a still image necessitated an updated artistic toolkit, which he developed during his prewar experiments with analytic cubism. La Ville isn't a portrait of metropolis or deconstruction of metropolis; it is an Art Deco impression of metropolis, of its speed, geometry, and the wakeful vitality begat from the raveling of its animal spirit and mechanical structure.

There is a great deal of congruence to be found between Léger's post-Great War work and that of the Italian Futurists, who turned out to be first-wave fascists. We see the same enthusiasm for the novel, for motion and mechanism, and a conviction that the future has arrived and must be embraced. But the divergences are just as striking as the similarities: Léger's doesn't celebrate the violence, internal-combustion masculinity, and totalitarianism which were the penchant of Filippo Marinetti's visual artistic disciples. His convictions were egalitarian and veritably utopian. The articles and essays Léger penned in the 1920s espouse an atheistic chiliasm that should ring familiar to anyone who's listened to the noises coming out of Silicon Valley in the last couple of decades. He seemed convinced the meristems of modernity would rejuvenate the world without any need for a vindictive cultural cleansing of the old forms by the sans-culottes of the new. The spirit of the age, if permitted to do so, would make the world better and more joyous by grace of its presence, like phytohormones compelling a bud toward inflorescence: "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."

Léger had worked as an architectural draftsman at his day job; like anyone who has ever applied himself toward the design of habitable spaces, he had an intuitive inkling of environmental psychology. Places make people. Better places make better people. Léger firmly believed in environmental aesthetics as a transformative force in their own right, and his enthusiasm for color approached Kandinsky's. (Contrasted with Léger's polychromatic reveries, the Italian Futurists' visions of their ideal or idealized world look oppressively drab.)
The influences and effects of new visual phenomena—conscious and unconscious. The plastic significance of the manufactured object. Its geometric will. Advertising posters. Typographic letters, their importance and their influence. Color understood as an architectural element. Conceive of cities in terms of their plastic organization, generated through a generous distribution of dead surfaces and animated ones (Colored Surfaces); measure out the percentage of each to create a cheerful spirit, upbeat but not excessively so. ...

Take a street: consider it a necessity, something that must be made livable and pleasant, approach it from the point of view of light and color. Some fragments of the street in pure tones. Highlight the brilliant, beautiful materials (cut stone, marble, granite, colored brick). Reorganize the arrangement of the advertising panels (posters in flat and bold tones). (An often excellent illustration of this: Metro stations.) Useful decoration. Commercial production put in the service of ornamental production. These two relationships must always be considered, and aligned. ...

Treatment of the sick by means of color; the sick man needs light and colored elements. The multicolored, polychromatic hospital. Remember these values too often neglected. Color therapeutics. The colorist-doctor.

Crimsons trams through the countryside. All human settlements penetrated by color.

F. L
éger, 1921 (translated from the French by Liesl Yamaguchi)
Léger was an optimist. And I don't think he was a fool for that. He knew what he knew. He fought in the trenches of World War I; he was mustard gassed on the western front. Returning from the filth and misery of a new and unprecedented kind of war to Paris must have been like awakening in Paradise. The traumatizing horrors of the Great War stabbed to the heart of the West's faith in the one-way arrow of human progress. Léger, however, remained unscathed through the 1920s. Witnessing the splendor of Paris escaping and outlasting the ghastliest conflict in human memory must have confirmed to his heart that the worst was over and the world was still on the up and up.

1929 and beyond, though—that's another story. Although Léger remained an active painter through the Great Depression and World War II, his greatest and most inspired work coincides with and speaks to the ardor of his urban-Elysian futurism at its most spirited. He couldn't have known what was coming next—nor could he have guessed the gradual and unintended consequences of illuminating and mechanizing the city. How could he have predicted that the electrical grids and automobiles would cause the seas to rise and acidify? Should he have expected that his beloved motion pictures would be the distant progenitor of a digital medium that divides people more than it unites them, and tends more to atavize and stultify than bring clarity and edification? When he celebrates the aesthetics of modern advertising, can we blame him for not guessing the extent to which the incubus of consumerism would straddle global culture? How narrow-sighted should we deem him for glorifying the mechanical and artificial and dispensing with the non-anthropic in his vision, when it is precisely this attitude that imperils the life of our cities in the 21st century?

Knowing what we do about the past and the present endows the characteristic flatness of Léger's wax-candy compositions with a depth of pathos the artist could not have anticipated, let alone intended. These bright metropolitan mirages are artifacts of the mind—a window to a time when optimism could still be a credible and defensible position. 

Anyway. Here's what's on my postcards.

Les Hommes dans la ville (1919)

Peinture murale (1924–25)


Les Disques (1918)

Elément mécanique (1924)

Les Maisons (1922)

Elément mécanique (1925)

Le Grand Remorqueur (1923)

Composition à la main et aux chapeaux (1927)

Etude pour La Ville (1919)

Esquisse pour La Ville (1919)

Les disques dans la ville (1920)


  1. I find it interesting that you both celebrate his optimism while assigning the trait as artifact of the age. As you note he knew first hand the horrors of technology and industry. I’m a technology skeptic but I think that his optimism is still possible. I feel his hope wasnt that nothing wrong can come from machinical innovation but that it could heal it’s own scars. Really enjoyed reading this post.

    1. Hey, thanks for reading and glad you liked it.

      On technological innovation healing its own scars: I wish I saw more cause for hope. From where I'm sitting it seems to me that hoping for capitalist market forces (from which technological development cannot feasibly be separated) to reverse the damage wreaked by capitalist market forces is like hoping to climb out of a hole by continuing to dig.

  2. Huh. Yeah, I can see Kandinsky in these. Although, I guess they're more...restrained? Or focused, maybe that's a better word. I guess because what he's trying to paint is also more concrete (tee-hee) than music. I wonder what he would have thought of the post-war sci-fi visions of the future?

    1. I'm not sure, but he'd probably be chagrined to find that everything is still beige or grey or greyish blue.

    2. Well I mean, there are still plenty examples of architectural wonder out there, like the Space Needle or Dubai (although I guess that last one doesn't have plumbing).