PRINT December 1962/January 1963


Robert L. Delevoy’s Léger

Robert L. Delevoy, Léger (Skira), 1962. 143 pp., illus. 

FOR SEVERAL DECADES the art of Fer­nand Léger gave expression to one of the most excruciating problems facing the intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century: the problem of man’s relation to the technology he had evolved. Where on the one hand lay the promise of unheard-of benefits for all of mankind, on the other hand lay the facts of dehumanization, atomization, the destruction of community in men’s lives and dignity in men’s labor. Where on the one hand an array of new forms, colors, textures and shapes tumbled from the apparatus of the new techno­logical society, on the other hand lay all the ugliness of massproduced lives. To accept the fact of technology (if not the challenge of it), shout a loud “Yea” to its offerings and attempt to create an entirely new esthetic based on its forms was Léger’s mission, a mission which was affected in some degree or other by almost all the major art movements of his time, but whose purpose was never blunted by them. (It is interesting to see, simply by leafing through the repro­ductions in this book, how the sensibili­ties of Neo-Plasticism, Surrealism, Fu­turism, Dada and Cubism pass into and out of Léger’s work, how Picasso, De­launay, Duchamp, Arp and even Chagall are reflected and absorbed without ever overwhelming or even confusing Léger’s direction.) “I invent,” he said, “pictures of machines as others conjure up land­scapes in their imagination.” The notion is not so simple: it involves a complete reorientation of esthetic responses, for, given a tradition in which the natural re­pository of beauty is nature, an esthetic response to a landscape is almost in­stinctive, but a similar response to the sight and sound of a demolition crew must be learned, coaxed, provoked and even forced. Even forced: Léger’s per­sistent self-training to his new esthetic is reflected in a comment made in 1916 upon first seeing films of Charlie Chap­lin. “This funny little man who succeeds in being not only a funny little man, but also a sort of living puppet, dry as a stick, with clickety joints . . .” These are unusual terms in which to describe Chaplin––what we are hearing is Léger translating his appreciation of Chaplin into the terms of his own industrial esthetic. The process was life-long. In 1954, explaining the startling bands of pure color which move independently about in The Great Parade and The Country Outing, Léger took as his text the effect of neon lights: ”You are stand­ing there talking to someone and sud­denly he became blue. Then the color goes, another comes and he turns red or yellow. That color, the color of the flashing lights, is free, it’s in space.” (It is the same literalness upon which the Impressionists insisted in looking at nature.)

With Hiroshima, the romance of the intellectual with the machine comes to an end: the industrial heaven on earth is not to be. The pablum about “peace­time uses” and the science-fiction blue­prints of dream cities where “miracles of modern science” continue to make life a mechanized Garden of Eden are relegated to the Sunday Supplements, strictly for mass consumption. The truth, in terms of guided missiles and Sputnik terrors is on the front pages during the rest of the week. The celebration of tech­nology becomes naive, misdirected and mistrusted. In this revised intellectual climate, Léger’s art becomes harder and harder to read for what he intended it. Instead of an ardent, lifelong celebration of the vitality and beauty of our tech­nological age, the works appear more and more as acute documents of dehumanization and mechanical meaning­lessness. The humanism which Léger hoped to reconcile with the machine has again separated itself from what was at best a shotgun marriage.

The other side of Léger’s coin may be seen in the “kitchnik” or “common-­object” artists of the past few years. Here, the gadgets, colors, chrome and shine of the technological age are given the horse-laugh. The artists say, in effect, “Don’t come to us looking for relief––we’ll throw it right back in your face.” They are not, perhaps, the kind of children Léger wished to spawn, but, like all great artists, elements of his op­posite can be found consistently in the body of his work. Léger’s Big Julie of 1945 is a big branch of the family tree whose latest buds are Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rosenquist and Billy Al Bengston.

Like all Skira books, this one is char­acterized by lovely, tipped-in color plates and an indifferent text. This text is less indifferent than others.

Philip Leider