PRINT April 1972

Epic Cubism and the Manufactured Object

LÉGER WAS AN AMBITIOUS PAINTER. Within a year of joining the Cubist orbit he had created his own highly original style. He was also an optimistic painter. Having innovated once, he hoped to do so indefinitely, and his career became one of willful and continuous change. From the start he was a painter in search of a grand manner. In consequence, the intricately modulated small-scale Cubism of Picasso and Braque was alien to Léger’s blunter nature. He sought instead a style both simpler in its mechanics and potentially more commanding in its effects: a purposefully dramatic and dynamic “epic” Cubism, a monumental public art appropriate to the scale of modern experience. It was befitting its subject, therefore, that the recent Léger retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris was immense in scope. Over 350 items chronicled Léger’s 50-year development from Realist and Impressionist paintings of 1905 to the late polychrome ceramic sculptures. Few artists can stand so great an exposure. Exhibitions of this scale devoted to a single artist, unless highly critical in their selections, tend to spread their esthetic delights rather thinly. And this was no exception. Needlessly so, I might add; for the selection here did Léger less than justice.

Léger had a certain “evenness” in his painting (of which more will be said later) that can induce boredom when we see so many of his works together. This exhibition would have been better half the size. Moreover, since Léger often worked in series the more of any one series seen in one place, weakens instead of strengthening their impact—or at least this is true of his work from the early ’20s. For example, La Lecture of 1924, to my mind Léger’s last great masterpiece, loses something when hung with the companion Femmes dans un intérieur paintings. It is not simply that these other paintings are lesser (those shown in Paris were; but the Grand Déjeuner of 1921, in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is certainly the equal of La Lecture), but that the stylizations in these works look strangely “applied” when we recognize how codified they were. Another problem with this exhibition—perhaps the most serious one—was its overload of late works, far more so than the demands of fair representation required. I was amazed to note that approximately one third of all items came from Léger’s last five years (i.e., from one tenth of his painting career), including over 50 from the Constructeurs series (1950–51) alone. In contrast, some crucial areas were inexplicably neglected: notably how Léger realized his first mature style. There were but three pre-Cubist paintings (two Realist portraits and an Impressionistic landscape) and only one primitivizing Cubist work (La Couseuse of 1910). Even from the Couseuse it seemed clear that Léger’s early indebtedness was less to Cézanne (as he himself claimed, and many have followed him in this) than to the heavy sculptural look of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism around 1908. If we are to learn the truth of such matters, it requires a far more responsible kind of Léger exhibition than this one, which helped neither a public nor a specialized appreciation of Léger’s very considerable achievements. It failed to evoke the Léger we want to remember, for around 1925 his art lost its poise, became increasingly slack and merely ornamental. Too many of the paintings in Paris were of this kind.

A few of the large, late pictures do succeed, but not many and on a level far inferior to before. The Composition aux deux perroquets and Adam et Eve (both 1935–39) remind us of Léger’s genuine dramatic powers, as does, in a different way, the curious combination of figuration and abstraction in Les Plongeurs sur fond jaune (1941). Les Trois Musiciens (1944) has something of the straightforward simplicity of Le Mécanicien (1920), one of Léger’s most appealing topical images; but compared to that virile worker-hero these figures are slight and undemanding. Likewise, an occasional work from the Loisirs and Constructeurs series invests its crowded weighty forms with an energy that recalls the early Cubist pictures—but none come close to the Cubist ones for sheer conviction. Léger set himself major standards which he later found difficult to match.

What, then, are the questions we need to ask of Léger’s art? One of the most important must concern its evident decline. But Léger’s collapse was not unique in Cubism and evokes broader speculation on the general crisis of Cubist art in the mid-’20s. Cubism produced an almost unparalleled succession of masterpieces in the first four or five years of its existence, and sustained its quality, if on a rather different level, for another ten. Léger’s brand of Cubism, though different from that of its originators, followed this pattern; but as a latecomer to Cubism —who had adopted its most “cubic” form—his art was more openly sympathetic to the newer post- Cubist styles that emerged in the ’20s. The “rappel à l’ordre” of that decade affected Picasso too, but even at his most “classical” Picasso was an almost expressionistic artist. Léger, in contrast, links Cubism to its geometricist progeny. For both, Synthetic Cubism was the basis of their later styles; and it is, I believe, within the special mechanics of this form that we shall discover how the mid-’20s crisis was manifested.

It is too rarely acknowledged just how much the Synthetic period was a real turning point in the development of Cubism. More than just a finale, it was in some ways a new beginning. Its treatment of objects as individually “meaningful” units initiated an understanding of the status of pictorial space very different to that of the original. Cubist style. Its flattened color planes—interlocked and overlapping—renewed the narrow surfaceness of earlier Cubism in a new, far more literal way; but more importantly in this context, the now emblematic function of these planes so changed the language of Cubist art as to revise the character of its description of the outside world. Hitherto, paintings had been created, as it were, out of objects. Objects had been dissolved across the surface as they were painted, and their cumulative “realization” was itself the source of pictorial grammar. Synthetic Cubism, however, was far more a matter of manipulating a preexisting grammar of object-parts, put into the pictures to signify and not to depict an outside world.

Analytical and Synthetic Cubism are sometimes discussed in terms of their relative “abstractness,” usually understood as the greater or lesser “realism” implicit to each mode. But this is not quite the issue: for although Synthetic Cubist paintings do not derive from the perception of “real” objects in the same way as do Analytical ones, the objects they contain are more easily deciphered. The point here is legibility—or rather, the manner by which objects are made legible. When signification replaced depiction, the painting became a “readable” amalgam of schematic “meaningful” units held up to view in a narrow frontal space.

This “meaningful” potential in Synthetic Cubism permitted the inclusion of objects as much for their inherent expressiveness as for their contribution to the fictive space of which they became part, and all paintings in this style are to some extent “containers” for iconic or symbolic elements. No art based on reality can escape being simultaneously metaphoric and metonymic. Analytical Cubism derived much of its power from this fact: its iconography could be contained in its formal grammar. In Synthetic Cubism the alignment of these two elements is rather different. While the signifying elements do, of course, function as form, they function also and somehow independently, as units of information. Although they are in no sense arbitrary signs, the justification for their presence in paintings—and for the special forms they take—is no longer self-evident to the pictorial structure itself—is no longer, we might say, the subject of the pictorial structure itself. What occurred was the realignment of a purely fictive mode towards a factual or documentary one.

What this realignment meant for the Cubist style is the subject of much of what follows, for Léger (more than Picasso or Braque) was from the beginning a synthesist by nature and was determined, in a way far more radical than Gris, to open his art to a world of “meaningful” objects. The development of Léger’s art shows most directly just what was at stake as Cubist art met its period of crisis in the mid-’20s.

AFTER A BRIEF PERIOD of tonal primitivizing Cubism (1909–10), Léger created his first truly original style. La Noce (1910–11), Les Fumeurs (1911) and La Femme en bleu (1912) are among its highlights. These are large paintings by developed Cubist standards (La Noce is more than 100 inches high)—but their component parts are far larger than in contemporary works by Picasso or Braque and this permits so expansive a pictorial area. Moreover, both the size and the volume of Léger’s elements helped deepen the spaces of his paintings to an extent unusual for early Cubism. This was essential to the coherence of a large-scale art. In the small-scale Cubism of Picasso and Braque, a centrally placed motif, realized outwards and towards (but never quite up to) the limits of the support, was held in place by the pressure of the picture’s edges. The closeness of edges to each other (and the fact that they were repeated within the painting structure) permitted a narrow and even surface inflected rather than broken by the contained incident. For Léger, however, more obvious value contrasts kept his paintings uneven in their surfaces—open and airy to a greater degree. Nevertheless, the inward pressure of edges was important to his style; he was able to carry the tightness of Analytical Cubism to a larger format by emphasizing verticality in his designs. He combined in alternate vertical bands, detailed figurative elements and broader silhouetted planes affixed in places to the edges of the picture. These piled-up forms repeat the edges of the support and thus guarantee that the larger planes—even those placed in the spatial center of any painting— never detach themselves from their surroundings. But Léger’s early style differs from Analytical Cubism. That it was consistent with large-scale painting only generally available to Cubism in its Synthetic period—confirms this. And that his framing edges actually stabilize the compositions, as well as containing them, is equally significant in this context. In the Analytical Cubism of Picasso and Braque, the stability of pictorial elements, though importantly reinforced by the shape of the support, is not so much contingent upon it as in Léger’s art, where the conjunction of elements to edges causes the frame to be, as it were, drawn into the design. Since there is less “free” space between motif and frame, the stable framing rectangle itself works to cohere the play of contrasts these paintings contain. And since the rectangular frame was so much more indomitable here it could have allowed more radical variances from the (already stable) vertical-horizontal compositional format than Léger was willing to risk. That he thus doubly reinforced the stability of his pictures (and continued to do so) accounts for their solid, weighty look. But it was a double-edged weapon: gaining in strength it risked becoming inert. This, however, was not to happen for almost another 15 years. Nevertheless, the seeds of Léger’s late Synthetic style are visible in his early work in a way unlike Picasso’s work of this same period.

The uniform and frontal small-facet modeling of Analytical Cubism created an essentially depicted surface flatness. It emerged from the subject matter in nuances of brushstroke and permeated the picture surface. In contrast, Léger depended (even at this stage in his career) on a more literal flatness: the flatness of planes placed across the surface and affixed at times to a picture’s edges which dominated the whole work by their expansiveness. Interrupting the detailed crowding of tubular forms with larger, and hence more independent, shapes had two main effects: it set back the smaller volumes in a painting and thus increased its depth (although turning these small volumes so their broadest surfaces were uppermost assured their frontality too). And it also revealed the actuality of the surface in enough places to point up its literal character. Léger’s art was therefore far more a matter of composition than true Analytical Cubism. It depended, and depended crucially, on the planned dispersion of contrasting elements—large against small, flat against round, surface against deep, and soft against hard (for the large forms were first derived from cloudlike balls of smoke). These contrasts animated a surface conceived in its entirety from the start—as one unit to be planned—in a way quite alien to the cumulative methodology of Picasso and Braque. And while the former “analyzed,” Léger stylized, creating a simplified vocabulary of generalized forms. Although in some respects more “conventional” than true Analytical Cubism, Léger’s methods brought him sooner to certain solutions that Picasso only reached after his work with collage. I am not suggesting that this 1910–12 period in Léger’s art should be thought of as an early form of Synthetic Cubism but rather that elements we now think of as belonging properly to that style were an important part of his early work. Literal flatness, unit size difference, silhouetted and flatly colored shapes, conventionalized representation and even layered spaces: La Femme en bleu depends on all of these.

Yet too insistent a claim for Léger’s “advancement” in 1912, the date of this picture, would be misleading. Spatial layering is not itself the logic of this work. More often than not the large forms are shaded towards their edges without that tightly fixed effect of interlocking shapes that belongs so much to Synthetic Cubism. Moreover, the formal vocabulary of Léger’s early paintings is the same combination of terse lines and curves that epitomizes a prewar Cubist style. Any indication that Léger was moving straight towards a full Synthetic method in 1912 is dispelled by the important changes in his art the following year. The flat detached planes all but disappear. The modeled volumetric forms are enlarged in size and are expanded to pack the surface. The contrasts of 1910–12 give way to a far greater “likeness” of elements, returning in a sense to the methods of Léger’s primitivizing Cubism. Although broader and even bolder than his earlier work, the 1913 pictures are in fact far closer to the norms of Analytical Cubism.

Possibly the most remarkable aspect of Léger’s 1913 pictures is, though firmly volumetric, their massed forms are also read as frontal and planar. Léger achieved this effect by separating the linear and planar elements he used to describe them. Following Cézanne, Picasso and Braque adopted a differentiated linear and planar structure so as to locate their drawing around first-established contour edges. A skeletal framework of abbreviated and fragmented signs both fixed the distances between different elements of the described subject and, being vertical and horizontal in disposition, allied this description to the shape of the painting support. To either side of this framework, small planes modeled subject and “background,” dissolving both equally across the surface. Léger’s approach is different. Before 1913 his modeling emphasized interior forms only, and he modeled in a way still dependent on traditional chiaroscuro methods. (Hence the description “tubism” given to his early work.) Forms so distinct and self-contained in appearance, if anonymous in kind (for Léger’s modeling effaced the individuality of each element in favor of a generalized similarity of one tubular limb to the next), risked becoming detached from their surrounding space. Léger overcame this by crowding his compositions so that little, if any, “background” is visible. Unlike Picasso and Braque, who canceled the difference between positive and negative elements, with, Léger everything became positive. His first Cubist masterpiece, the Nus dans un forêt of 1909–10 (not in the Paris exhibition). shows this, as does—if in a different way—the 1910–12 paintings already discussed, where the “spaces” between modeled forms are filled with large planes never less positive in effect. Léger’s “all positive” style gave him a surprising opportunity denied to Picasso or Braque: to make his bulky forms the real subjects of his pictures; and to make his pictures nothing else but the contrast of such “real” generalized forms. As was to often happen, an outsider’s reading of Cubism led to innovations not possible within the original style. The Contraste de formes paintings of 1913 capitalize on this opportunity, and are Léger’s (and Cubism’s) first fully abstract works.

But however crowded, Léger’s strongly modeled volumes risked looking merely depicted. The Nus dans un forêt suffers in this way, looking overmuch an illustrated tableau of mechanical beings. One understands, therefore, the crucial importance of the broad planes in the 1910–12 paintings. They override the smaller volumes and spread their flatness across the whole surfaces. So when the planes disappeared, and the volumes swelled in importance again, Léger needed a new way of fixing his elements in place. Here abstraction helped him. The less obviously referential the volumes the more they resist appearing as illustrations of stylized reality. Hence the comparative superiority of the Contraste de formes pictures to the slightly later and more realistic ones of this period. For the “reality” here is of the forms themselves, and to pattern them into anatomies is to lessen the effect. Of course, the simple fact of abstraction doesn’t elevate the Contraste de formes pictures—but how that abstraction was achieved. If merely “abstract” volumes rather than “realistic” ones the difference would be only that of kind (of recalling abstract as against stylized sculpture —and they don’t entirely escape that effect). Their surfaceness as paintings was only guaranteed by Léger freeing the flat planes of his modeling from too close a dependence on the descriptive contour lines which established the limits of the depicted volumes. This had been done already in a 1912 painting, Le Passage à niveau. Although it still uses the semicircular planes typical of its date, the new freedom of line from color closes and flattens the space more evenly. Contrasts remain, but as inflections of a continual surfaceness in a way unlike the more absolute contrasts of the immediately previous paintings. Applying this method to exclusively volumetric subjects likewise coheres them to their surfaces —so that they appear simultaneously as all volumes and all flatness.

Here the conventionalized nature of Léger’s art proved to be an advantage. The stylized chiaroscuro modeling of his earlier paintings is repeated in a novel way. Dark contour areas were shaded towards highlights on the broad exposed centers of the tubes, forming a set of (usually) three discernible flat bands along their length. In the Contraste de formes, this helps to create a cohesive uniformity of looks and at the same time animates the works with a set of insistent directional stresses. By limiting himself to primary colors (with roughly applied whites as highlights) Léger guaranteed that no form would remain behind another, though it might be drawn as such. The unmodulated primaries (quickly painted to let the coarse ground show through) “surface” the entire work. Moreover, since the outermost stripes of color never quite touched the drawn contours their separate flatness is further ensured. These are, in many ways, the strongest of Léger’s paintings. If missing the subtleties of value and careful detailing which make the earlier work so impressive they nevertheless recover something of the robust muscularity of Léger’s first Cubist period. The directness of method and economy of means, far from narrowing the range of these pictures, create a surprising diversity of effects: from the openness of one Contraste de formes (at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris) where flat planes intrude along the vertical edges to direct the movement of the volumes, to the compressed density of heavy lumbering masses in another at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Their authoritative simplicity would not permit a wider variety of hue (and some—especially the more figurative pictures—can appear perhaps too raw), but equally it expunges the sometimes quirky Futurism of the earlier work. A Futurist mood remains—in the “dynamic mobility” of Léger’s volumes—but he makes it all his own.

The war ended this phase of Léger’s art. By 1918 he built a new style—even more personal than before. Synthetic Cubist in its bright even colors and silhouetted shapes jigsawed together in a narrow layered flatness. Volumes persisted at times—but as elements of contrast, conventionalized motifs beside the other distinctive forms of his fast-developing sign manual. For the “real” world enters Léger’s art in a very new way. Henceforward he is committed to a celebration of the secular modern, to giving the characteristic landscape of contemporary life a solid immortality in the forms of his art.

LÉGER WORKED IN THREE DISTINCT personal styles before the war, and the one he created in 1918 did not satisfy his ambitions forever. He continued to change his methods, or at least to vary them. But if there was ever a real break in his art this was it. Although Léger took over forms of his prewar work (the rudimentary Synthetic principles I have discussed), the whole ideology, one might say, of the new work is different. However much he changed again, he changed within the confines of this “modern” ideology and within the Synthetic framework of this style.

It is evident to most unbiased eyes that Léger’s art faltered somewhere in the ’20s. This didn’t accompany a break in style. It was the exhaustion of the style so recently founded. In stylistic terms, the ’20s (or more precisely the years 1918–28) form a distinct unit within Léger’s oeuvre. They are the period of his strongest commitment to a machine-age iconography. After the late ’20s, freely floating biomorphic forms become increasingly common and the tightly held Synthetic spaces are loosened to accommodate them. The ensuing spatial instability spells out the final disaster for Léger, the post-1928 paintings become staging grounds for an accomplished showmanship—at best spectacles, at worst a theater of the absurd. It would be convenient in some ways to locate Léger’s “crisis” around 1928, but his painting had become considerably weaker at least three years before that date. Some minor stylistic tremors did occur in 1924 but they were, I believe, as much the result of Léger’s difficulties as the cause of them. As early as 1921 he was doing inferior work. The Paysages animés and Femmes dans un interieur are a serious drop in his standards—although the latter series did produce Léger’s last masterpieces, the Grand Déjeuner of 1921 (not shown in Paris) and La Lecture of 1924. By 1924 or 1925, however, nearly everything is of a consistently lower level. Picasso’s crisis came at the same time. For both artists the Cubist impulse had finally given out.

LÉGER’S LE MÉCANICIEN (1920) could easily be taken for a self-portrait. The artist as worker-hero introduces us to the modernistic world to which Léger was now so firmly committed. The image is an optimistic one. Bold primary colors and crisply articulated contrasting forms celebrate Léger’s good-natured openness to the outside world—to its industrial landscape and its geometric art—fixing its contemporaneity in an idealized and classical way. The Great War had strengthened Léger’s determination to “monumentalize” his art: to create a new Istoria befitting 20th-century life. The hard metallic, robot-like components of La Partie de cartes, painted in 1917 when he was convalescing after Verdun, must certainly have an iconological significance. Henceforward his was an art of meaningful objects.

Conventionalization had been an important part of Léger’s art. He was the earliest of the Cubists to fully accept the consequences that to the extent an object is decomposed (whether through analysis or stylization) its individuality of specific forms gives way to an interchangeable grammar of generalized ones. This, as we have seen, assisted Léger’s move to abstraction in 1913—the Contraste de formes being in this sense realistic paintings of abstract subjects. But this didn’t end with abstraction. Léger’s newly established machinist ideology gave this formal grammar a different emphasis. In the great city paintings of 1918–21 he reduced typical details of metropolitan life (architectural elements, machine parts, typographic signs, etc.) to a common vocabulary of flat and brightly colored standardized forms. Unlike the paintings of 1913 which combined groups of intact individual forms, forms are dissected as they meet. Cut through, they overlap and interlock to create a taut, even, and upright surface. Their signifying character is not disguised, but the insistent interconnectiveness of the whole work forces them to “speak” through its structure and never simply on their own behalf.

In this, his purest Synthetic style, Léger created some of his very best paintings. They lack, perhaps, the direct spontaneous strength of his prewar work. This was an inevitable consequence, one feels, of the more polished and preconceived Synthetic style itself and is just as true of Picasso’s contemporary work. But the terms they set themselves are by no means minor ones and within them Léger performs magnificently. In Paris, Les bisques (1918) and Les Disques dans la ville (1920–21) were the best of this period: superbly coherent pictures. There were others too: Les Hélices, Les Deux Acrobats (both 1918, the latter making good use of semicircular planes derived from the prewar work), L’Homme à la pipe (1920), some of the Remorquer series, and more beside. Interestingly, the better paintings are usually those in a vertical format. Léger did create some masterpieces in a horizontal rectangle (Les Disques dans la ville and the great Philadelphia La Ville, not shown in Paris) but he was a far more consistent painter in a vertical one. He never lost his obsession for the “reality” of individual forms and for the separate life of weighted volumes which needed long vertical edges to secure them firmly in his paintings. The subordination of individual objects to an upright flatness in the pure Synthetic works allowed a greater broadness of pictorial space, but the more Léger stressed the separate iconicity of these objects the more they demanded a compressing format to contain them.

By 1921 Léger was turning away from the purity of his full Synthetic style and its interlocking depicted objects to emphasize far more the intact individuality of elements in his formal grammar. It was not, it seems, in his temperament to continue long in so controlled and refined a style. He was ambitious. He valued contrast. He liked to overload his paintings. And this, of course, is a great part of Léger’s appeal. One senses the real vitality and muscularity of his personality, settling for nothing short of the widest possible range of effects. Perhaps, also, he recognized the dangers of his narrow flatness becoming at times inert. (Compare, for example, the difference in quality of the 1920 and 1923 Remorquer paintings.) And his “epic” Cubism required depth as well as surface tautness.

Many paintings of 1918–21 are less evenly flat than the Disques group. These combined both flat and rounded forms. Les Hélices (1918) is typical of this manner. Importantly, the two classes of forms here are equally positive in function (in a way analogous to the 1910–12 paintings). The volumes, like the planes, are dissected and so become an integral part of the interlocked space. By about 1920, however, Léger was given to placing whole volumes on top of planes, thus separating a work into two spatial zones. And the more individual and iconic a volume the more it advanced itself from its ground. This developing freedom of depicted volume and more surely abstract surface is evident in the Femmes dans un intérieur series which shows Léger moving from an interlocking to a zoned and eventually to an open-air realist kind of space. Although the iconic volumes in these pictures were chosen for their “Cubist” regularity, or were so formalized as to become thus regular, they seem too often and increasingly “inserted” in a structure rather than being fully part of it. This was only fully specified in the mid-’20s still-life pictures, where depicted forms are somehow “displayed” on top of abstract planes (like the haberdasher’s window Léger described in his article, “The Machine Aesthetic,” of 1924), but the earlier paintings with still referential planes come to take for granted that the mere fact of rectilinearity will suffice to cohere their spaces. They assume, almost, that surfaces are already structured—that they all form part of a continuously gridded universe—and the art becomes a matter of completing a given framework from a vocabulary of available motifs. In consequence, the dynamism of the earlier work is lacking; and although these paintings are not unpleasant they have a somewhat undemanding evenness of weights and balances in their composition. From the time of the Contraste de formes paintings, Léger increasingly suffered from a “leveling” in his art. Although, of course, his paintings vary a lot in quality and in looks, they come to possess a troublesome evenness of tone, speaking too much at the same level. The more “classical” they became the more pronounced their evenness. Similarly, within the paintings themselves all parts seem of equal interest, or rather of equal interestingness—for we sense no absolute finality of composition or of scale. Their boundaries aren’t conclusive enough, and small sections, expanded, could have the same impact as the whole work. Everything seems excerpted from something else. And in a sense it was. In 1920–21, Léger made Les Disques dans la ville by repeating the two side sections of La Ville. (1919) and putting a copy of Les Disques (1918) between them. It resulted in an imposing picture; but as a procedure (and one that was to be repeated in many different ways) it seems indicative of how Léger’s art had changed since the prewar years. Cubism is an inner-directed art. Excerpting and cropping do not really belong. But pre- and postwar Cubism was different. As I discussed earlier, Synthetic Cubism allows forms in paintings for their informational presence, and the limits of a painting can easily be just the limits of its depicted information: to be arranged at will.

In 1924, Léger wrote that “a work of art must bear comparison with a manufactured object.” It would, I think, be no distortion of Léger’s ideology to claim that he did in fact begin to consider his paintings manufactured things. As the ’20s advanced they became increasingly less intuitive in their treatment. Preliminary drawings (beautifully executed) and careful pencil layouts performed as blueprints for the final work. The paintings were made in series, each with a “definitive” version, like products being successively refined. In procedure, it was a kind of factory art—of standardization and assemblage—or a cinematic one—of cutting, close-ups, and editing. Both metaphors seem apt for Léger. (It was also, of course, derived in principle from the scissors-and-paste method of collage, which shouldn’t be underestimated in its importance for any Synthetic Cubist style.) But procedure itself doesn’t explain why Léger’s art weakened through the ’20s. What does, I think, is that the manufactured elements of his style became too fixed and “informational” in character and the paintings no longer justified the presence of these elements in other than the most conventional pictorial terms. That the information was becoming too much the subject of Léger’s paintings seems confirmed around 1924 by the openness he showed to other modern styles. Information, unlike art, is soon exhausted; and Léger’s introduction of elements from Purism, de Stijl, neo-Classicism, and Constructivism might be viewed as an attempt to renew, and expand, the “meaningfulness” of his work. Soon he was to be looking to Surrealism to refresh it once more. But like the manufactured objects that were his models, the obsolescence of these forms was inevitable. Now that the “moderne” is fashionable again, Léger’s late ’20s pictures have a nostalgic charm. Compared to his earlier work, however, they are sadly lacking in conviction. For all their “meaningful” elements they lack the kind of meaning that really counts: not “contained” in signs within the work but an inherent and inseparable attribute of the work itself.

I wrote at the beginning of this article that in Synthetic Cubism the justification for the presence of informational elements in paintings was no longer the subject of the pictorial structure to the degree it was before, and that this distinguishes a factual or documentary mode from a purely fictive one. Crucial here, as Léger’s art shows, is the extent to which individual elements assert their expressive or informational separateness within the painting, and the extent to which these elements are “illustrative” in kind. Although illustrative expression was far from inevitable in a Synthetic style (witness Léger’s city paintings as well as Picasso’s early ’20s work), it was possible in a way not so within earlier Cubism. In these terms, Cubist art can be understood as developing from an inward to an outward looking art: one increasingly open to extra-pictorial readings. Too often, therefore, the art in this endeavor became a matter of finish—of reproducing “significant” motifs. Whether the finish was modeled after craft methods (Picasso) or manufacturing ones (Léger), it illustrated its “content” in a way quite alien to Analytical Cubism: as if it was a separable element. But the display of forms, however meaningful they may be, does not in itself constitute painting. Indeed, by nature, the relationship of one fact to the next is more likely to be narrative than pictorial. This was the handicap of Léger’s late style. Narration was the opposite of Cubism and could not work within it. Léger’s was a robust style, but far less adaptable than he ever imagined.

John Elderfield