Fernand Léger

Unlike nearly all his great Parisian contemporaries, Fernand Léger seems never in his mature work to have taken his studio as a subject for his painting, nor to have made a self-portrait, two classic themes in French art. Always he looked outside, utopian eyes taking in the scene. The spectacle of the modern world was his theater; he had no truck with sensuous fantasy, introspective chiaroscuro, or the venting of personal feelings. His sturdy delight in la vie moderne is embodied in depictions of work and sport, leisure and application, the new and the raw. In all of these the human figure is an idealized component. At the same time, his slowly unfolding sense of design in grand, bolted compositions places him squarely in the classic French tradition. As you walk through the retrospective of 220 works at the Centre Georges Pompidou, drafts from the past assail you—from Fouquet and Poussin, David and Ingres, Seurat, late Renoir, the Douanier Rousseau. Still, Léger is never sexy or flirtatious, chic or maliciously witty—the other side of the coin of French tradition. When he strays into the self-contained, haremlike world of Matisse, as in Trois Femmes (Le Grand Déjeuner), 1921, or La Lecture, 1924, he produces a solidly unsensuous equivalent of the older painter’s Côte d’Azur fantasies. And though the early ’20s vogue for portraying the massive female nude on beach or daybed reaches its high point in Léger’s work (his heavyweight creatures outdid in plastic corpulence even Picasso’s lumbering giantesses), the obstinate lack of any interior life in these women—apart from a certain bored expectancy—renders them inert and faintly repulsive. Their mothers come from Renoir, their grandmothers from Ingres, but they lack the former’s bodily joy and the latter’s moist eroticism. They lie there with their cups and saucers, their books and pets, waiting for the telephone to ring. Soon afterward, realizing perhaps he was on the wrong track, Léger pushed them out of doors for a more active and satisfactory life to become, twenty years later, big-thighed Sunday cyclists and the massively entangled figures for Les Plongeurs (Divers, 1941–42).

Right from the start of this show, we are in the hands of a great artist and the unfurling of his uncomplicated vision is engrossing. The large group of L’Escalier and Contrastes de formes paintings, 1913–14, is immediately compelling (the earliest work is not included in the exhibition). In spite of Léger’s debt to Analytic Cubism and the greedy eye he cast toward Futurism, these canvases are completely original productions. Although by no means nonrepresentational—each form is realistically articulated—they convey the pulse of some abstract, rudimentary machine, enhanced by Léger’s bright limited palette and frequently coarse-grained canvas, sometimes left untouched as breathing points in the complex formal structure. These paintings have an exhilarating sense of things to come.

Jumping ahead nearly forty years—during which Leger was wounded in the First War and self-exiled in New York during the Second—we see the measure of his subsequent achievement in the large Constructeurs, 1950, of building workers on scaffolding. It is an optimistic image of postwar reconstruction viewed by an artist still forward-looking, undefeated and uncynical. It shows the same unsubtle complexity as the Contrastes de formes paintings, but unlike them—where a centripetal emphasis is constant—an expansive, floating space is defined by rigorous geometry. The pulse of modern life is essentially the same, but Léger has by now achieved that wholly personal rhythm and flat planar construction that was his goal once he had repudiated what he saw as the abstract cul-de-sac of the Contrastes de formes. At the same time, those cotton-wool clouds in the sky take us back to the plumes of smoke over his earliest cityscapes, the starting point of his pictorial theory.

This development over four decades was fully and coherently demonstrated in the exhibition as seen at the Centre Pompidou. However, the weight fell too heavily toward the earlier part of Léger’s career, up to about 1925. There were too many works from 1918 and from 1920 and though this rightly gave a fat account of that astonishing period, subsequent moments remained slim. There ought to have been, for example, a constellation of related paintings around Les Constructeurs. The abbreviated version of the exhibition coming to New York may well put this right. No criticisms can be leveled, however, at the choice of works on paper, which is superb. Four particular thematic groupings from specific periods Contrastes de formes ink and gouache studies, ’20s pencil drawings, ’30s studies of objects, and late construction-worker studies—are shown. While the presence of Ingres’ firm contours hovers behind the figure drawings of the early ’20s, the ink studies of workmen’s hands and trousers preparatory to the artist’s Les Constructeurs evoke Van Gogh’s peasants of the 1880s. Léger is a superlative draftsman, and the slightest study—a leaf, a nut, a pencil sharpener—becomes both monumental and intimate under his forensic eye.

If no large retrospective today seems complete without offering viewers a range of documentary and biographical materials, the Pompidou was admirably up for the task in this show. The broad canvas of Léger’s interests and activities beyond the studio was documented in a central display corridor, termed La rue, and running parallel to but quite separate from the exhibition itself. Here were photographs, drawings, letters, and books; projects for murals and architectural decoration; designs for ballets; drawings from the First War; works connected with his film Ballet mécanique, 1924, shown in this exhibition, its modernity rather creaky now but its score by George Antheil still astonishing. Léger’s collaborative ventures combine creative efflorescence with a stern sense of the artist’s duty toward society, a now unimaginable philanthropy.

Léger cannibalized all the movements of his time—Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, Purism, Surrealism—but succumbed to none. His integrity was colossal. His huge intake of stimulants from his surroundings left him unfazed. In his voluminous writings, terse bons mots and crackling observations spray the reader like grapeshot. In his best works—and almost all of them are here—he shows a similar economy of means, rescuing a soda siphon or an accordion, a bunch of keys or a bowler hat, from any slackness of form or nagging detail. His magnificent digestive system left him aesthetically hale and trim. Such objects are reinvented. As demonstrated in this show, reproduction does a great disservice to these paintings. In the flesh, one notices Léger’s beautiful graded grays; linear inflections; subtle tonal changes within his spread-out sheets of primary color that invariably disappear on the printed page. Let us hope the printers of the New York catalogue are better than those for the Pompidou’s, where the color plates, on the whole, are poor.

The painter Jean Hélion’s observation that his old friend’s work lacked poetic soul and would be even greater with some spiritual injection misses the point of Léger’s whole effort. His mission was to rid art of sentiment and obvious emotion. His life was spent rejecting the literary and anecdotal, flushing out received taste and self-indulgent gesture. At the same time, however, he created his own substitute for the “good taste” paraphernalia of Cubist café tabletops and the commedia dell’arte mandolins and drapes of his colleagues’ neoclassicism. He found it in hardware and machine, in factories, trains, and engines, elevating their utilitarian beauty to a plastic vocabulary of considerable refinement and taste. Modernity had, for Léger, its own romance. This four-square Normandy peasant in his no-nonsense clothes who hated la vie bohème—no one guessed he was a painter—emerges as the great memorialist of la vie moderne as well as its greatest dreamer.

Richard Shone, an associate editor of The Burlington Magazine, contributes frequently to Artforum.