Fernand Léger, La Ville (The City), 1919, oil on canvas, 91 x 117 1/2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Fernand Léger, La Ville (The City), 1919, oil on canvas, 91 x 117 1/2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Fernand Léger

Fernand Léger, La Ville (The City), 1919, oil on canvas, 91 x 117 1/2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

As theorized by fin-de-siècle sociologist Georg Simmel, the term metropolis denotes less a specific scale of the city than the acceleration of stimuli therein, including traffic and advertising, the spasms of the business cycle, and the unending flow of pseudo-history in the news media. To ward off neurasthenia, Simmel argues, the urbanite develops a “protective organ,” a kind of mental shield, which blunts the force of sensation, subordinating aesthesis—the domain of perception—to the rule of reason. In other words, the faster things go, the less one feels.

Might we also add: the less one sees? Like the city dweller’s deadpan mien, does abstraction arise organically from the matrix of urban modernity, as a pictorial reaction-formation, or—to propose an alternative diagnosis—is the attenuation of sensation itself the malady, treatable not in kind, anaesthetically, but with an intensified campaign of perception: a “painting of modern life” reformatted to the accelerated tempo of urbanization? These concerns came urgently to mind at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recent survey of the work of Fernand Léger, a Cubist painter who saw the city as both an object of depiction and, pace Simmel, a condition of perception.

Like few other artists of his generation, Léger “travelled with ease from abstraction to figuration and back again, between easel painting and decorative art, between the academic Salon and the vanguard art gallery, and between the gallery and the street,” per curator Anna Vallye. Emphasizing this last binary (gallery/street), “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” followed the threads connecting the artist’s work of the 1920s not only to the city but to other figures—for example, Le Corbusier, painter/designer Alexandra Exter, and poster artist A. M. Cassandre—and to other media as well, such as set design, typography, and film. A generous sampling of Léger’s paintings provided the exhibition’s backbone, including twenty-eight canvases created between 1911 and 1927, presided over by the massive theatrical backdrop made by the artist for the Ballets Suédois’s Skating Rink, 1921/1969.

No one would doubt that the metropolis figured centrally in Léger’s interwar modernism, inspiring his streak of paintings from the technophilic Les Disques, 1918, to the jaded, cinema-obsessed Composition with Hats and Hands, 1927. But when seen together, do these works—all of them known to scholarship—suggest a new reading of modernism’s urban fixation? Consider the example of La Ville (The City), 1919, a painting that has long anchored the Philadelphia Museum’s collection of early-twentieth-century European art, and which takes pride of place in this exhibition: Nearly ten feet long and eight feet tall, The City renders its titular subject as a Cubist scaffold of high-keyed, flatly painted planes organized into (roughly) three columnar bays—a nod, perhaps, to Robert Delaunay’s tripartite city allegory, La Ville de Paris, 1912. However, unlike its predecessor, Léger’s canvas pays little heed to the cityscape as it actually existed; rather than broadcast the decrepitude of Paris in 1919, when dire fuel shortages and labor unrest brought the city to a standstill, The City activates the rhythms of traffic and commerce by pictorial means, designating the metropolis as a psychosomatic effect above all. Yet the painting is more than merely abstract: Léger projects a hyperbole of Paris, envisioning a polychrome canyon of ubiquitous (though illegible) advertisements, into which the human occupants—notice the pair of sooty pedestrians at bottom center—are shoehorned only precariously. There’s something provincial about his vision of anomie. Within Léger’s delirious urbanomania—underpinning it (and undermining it?)—one detects a perspective oriented toward the position of the city’s deracinated ex-peasantry: outsiders for whom the feeling of urban centrality (or the placelessness of the branded commodity) palliated an existence eked out along the margins and, increasingly, in the suburbs. If there is a different way of situating Léger’s metropolis, it might begin with the most familiarly urban condition of all: property and rent—the city as scam.

Daniel Marcus