Remember this? I struggled with Léger when I went to see the current exhibition at Tate Liverpool. I even laughed when the first work I saw at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris last month was Les Disques from 1918! Would I never understand Fernand?
It was bothering me that I couldn’t see what was so radical about Léger’s work but then I came across a 1935 article from The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art by George L.K. Morris, in which he talks about the Léger exhibition that October.
Where I made the mistake was to take on board the history of art and the way in which Léger is always placed with the Cubists. When compared to Braque, Picasso and Gris, I could not see how Léger belonged with this group as an equal, but Mr Morris put something forward in 1935 that has completely changed my mind:
There is nothing comparable to this spaciousness in Leger, who had thrown
Impressionist tendencies overboard at the start, who had never put aside his
cold though garish colors. His forms are always clear and sharp, and the con-
ception of the object has remained as mental as a Coptic fresco. It is the object
that removes him farthest from the Cubists, and it is the object for its own sake
that has become the grande passion of Leger’s artistic consciousness; he has re-
duced his art of late to an ever-tightening rendition of objects; he will recount
how in this mechanical age a painting must stand comparison with the other
things sold in the cities; he has sought to paint them all-pipes, disks, parts of
the machines-with such freshness and precision that they can compete with
the modern craftsman’s products.
The line, ” It is the object that removes him farthest from the Cubists” is the key to my change of mind.
In another bulletin, this time from the Art Institute of Chicago from 1951, they quote Léger talking about his war experiences:
During those four war years I was abruptly thrust into a reality which was both blinding and new. I was dazzled by the breech of a 75 millimeter gun which was standing uncovered in the sunlight: the magic of light on white metal. This was enough to make me forget the abstract art of 1912-13. A complete revelation to me, both as a man and as a painter.
And there it is – Léger was not copying any of his contempories at all; he was forging his own path and that was modernity and all its components. And as George L K Brooks said, ” ...he has sought to paint them all-pipes, disks, parts of the machines-with such freshness and precision that they can compete with the modern craftsman’s product“.
In works such as The City, from 1919, you can see the fragments of modernity scattered throughout. The Aviator (1920) is another work that could almost be 3D.
I think I will be paying another visit to Tate Liverpool to put my newfound knowledge to the test.