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Beyond City Limits

The Philadelphia Museum of Art launches a massive show built around Fernand Léger’s masterpiece The City.

Fernand Léger,The City, 1919.

Fernand Léger,The City, 1919.

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“It’s about time,” says Anna Vallye, exhibition curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, about the show “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” (October 14–January 5), which centers around The City (1919). “There has long been an interest in an exhibition around this painting at the Museum,” says the curator. “In 2013 we are celebrating the centennial of Modernism as a cultural phenomenon,” says the curator. “There was the Armory Show in 1913 and the notorious performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913; the MoMA has recently argued for the invention of abstraction around that same year. So there is a tidal wave of interest in Modernism and the culture of Modernism across the arts. Although this show is not focused on the year 1913, we are also addressing the question of what was Modernism.”

Fernand Léger, who was born in Argentan, Orne, Basse-Normandie in 1881, moved to Paris in 1900. He had been trained in architecture and began working as an architectural draftsman, and in 1902 studied at the School of Decorative Arts. By 1910, he was making work that combined the popular Cubist style with abstraction. He had joined the group of leading Parisian painters that included Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and Robert Delaunay. Léger, whose greatest genius lay in his ability to cull from an ever-widening cultural purview, was fascinated with architecture, cinema, murals and street art, theatrical design, industrialization and the city of Paris itself. Taking cues from all of these influences, by the 1920s he was producing work that was both of its time and fiercely innovative—or in other words, creating pioneering works of Modernism. He was often praised by his own community; fellow artist George L.K. Morris proclaimed Léger “the most truly modern” painter.

Léger’s painting The City was not executed until 1919. Still, it is not only the linchpin of the museum’s exhibition but also an apt peg on which to hang the hat of Modernism. Painted in a post-Cubist style, The City incorporates a variety of cultural referents and physical elements reflective of the changed urban environment that Léger encountered after returning from military service in World War I. Yet it is also a forward-thinking blueprint for the budding cultural landscape in Paris during the 1920s—a society that was developing mass entertainment and communication as rapidly as it was achieving artistic innovation within the avant garde. With The City, Léger, who was deeply rooted in the avant-garde, both artistically and socially, yet fascinated by mass media, develops a dialogue between commercial art and fine art. The result is an egalitarian Modernist cityscape painted with a military-like precision that is practically a minefield of urban symbolism.

The City is cacophonous. With scraps of signage, scaffolding and stairways, mysterious figures, bright yellow lamp-like shapes that seem to call out into this Gotham City like the Bat Signal, and nearly countless other geometric layers, this piece is a lot to handle, visually speaking. In an essay titled “The Painter on the Boulevard” featured in the exhibition’s catalogue, Vallye writes, “At once spacious in its lateral spread and aggressively frontal, it offers the eye no reasonable focus and the body no comfortable place to stand.” With forms popping up and out at the viewer, and a precarious delineation between background and foreground, the painting, which alludes to the democratization of the modern city, also exerts a democracy of form. Each shape is equal. This equality allows the viewer to have multiple perspectives—is one coming upon the cityscape as if it is emerging from the distance? Or is one surrounded by the looming upward-projection of the urban environment on all sides? Where does the city begin and where does it end? At the time of The City’s execution, Paris had never been more diverse—socially, economically or racially—and it gave the contemporary viewer the ability to gaze into the landscape from his own point of view or from the imaged point of view of someone else.

Léger’s war service had a profound effect on his thinking and style as a painter. Writing about his experience, Vallye notes his frustration at not being able to paint for three years but adds that “he also said that the front was, for him, a ‘contact with crude reality’—a ‘reality’ that he measured at once socially and physically as a form of equivalence: between himself and the common soldiers, the lower-class polius, or infantrymen; and between the soldier’s body and the gear, muck, and weaponry around him. The ‘real’ was a matter of base material equality.” Aesthetically, his service in the military led to a depiction of mechanical forms that resembled weapons. In Three Women by a Garden and Two Women, both painted in 1922, his female figures have cannonball-like breasts. Their limbs resemble missiles and features of their surrounding material spaces are ordered like chutes and ladders. Surely inspired by the machines and factories of industrialized Europe, gears and wheels become pervasive in the artist’s work, as in Disks (1918) and Composition with Hand and Hats (1927), both featured in the exhibition.

Hands and Hats, with its overlaid rectangular elements and pop imagery—spoons, bottles, gears, a cash register-like machine—could almost be an urban bulletin board with advertisements for products and services pasted on top of one another. The culture of street art and ephemera was important to Léger. In her essay “New in Print,” which appears in the exhibition’s catalogue, Maria Gough describes The City as an example of “the artist’s dialectical exploration of the problem of medium in the age of mass media.” She continues, “The City takes on the scale, clamor, and reproductive economy of a giant billboard, all the while explicitly reminding us of its very handmadeness through the vicissitudes of its fracture.” Advances during this time period in the production of printed matter completely changed the manner in which information was disseminated, as well as the actual appearance of city streets. Gough quotes Victor Hugo, who wrote of the significance of the printing press and printed matter, “In printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is ephemeral, elusive, indestructible. It mixes with air. In the days of architecture, [thought] took itself for a mountain and powerfully grabbed hold of a century and a place. Now it takes itself for a flock of birds, scatters to the four winds, and simultaneously occupies every point in air and space…” Léger’s nods to ephemeral culture in his canvases makes imagery that was designed to be fleeting lasting.

The Philadelphia exhibition has a section dedicated to Léger’s abstract mural compositions created in the mid-’20s and his engagement with architecture and the vanguard architects of the day. “Léger believed a painter could enter the urban street and transform it through color,” says Vallye, “he saw painting as an active participant in the broader environment. It is not so much that his mural compositions were decorative works, but rather they were conceived to be in dialogue with architectural space. He is quoted as saying that he hated ‘discreet’ paintings—he thought paintings should dominate the space that they’re in.” Léger, who was trained primarily as an architectural draftsman and often discussed architecture in his letters and papers, shared a lifelong friendship with Le Corbusier. He adopted the Purist style in much of his postwar work—a post-Cubist variant that was developed by Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant in 1918. In order to explore Léger’s interaction with architectural works, Vallye has included works by Le Corbusier, Theo van Doesburg, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Alexander Archipenko and others. Says Vallye, “Every artist was selected because of a crucial creative encounter with Léger during this specific time frame in Paris—1919 to the end of the ’20s.”

Léger’s intersection with another medium—the cinema—is also well explored in the exhibition. In her catalogue essay, Vallye acknowledges the influence of the movies on The City, saying, “The rapid ‘cuts’ from foreground to background, combined with the prevalence of black and white hues, invite comparisons to cinematic montage and it has been observed that the dimensions of the canvas are roughly those of an early twentieth-century cinema screen.” However, Léger didn’t just take aesthetic and conceptual aspects from the cinema, he also made films himself. In fact, in the mid-’20s he considered abandoning fine art in favor of making films. He designed a laboratory scene in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (The Inhuman One), and then in 1924, in collaboration with Dudley Murphy, George Antheil and Man Ray he created Ballet Mécanique, an iconic work of Futurist cinema.

In 1916 he had seen a Chaplin film and was heavily inspired by the actor’s gestural and physical mode of performance. He considered the actor the first “actor-object” and the first purely filmic actor, rather than a stage actor performing for the screen. Using a series of very precise editing, the Ballet Mécanique took images of everyday objects—eggbeaters, cake molds—and physical imagery—mechanical legs, a woman’s lips—and transformed them into a rhythmic pattern of gestures not unlike Chaplin’s style of movement. The result was like physical music. “He had a dream of seeing his footage synched to music, but at the time there were technical limitations,” says Vallye, but there is another, later version of the Ballet Mécanique with a score composed by George Antheil. In fact, Léger continued to edit and revise his film for years to come—which is not surprising for Léger, who, like a shark, always kept moving forward.

Author: Sarah E. Fensom | Publish Date: October 2013

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