Fernand Léger with The City at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, May 1943
Adrian Siegel, American
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About the Artist
Fernand Léger (born 1881, died 1955) lived through a period of
extraordinary changes that transformed everyday life. He experienced
the transition from candle and gaslight to electricity, from
horse-drawn carts to the automobile and airplane, and from a
mostly rural society to one that was increasingly urban. His generation
also saw the invention of new communications media such as
film, telegraph, and radio. Léger recognized how the accelerated
pace of life affected art:
If pictorial expression has changed, it is because
modern life has necessitated it. . . . The view
through the door of the railroad car or the
automobile windshield, in combination with the
speed, has altered the habitual look of things.
A modern man registers a hundred times more
sensory impressions than an eighteenth-century
artist. . . . The compression of the modern
picture, its variety, its breaking up of forms, are
the result of all this. ”
–Fernand Léger, 1914
Léger was born in Argentan (ar-zhen-tahn), a small town in northwestern
France, where his father bred cattle. He enjoyed drawing
and studied architecture in school. As a young man, Léger worked
as an apprentice in a local architect’s office and later served as an
architectural draftsman in Paris. We can see his continuing interest
in buildings and structures in The City
He began to focus seriously on painting in 1903 and took classes at
art schools in Paris. Starting in 1909, Léger lived at La Ruche (French
for “the beehive”), an art-studio complex that was a haven for artists
from all over Europe. He met other avant-garde artists who had
workspaces in this lively community, such as Robert Delaunay and
Jacques Lipchitz. Paris was the center of experimentation for modern
artists, including Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who developed
a style known as Cubism. Léger reinvented Cubism to meet his own
Léger served in World War I from 1914 to 1918 and said that his experiences
during the war sparked his fascination with machines and
mechanical forms. Describing the evolution of his art, Léger stated:
Each artist possesses an offensive weapon that
allows him to intimidate tradition. In the search
for vividness and intensity I have made use of
the machine as others have of the nude body or
the still life. ”
–Fernand Léger, 1925
He painted The City
in 1919, soon after he returned to Paris from
his wartime service. Plunging eagerly into city life, he experimented
in a wide range of media during the 1920s. Léger was especially
interested in the performing arts, and designed sets and costumes
for two ballets: Skating Rink
(1921–22) and Creation of the World
In 1923–24 Léger collaborated with several artists to produce and
direct an experimental film, Ballet mécanique
. With its quickly changing images, this film had no
story line or script. The American composer George Antheil created a
truly radical musical accompaniment for Ballet mécanique
, which was
scored not for human performers but for sixteen player pianos, three airplane
propellers, a siren, and seven electric bells. Although Léger loved
Antheil’s jangling mechanical music, it could not be synchronized with
the film footage during his lifetime.
Léger was excited by innovations in graphic design. He created illustrations with text for La fin du monde
(The End of the World)
, a book written in 1919 by his friend, the Swiss
writer Blaise Cendrars (sahn-DRAR). This story is a fantasy about the
end of the world as filmed by a stone sculpture of an angel atop
Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Throughout the 1920s Léger continued
painting and also designed advertising posters, theater programs,
and other publications.
While his artistic reputation was growing in France, Léger visited the
United States several times in the 1930s, where he was captivated
by the energy of New York City. Like many other European artists,
he fled Europe during World War II, and lived in New York from
1940 to 1945. He returned to France after the war, where he resided
for the rest of his life. After his death, a national museum dedicated
to Léger was established in Biot (bee-ot), a town in southeastern
France near the Mediterranean coast.
Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting
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