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Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis

October 14, 2013–January 5, 2014

This interdisciplinary exhibition will shed new light on the vitally experimental decade of the 1920s in Paris when the great French modernist Fernand Léger (1881-1955) played a leading role in redefining the practice of painting by bringing it into active engagement with the urban environment and modern mass media. This will be the first exhibition to take as its inspiration and focus Léger's monumental painting The City (1919), a cornerstone of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's collection and a landmark in the history of modern art, placing it in dialogue with the urban art and culture of modernity.

Gallery Tour

The exhibition will present a core group of Léger's exceptional paintings on the theme of the city, along with film projections, theater designs, architectural models, and print and advertising designs by the artist and his contemporaries. In a multi-media installation of more than 120 works, including loans from American and European public and private collections, this exhibition will demonstrate the varied strategies through which artists and designers of the European avant-garde, with Léger in the lead, sought to participate in the complexity and excitement of the metropolis. The exhibition will also feature work by Cassandre, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Theo van Doesburg, Alexandra Exter, Abel Gance, Le Corbusier, Piet Mondrian, Gerald Murphy, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, and many others.


  • 1881
    • Born in Argentan in northwestern France
  • 1897
    • Serves as apprentice to an architect in Caen, France
  • 1900 - 1911
    • Moves to Paris and works as architectural draftsman
    • Takes a studio at La Ruche (French for "the beehive"), an art-studio complex in Paris, where he befriends artists such as Robert Delaunay and Jacques Lipchitz, and the writer Blaise Cendrars (1909)
    • Moves to a studio in another part of Paris, where he paints Smoke over Rooftops (1911)
  • 1914
    • Serves in World War I in France
  • 1919, Paris
    • Paints The City
    • Illustrates The End of the World (La fin du monde), a book written by Blaise Cendrars
  • 1921 - 1923, Paris
    • Designs curtains, stage sets, and costumes for Skating Rink, a production by Ballet suédois (1921)
    • Designs sets and costumes for Creation of the World for Ballet suédois (1921)
    • Paints The Large Tugboat (1923)
    • Collaborates with other artists to produce his only film, Mechanical Ballet (Ballet mécanique) (1923)
  • 1924, Venice, Paris
    • Visits several cities in Italy, including Venice, with his art dealer; paints Animated Landscape after returning to France
    • Starts an art school in Paris with several other artists
  • 1931
    • Makes first trip to the United States
  • 1935
    • Makes second trip to the United States
  • 1938
    • Makes third trip to the United States; creates studies for cinematic mural to be installed in the lobby of Radio City Music Hall in midtown Manhattan
  • 1940
    • Lives in New York City during World War II
  • 1945
    • Works and resides in France
  • 1955
    • Dies in Gif-sur-Yvette, France
  • 1960
    • Musée National Fernand Léger opens in Biot, France

Main Building

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 artistic goals. 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 (1923). In 1923–24 Léger collaborated with several artists to produce and direct an experimental film, Ballet mécanique (may-cah-neek), or Mechanical Ballet. 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.


The exhibition is generously supported by The Women's Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bruce and Robbi Toll, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Annenberg Foundation Fund for Major Exhibitions, Sotheby's, Mitchell L. and Hilarie L. Morgan, and an anonymous donor, and by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.


Anna Vallye, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art

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