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March 2019

Vol. 161 / No. 1392

Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures. Tate Liverpool

Reviewed by Dexter Dalwood

To look at Fernand Léger’s late painting Leisure – Homage to Louis David (Fig.1), in the last room of this exhibition at Tate Liverpool, is to become engulfed in wave after wave of pleasure in the simple force and gentle joy of this painting. Difficult to pigeon-hole, Léger has always been rather awkwardly co-opted into various art-historical narratives of painting in the twentieth century – but it seems possible, looking at Leisure, that Léger is underrated as a conceptual painter. In fact, this is exactly where he fits in, with his meta-awareness of painting as language, his detached yet figurative use of form as language.

This mid-size exhibition sets out to rethink Léger for the twenty-first century, taking visitors on a brisk stroll through the political context and scope of the influence of his painting. The display, however, fails to interrogate what is most interesting about Léger today, albeit clearly displayed in the works on view: his deceptively simple engagement with painting as medium was the impetus for his highly individual conceptual investigation of its possibilities. Léger wrote eloquently about painting as pure medium,1 and in his pictures sought to surprise the viewer through visual contradiction, contrasting the playful with the serious, sensitivity with crudity and sentiment with brutality.

The first painting in the exhibition, Landscape no.2 (1914; Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich), was made soon after he gave one of his first lectures. In The Origins of Painting and Its Representational Value Léger set out the means by which he planned to achieve ‘pictorial realism’ as ‘the simultaneous ordering of the three great plastic components: lines, forms and colours’. The painting appears bland in reproduction but is a feisty combination of pared-down line and roughly smudged oil paint on coarse canvas, as if Léger were declaring ‘Well, that’s the sum total of what painting is now!’. So far, so very early twentieth century.

At the same time, however, Léger was developing what amounted to a rather progressive technique, a kind of fracture of pictorial reality. Influenced by early Cubism and Futurism he forged his own particular style, juxtaposing tubular robot forms in paintings such as Soldiers playing cards (1917; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), where he created a mise en scène that riffs on Cézanne’s series of card players. His themes of industrialisation and war are emphasised at this point in the show by a collaborative film, a project that Léger worked on with Dudley Murphy entitled Mechanical Ballet (1923–24; Centre Pompidou, Paris).

The exhibition demonstrates Léger’s slow but certain progress towards a user-friendly version of Cubism that embraced design and technology. His involvement with the 1937 International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques for Modern Life in Paris is represented by a number of works, including a 2011 reconstruction of a vast photomural that, if anything, underlines the pitfalls of ‘scaling up’ (Fig.3). In a sense, the idea of public art swamps him. In this work, Léger’s customary material and conceptual rigour gives way to bombastic solutions.

The inclusion of a single painting by Le Corbusier, Still life with roots and yellow rope (1930; Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris), in a room titled ‘Poetic Objects’ is significant, and brings us down with a bump. It was painted at the same time that Léger seemed to be slowly adapting his style to make work that today has the misfortune of being considered as generic late 1920s Cubist painting. Although Le Corbusier’s still-life aspires to Léger’s brave new world of representation, it has none of Léger’s conceptual elegance. Le Corbusier uses a thin, whippy line and a tight rectangular composition that functions more as theatre design than painting, with the result that it seems dated, a quasi-realist backdrop, like a mismatched collaboration between Salvador Dalí and Graham Sutherland. Although the show intends to demonstrate Léger’s engagement with discourses of the day by including this painting, it underlines that Léger’s work came from a very different position.

Peppered throughout the exhibition are examples of Léger’s graphic works – illustrations and lithographs in what has become his signature style. These are afflicted by the same problem as Matisse’s game-changing collages. Over time they have lost so much of their pictorial fireworks, through mass-appropriation as abstract wall decoration for countless hotel bars and jazz clubs. Along the same lines, Léger’s graphic work has become synonymous with a generic idea of French illustration and graphic design, which consists of collaged patches of primary colour overlaid with black line drawing.

Towards the latter half of the 1920s, Léger’s fascination with the carefully constructed still-life – contrasting the industrial and the domestic, a factory chimney with a bowl of fruit – developed into a focus on the human figure. His new pictorial solution was to isolate groups of bodies so that they float on a pure colour, as in Trois femmes sur fond rouge (Fig.2). This solves myriad problems with figure and ground, as the figures are now propelled towards us. The viewer is confronted directly with how they are painted – the thick black line and the apparent stylisation is startling – and there is no recessional space. Once again Léger employs a dramatic use of colour and form to heighten the boldness of the image. He creates space by overlaying one thick line over another, which functions not unlike stone carved in Romanesque bas-relief, where shallow depth gives the illusion of three-dimensional form.

The final room of the exhibition features several of the artist’s best late works, alongside the aforementioned Leisure. In this very ambitious painting, Léger synthesises the contradictory forces at play in his paintings into a masterwork. He creates a whiff of naturalism by incorporating a horizon line behind the ensemble of figures, creating a tangible space that can be connected to the nineteenth century, a deliberate nod to Classicism. Yet in this pastoral idyll, the reclining woman on the ground is obviously a replacement for Marat, as painted by David in his famous bath, with echoes of both Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863; Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884; National Gallery, London). But casting one’s eye across the surface of the painting one detects in the bottom right-hand corner a green leaf that covers the foot of a girl astride a bicycle; the foot of the reclining figure covers the bottom of the bicycle wheel and this in turn covers a black hole that overlaps a yellow bulbous form sitting proud on a buff ground. The painterly logic of all this is that every decision has been made for the painting alone. As Titian used Ariadne’s arm in Bacchus and Ariadne (1520–23; National Gallery, London) to push back the picture plane, Léger uses the cyclist’s foot to push back a collaged pile of motifs, creating a pictorial depth that is pure painting invention. In this particular work, when he is working from a real subject (the idea of a homage to David), Léger creates a mood that coalesces all of his previous work at the collaged coalface of Cubism, which not only pays off, but emerges as a new and unique way to sensualise the contemporary world – a utopian fantasy with teeth.

Léger champions David – who had glimpsed in Realism a new way to depict the Revolution – through an understanding of Seurat’s idylls, which depict the bourgeoisie as robotlike figures relaxing in an industrial landscape. A personal witness to the horrors of the First World War and the rise of totalitarianism, Léger suggested that it was still possible to convey all of this through painting. His repetitive use of a limited repertoire of stylised images constructs a Neo-classical image, bolted together like words in a sentence. He was saying, perhaps, ‘Don’t think for a minute of this new world of technology and advancement as a disaster, come with me and embrace the sunny uplands of the future!’


1 E. Fry, ed: Functions of Painting by Fernand Léger. New York, 1973.