Though Fernand Léger built his reputation as a Cubist, his style varied considerably from decade to decade, fluctuating between figuration and abstraction and showing influence from a wide range of sources. Léger worked in a variety of media including paint, ceramic, film, theater and dance sets, glass, print, and book arts. While his style varied, his work was consistently graphic, favoring primary colors, pattern, and bold form.
Léger embraced the Cubist notion of fracturing objects into geometric shapes, but retained an interest in depicting the illusion of three-dimensionality. Léger's unique brand of Cubism was also distinguished by his focus on cylindrical form and his use of robot-like human figures that expressed harmony between humans and machines.
Influenced by the chaos of urban spaces and his interest in brilliant, primary color, Léger sought to express the noise, dynamism, and speed of new technology and machinery often creating a sense of movement in his paintings that captured the optimism of the pre-World War I period.
In its embrace of recognizable subject matter and the illusion of three dimensionality interspersed with or often simultaneous with experiments in abstraction and non-representation, Léger's work synchronizes the often competing dualities in much of twentieth-century art.
Three Women (Le Grand Déjeuner) (1921)
This is one of Léger's best-known paintings. In it he retreats from the experimentation with dissonance and collage-like space that he utilized in The City. The work is a culmination of several interests in the previous decade with its depiction of three-dimensionality, its mechanical human figures, and its primary colors. The subject matter of three nude women, however, is one of the most traditional in the history of art. In part for this reason, the painting is often seen as a classic example of what is known as a "return to order" that was typical of many artists in the early 1920s as they retreated from some of their bolder pre-World War I experiments with form, space, and subject matter. Though the subject matter is not contemporary as in The Card Players, Léger is not abandoning his interest in everyday people, but is instead responding to a culture-wide interest in past art with the re-opening of the Musée de Cluny and the expansion of the Louvre to include Egyptian and Assyrian rooms.
Oil on canvas - MOMA, New York
Fernand Léger was born in rural Normandy on February 4, 1881 and raised by his family to take up a valuable trade, like his father who was a cattle dealer. While Léger was not encouraged to become an artist, when he showed talent for drawing, he was sent to apprentice with an architect in Caen. After finishing his military training in 1903, he studied in Paris at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs and Académie Julian. During his studies, he made a living doing architectural drawings and retouching photographs. His paintings during this early period show influence from Impressionism, but the 1907 retrospective of Paul Cézanne at the Salon d'Automne changed the direction of his art.
In 1909, Léger moved to Montparnasse and painted early Cubist works such as Le Compotier sur la Table (1909). Though he had met Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Rousseau, his closest friends were the writers Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars. At the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, Léger exhibited paintings that led to his recognition as a major Cubist artist, particularly Nudes in the Forest (1909-1910). He continued to exhibit at the Indépendants and at the Salon d'Automne until he was drafted in 1914, returning with a head injury after being gassed at Verdun in 1916. His war experience fueled Léger's interest in the human figure. He claimed that he forgot the abstraction of 1912-13 because of the "crudeness, variety, humor, and downright perfection of certain men around me, their precise sense of utilitarian reality and its application in the midst of the life-and-death drama we were in ... made me want to paint in slang with all its color and mobility."
In 1920, Léger married Jeanne-Augustine Lohy and also met Le Corbusier with whom he would remain close friends. He aligned himself closely with the circle around Le Corbusier who were interested in machinery and depicting speed and motion. His clean, figurative style and retreat from abstraction in this period are evident in Three Women (Le Grand Déjeuner) of 1921. There are also obvious nods to Futurism in some of his works from this period.
During the 1920s he branched out into other methods of creative expression. He illustrated books, made sets and costumes for ballet and theater performances, and even made the film, Ballet Mechanique, in 1924. It was also in 1924 that he founded a free school for modern art in Paris with Amédée Ozenfant where he taught alongside Marie Laurencin and Aleksandra Ekster.
His subject matter during the 1920s and 1930s reflected his interest in social equality. During this period, Léger began several series of paintings that have been called "cycles," which show different groups of men in action such as construction workers, cyclists, and divers. These works often combined his interest in depicting technology and machinery with a growing focus on the human form, as in Constructor series.
Léger's unique form of Cubism that relied on cylindrical forms was influential to many abstract painters and sculptors, including Henry Moore, while his bold use of color in combination with his idea of art as something that "everyone can understand" inspired many Pop artists. Léger's belief that art can unify people may even have influenced community-based art as activism movements, such as Fluxus.
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