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Modern Artist: Fernand Léger
Synopsis
Fernand Léger's long career spanned over fifty years. Though he built his reputation on being a Cubist, his styles varied considerably decade to decade, ranging from figuration to complete abstraction. Léger worked in a wide range of mediums including paint, ceramic, large-scale murals, film, theater and dance sets, glass, print, and in book arts. While his styles varied, overall, he was consistently graphic, favoring primary colors, depicting humans or abstract shapes in action to convey the movement of daily life.

Key Ideas
  • Léger understood the Cubist notion of freeing the painter from a responsibility to realism, yet he was more interested in materialism than other Cubists, such as Braque and Picasso.
  • As a Cubist, Léger was concerned with replacing his subject matter with colors and shapes rather than converging or diverging planes and forms. His paintings were closer to pure abstraction than many of his Cubist contemporaries.
  • Léger sought to express the noise, dynamism and speed of new technology and machinery, working through several themes, or cycles, of imagery depicting humans in motion.

Childhood
Fernand Léger was born in rural France 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 encouraged. Léger was sent to architecture school and later to the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs, Academie Julian and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He studied a variety of trades within the arts, working for architects and as a photograph re-toucher. His paintings from 1905 until 1907 were impressionistic until he discovered Cézanne. At that point, he moved into an artist colony and devoted himself to the art practice that became known as Cubism.

Early Training
By 1909, Léger had painted early Cubist works such as Le Compotier sur la Table. Though he had casually met Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Douanier Rousseau, his closest friends were the writers Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars. At the 1911 Salon des Independents, Léger exhibited paintings that led to his recognition as one of the major Cubist painters. His works differed from the works of others in that he employed primary colors rather than monochrome palettes. His geometric systems seemed to form patterns and his shapes floated in space rather than converging or dissipating as in paintings by other Cubists. His artistic career was altered drastically when he was recruited to the army in 1914, returning with a head injury after being gassed at Verdun in 1916. This experience fueled Léger's interest in social issues and justice, and his Cubist paintings began to deal with more socially conscious subject matter.

Mature Period
Léger continued to exhibit paintings on canvas after he returned from war, but 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 this year that he founded a school for modern art. Léger studied form broken down into geometric parts at this time. He founded what is now called Tubism, in which human body parts and architectural elements are rendered with three-dimensional shading to look like voluminous tubes and cylinders.

Léger aligned himself closely with Le Corbusier and other Modernists who were interested in machinery and depicting speed and motion. These personal alliances led to his joining the Communist Party. His subject matter during the 1920s and 1930s reflected an interest in social equality. During this period, Léger began several series of paintings that have been called "cycles," which show different groups of people in action. These cycles are known as the Country Outings, Constructors, Cyclists, and Divers. While the artist was focused on depicting technology and machinery, more important were the characters populating his paintings.

Late Years and Death
The degrees of recognizable figuration in Léger's artwork varied greatly. Some paintings, like those in series', portrayed people working, exercising, or interacting as communities. These paintings, like The Constructors, look borderline cartoonish. This was because Léger was preoccupied with comparing humans to machines and he shaded human forms as if they were metallic. In many of Léger's paintings, humans appear robotic, making possible statements about his Communist ideals rather than on form. Some paintings allowed abstract shapes to interact as characters in themselves. In all, his works formally played with line and color, and in later paintings the two become increasingly distinct, separate and overlapping to create patterns resulting in an animated effect.

Léger had visited America in several times before relocating to New York to escape World War II. Between 1940-45 Léger influenced many New York School painters. He administered a lecture series at Yale called, "Color in Architecture," which many artists attended. Léger became increasingly interested in large-scale public art, but was not able to realize this interest until the 1950s. He had success creating mosaics, stained glass windows, and murals around Europe that were formal triumphs rather than expressions of psychological portent. Fernand Léger died at his home in Gif-sur-Yvette, France in 1955.

Legacy
Léger's Tubist style was influential on many abstract painters and sculptors, like Henry Moore. His legacy may lie more in his attempt to make art that "everyone can understand," one of the artist's favorite expressions. His bold use of color in combination with the idea of art for the masses inspired many Pop artists. His belief that art unifies people may have influenced community-based art as activism movements, such as Fluxus. Léger's work is timeless as it captures the essence of modern life, and yet he also used painting as an analytical means of slowing down a fast-paced society, which is still a preoccupation amongst many artists today.

ARTISTIC INFLUENCES:

Below are Fernand Léger's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.

ARTISTS
Henri Matisse
Wassily Kandinsky
Marc Chagall
Chaim Soutine
CRITICS/FRIENDS
Piet Mondrian
Le Corbusier
Guillaume Apollinaire
Robert Delaunay
MOVEMENTS
Impressionism
Post-Impressionism
Futurism
Fauvism
Fernand Léger
Years Worked: 1905 - 1955
ARTISTS
Hans Arp
Roy Lichtenstein
James Rosenquist
Ellsworth Kelly
Frank Stella
CRITICS/FRIENDS
Alvar Aalto
Paul Eluard
Paul Rosenberg
Hans Richter
MOVEMENTS
Mexican Muralists
Social Realism
Neo-Plasticism
Constructivism
Pop Art

Quotes
"Nationalism in art is superficial. You have to take the beautiful where you find it, without worrying about the signature."


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MAJOR WORKS:
Artwork Artwork Artwork
Artwork Artwork Artwork
See additional works by this artist
WHERE TO SEE WORKS:
Museum of Modern Art
www.MoMA.org

Metropolitan Museum of Art
www.METmuseum.org

FEATURED BOOKS:
Biography
Fernand Léger: Monumental Art

Contemporary Authors - Léger
Available for download

Paintings
Fernand Léger: Paris-New York

Fernand Léger: Contrast of Forms

Fernand Léger

RESOURCES:
Articles
Fernand Léger at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
1998
City Review
By Carter B. Horsley

The Heroic Object and Fernand Léger
1953
By Kenneth Rexroth

Websites about Artist
National Museum of Fernand Léger (in French)
Biot, France

Video Clips

Theater/video of Léger portrayed by Jaques van Rhijn

Documentary Films
Short film available for download