"Let us organize outer life in our domain: form, color, light."
FERNAND LÉGER SYNOPSIS
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.
FERNAND LÉGER KEY IDEAS
MOST IMPORTANT ART
Nudes in the Forest (1909-10)
This painting was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911 and is considered Léger's first major work showcasing his break from Impressionism and his alliance with Cubism, particularly in his monochromatic palette and his breaking of form into geometric shapes. Léger's focus on drawing and form rather than color also indicates his influence from Paul Cézanne. Léger's Cubism, however, was distinct from mainstream Cubism. Léger does not abandon three-dimensionality and volumetric form to the same degree as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque whose canvases from this period lack all but the merest illusion of space. Léger's interest in nature, his use of cylindrical form, and his focus on machine-like forms further distinguishes his work from that of other Cubists, while the latter aligns him with Italian Futurism, reflecting the period's optimism about the benefits of urbanization and an industrialized society. These unique qualities led the critic Louis Vauxcelles to dub Léger's style as "Tubism."
Oil on canvas - Kröller-Muller State Museum, Otterlo
FERNAND LÉGER BIOGRAPHY
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, but the 1907 retrospective of 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, , and , his closest friends were the writers and . At the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, Léger exhibited paintings that led to his recognition as a major Cubist artist, particularly (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 metwith 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 withwhere he taught alongside and .
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.
Late Years and Death
Léger first visited the USA in 1931 and relocated to New York City to escape World War II. Between 1940-45 Léger influenced many New York School painters and also administered a lecture series at Yale University called, "Color in Architecture." On his return to France in 1945, he joined the Communist Party. His wife died in 1950 and he was re-married to Nadia Khodossevitch in 1952. Léger became increasingly interested in large-scale public art and in the years before his death produced mosaics, stained glass windows, and murals in Europe and South America. Fernand Léger died at his home in Gif-sur-Yvette, France on August 17, 1955.
FERNAND LÉGER LEGACY
Léger's unique form of Cubism that relied on cylindrical forms was influential to many abstract painters and sculptors, including
FERNAND LÉGER QUOTES
"I sometimes ask myself what contemporary painting would be like without Cézanne... Cézanne taught me to love forms and volumes; he made me concentrate on drawing. It was then that I felt that drawing must be strict and absolutely unsentimental."
"Abstract art came as a complete revelation, and then we were able to consider the human figure as a plastic value, not as a sentimental value. That is why the human figure has remained willfully inexpressive throughout the evolution of my work."
"Let us gaze wide-eyed at present-day life, which rolls, moves, and overflows alongside us. Let us endeavor to dam it up, canalize it, organize it plastically. A huge task, but feasible. . . . The intensity of the street breaks one's nerves and drives one crazy. . . . Let us organize outer life in our domain: form, color, light."
"To be free and yet not to lose touch with reality, that is the drama of that epic figure who is variously called inventor, artist or poet."
Fernand Léger Influences
Interactive chart with Fernand Léger's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
Fernand Léger BOOKS AND ONLINE RESOURCES
Léger: The Monumental Art
By Yvonne Brunhammer, Pierre Descargues
Contemporary Authors: Biography - Léger, Fernand (1881-1955)
By Richard Chapman
Fernand Léger: Paris-New York
By Yve-Alain Bois, Raphael Bouvier, Christian Derouet, Brigitte Hedel-Samson, Philippe Buttner
Fernand Léger: Contrasts of Forms
By Matthew Affron
By Matthew Affron, Carolyn Lanchner, Fernand Léger, Jodi Hauptman
National Museum of Fernand Léger
Near Antibes, France
Fernand Léger at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
By Carter B. Horsley
The Heroic Object and Fernand Léger
By Kenneth Rexroth