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No art too good for the workers
December 2018 / January 2019

Joyous balance: “The Acrobat and his Partner”, 1948, by Fernand Léger (© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018)

Cubism might have been the most important of the flurry of artistic “isms” that marked the first two decades of the 20th century, but it was also one of the least visually appealing. The style, as it was developed around 1907 by Picasso and Braque, set out to fracture forms — a bottle, a violin, a person — and reconstitute them to be seen from multiple viewpoints simultaneously. Their initial paintings had little colour and were technical experiments in dun shades. They were, however, both hugely influential and shocking: as the New York Times asked in 1911, “What do they mean? Have those responsible for them taken leave of their senses? Is it art or madness? Who knows?”

Among those who followed Picasso and Braque’s lead were Juan Gris, Robert Delaunay, Jean Metzinger, Alexander Archipenko and Jacques Lipchitz, but the artist who did most to wrench this style of intellectual enquiry into something more colourful and approachable was Fernand Léger (1881-1955). His version of Cubism was based on pattern, simplified forms and, above all, primary colours: “Man needs colour to live,” he said. “It’s just as necessary an element as fire and water.”

Some 50 of the artist’s works are on display in Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures  (until March 17, 2019) at Tate Liverpool. They show how he moved on from his early Cubist paintings and their tendency towards abstraction, with both landscapes and figures being broken into patterns of discs and random shapes to something more distinctive. It was his experience of war, where he served at the front for two years and was invalided out following a mustard gas attack, that changed his art: “I was stunned by the sight of the breech of a 75 millimetre in the sunlight. It was the magic of light on the white metal. That’s all it took for me to forget the abstract art of 1912–1913.” He now wanted, he said, “to paint in slang with all its colour and mobility”.

Echoes of that gun would appear in the tubes and mechanical components that appeared in his art through the 1920s (indeed he was known for a time as a “tubist”). However, the other revelation of Léger’s war years was coming into prolonged contact with working men and he consequently aimed at making art that would both reflect and be accessible to all.

He expanded his range beyond easel paintings to include murals, stained glass, tapestries and film and became an influential teacher. His pictures, meanwhile, took on a crisp monumentality — figures and backgrounds outlined in black with large areas of unmodulated colour: there is more than a hint of Mondrian’s De Stijl grids in Léger’s work. And many of his subjects came from popular entertainments — cyclists, musicians, acrobats — and from working life.
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