Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures


Tate Liverpool


23 Nov 2018 - 18 Mar 2019




Fernand Léger, 1881 - 1955

Young Girl Holding a Flower (Jeune fille tenant une fleur)


Oil paint on canvas 550 x 460 mm The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge



A Review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Fernand Léger’s (1881 - 1955) belief in the ‘social function of art for everyone’ piqued my interest in viewing this exhibition, the first of his mixed media art, as in paintings, drawings, graphics, films, topography, textiles, etc. in the UK for thirty years. The fact that the exhibition includes paintings never before seen in this country, heightened the attraction.

Once Léger’s formal training as architect, rather than artist is taken into account, it become easier to assimilate the multiplicitious works on show here, with their initially, largely urban contours and angles. Captivated by the teeming metropolis around him in turn of the Century Paris, Léger strove to capture its’ essence of burgeoning modernity. As forms loosened and colour spectrums broadened over the years, references to him, based on radical changes in both style and colour pallet, as one of the fore-fathers of Pop Art also become, understandable.

In contrast to the subject of the last Tate exhibition I attended, Edward Burne Jones, Léger embraced modernity, with all its machinations and urbanities. Early influence Paul Cezanne had led to him, from 1911 towards Cubism. However, in direct response to his experiences in the trenches in WWI, after, relating to the Italian Futurist movement, he engaged in Purism, a philosophy spear-headed by his lifelong friend and sometime collaborator Charles Edouard Jeanerette, aka Le Corbusier, and Amedee Ozenfant, in which ‘objects are represented as elementary forms devoid of detail,’ or, more specifically put, ‘a style of painting where elements were represented as robust forms with minimal details, while embracing technology and the machine.’ Perhaps the facelessness of soldiers was partly responsible for such thinking. Léger’s painting, Soldiers Playing Cards (1917), rendered during convalescence from a mustard gas attack that nearly killed him the year before, is not only a tribute to Cezanne, but also, his confirmation of men as simply part of a larger machine. The influx of neon signs and the rise of machinery, photography and cinema were also, reoccurring presences in Léger’s work throughout his lifetime. The Tugboat (1920) one of a series Léger did portraying the vessel moving slowly through a cityscape, exemplifies his ‘mechanical period’, signifying a shift from a rougher, Cubist style to a more ‘polished, elegantly worked’ one.


Fernand Léger, 1881 -1955
The Disc (Le Disque)
1918 Oil paint on canvas 650 x 540 mm
Museo Nacional Thyssen - Bornemisza, Madrid


Leger’s interest in increasingly rapid changes in the industrial world around him encouraged exploration along a variety of different paths, among them, his now considered ground-breaking, still intriguing, experimental film, Ballet Mécanique (1924) a collaboration with director Dudley Murphy and artist, Man Ray as Cinematographer, with music by George Antheil, who described his score as ‘the rhythm of machinery, presented as beautifully as an artist knows how.’ In the 20’s, Léger considered abandoning art in favour of filmmaking, having been inspired by Charlie Chaplin, who he’d discovered in 1916 while on leave from the Front. Léger made a doll of sorts of Chaplin, known simply as Charlot in France, based on his drawings of him, which features in the opening and closing credits of Ballet Mécanique, enabling an in joke referring to producer, Andre Charlot. His belief that ‘the machinery became anthropomorphic and figures mechanical’ is another theme that he continued to explore. Léger’s film, The Inhuman One, (1923) also on show in the exhibition, illustrates not only the rise of Art Deco style in the 20’s, but the artist’s penchant for exploring the range of spaces available to him, in terms of flat planes on varying levels, within the mise en scene, as in his paintings, one example of which is The Disc (1918).


Fernand Léger, 1881 -1955

George Antheil, 1900 - 1959 and Dudley Murphy, 1897 - 1968

Mechanical Ballet (Le Ballet mécanique) 1923 - 1924 35 mm film, 13 mins

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM - CCI, Dist. RMN - Grand Palais / image Centre Pompidou, MNAM


As the exhibition itself seems to be displayed according to interest, rather than chronological order, I take this opportunity to sidestep that convention when talking about it! Another filmic foray, ‘Dreams That Money Can Buy’ (1947), on which Léger collaborated, in 35 mm, with Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and musicians Paul Bowles, John Cage and Darius Milhaud, under direction of Hans Richter, is considered one Dada’s iconic moments. Léger’s portion, ‘The Girl with the Prefabricated Heart Director’ shows mannequins being animated, in order to heighten drama. Cinema, understandably, became something of a passion for Léger. cide in 1909 aged 36.

Fascinating photographs, memorabilia and artworks from the International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques for Modern Life in Paris in 1937, one of many World’s Fairs of the era designed to allow for collaboration and the demonstration of progress, featuring ‘The Pavilion of New Times’ designed by le Corbusier are also on show here. Among them, black and white photos and a film clip of the Inauguration of German and Russian Pavilions showing large Nazi flags prominently displayed, serve as chilling reminders of what was to come. Léger’s mammoth photo montage collaboration with Charlotte Perriand, Essential Happiness, New Pleasures exhibited in the UK for the first time, is a conversely bold endorsement of basic pleasures in an area of burgeoning modernity, with its’ musician, dancers, and workers, all happily expressing themselves amid cylinders, electric cables, machines and an electric motor, conveying hopes for a positive use of the new machinery, rather than as weapons of war and destruction. The Pavilion, Léger stated was ‘dedicated to the people, so they may understand, judge and demand.’ The work was considered quite a bold statement at the time as it supported the modernisation of agriculture


Fernand Léger, 1881 -1955

and Charlotte Perriand, 1903 - 1999

Essential Happiness, New Pleasures. Pavilion of Agriculture, Paris, International Exhibition ( Joies essentielles, plaisirs nouveaux. Pavillon de l'Agriculture, Paris, Exposition Internationale)

1937 – 2 011

Acrylic paint, collage and print on paper on board 3500 x 9410 mm

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid Donated by Archives Charlotte Perriand

- Pernette Perriand Barsac, Paris, 2012


Back-tracking in line with the exhibition, by the late 1920’s, as seen in the section entitled ‘Poetic Objects’ Léger was reengaging with nature, via the re-emergence of leaves, bark and other natural motifs in his paintings, in contrast to his earlier rendering of art mimicking the manufactured. This shift in perspective occurred in tandem with his acknowledgement of the potential of photography as an art form. Black ink drawings of the time reflect his growing interest in nature, as he enjoyed being outdoors, oft in the Forest of Fontainebleau, outside Paris or the coast of Normandy, where he’d had a humble farm upbringing, with close friends, Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand, and Le Corbusier’s cousin/collaborator, Pierre Jeanneret. Leaves and Shell (1927) in which objects seem isolated in space, is a fine example of the influence of photography on Léger’s work during this time. A companion painting of sorts by Le Corbusier, Still Life with Roots and Yellow Rope (1930) further illustrates these points. been exhibited together.


Fernand Léger, 1881 -1955
Leaves and Shell (Feuilles et coquillage)
1927 Oil paint on canvas 1295 x 972 mm
Tate: Purchased 1949 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018


Throughout the course of his career, Léger was interested in the human figure in motion, which he referred to as ‘the grand subject,’ also the title of a room in the exhibition. The Acrobat and His Partner (1948) is a great example of this interest, in more ways than one, as not only did Léger view circus as a symbol of energetic modern life, but the balancing act in the painting, in turn demonstrates his ability to balance ‘the dynamic and the ‘static,’ the steady partner in the painting, holding the ladder providing the stability for the dynamic acrobat and his disc. The painting is also significant as it was completed just months before Léger, along with Picasso, attended the Communist sponsored Peace Congress in Poland in August, 1948. In the context of the delicate balance needed to maintain peace, which Léger rightfully, viewed as a collective endeavour, this painting still resonates today.


Fernand Léger, 1881 - 1955

The Acrobat and his Partner


Oil paint on canvas

support: 1302 x 1626 mm frame: 1402 x 1727 x 75 mm

Tate. Purchased 1980 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018


Akin to Diego Rivera’s honouring of labours in his great murals, albeit in a more abstract style, during the course of his artistic career, Léger also sought to emphasize the importance of workers through his art, at the same time, exploring the figure in motion, one notable example being Study for the Constructors: The Team at Rest (1950).


Fernand Léger, 1881 -1955

Study for 'The Constructors': The Team at Rest

(Étude pour ‘ Les Constructeurs ’ : L'Équipe au repos)

1950 Oil paint on canvas

1620 x 1295 mm

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Purchased 1984


Other aspects of Léger’s fascination with and exploration of the human form are evident in Two Women Holding Flowers (1954) as is, possibly, abstract pioneer Piet Mondrian’s influence, as the painting demonstrates both the boldness of Léger’s line painting with imaginative, overlaid solid blocks of Primary and, Secondary colours, carefully separated. Strategically placed daubs of grey lend definition and contours. The fact that it is impossible to tell where one body ends and the other begins gives the painting a modern, formless within forms quality, unique to Legar’s form of abstraction, in an era when he was busily painting circus performers, workers and bustling scenes of modern life. This unique take on neo-classism balances comfortably among Léger’s top works.



Fernand Léger, 1881 -1955

Two Women Holding Flowers


O il paint on canvas 972 x 1299 mm Tate.

Purchased 1959 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018


It’s always an intriguing experience, and, a privilege having an opportunity to trace the trajectory of a renowned artist, from creative inception through development. It’s also, not only enlightening, but somehow, refreshing to be reminded, that most artists of note, if not all, at some point in their careers, broke away from what they knew, to explore hitherto unknown territory, oft, inadvertently establishing new trends in the process. In that regard, Léger’s forays into Cubism, Purism, Da-Da and other movements, ever, experimental, always, with a Socialist slant and, exceptionally individualistic within groups, in the mode of his, ‘art for all’ thinking, were no exceptions. At the end, I came away with renewed respect for Léger, an artist who was, as curator Darren Pih stated, ‘concerned with finding a new, accessible image for Modern Art,’ one capable of ‘communicating to a large audience.’ 




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Editor’s note: Also opening is the first museum exhibition in the UK of South Korean artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho (both b.1969). Featured will be a new commission for the gallery, Anomaly Strolls 2018, and acclaimed video work, El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World) 2012. ,

Tate Liverpool also presents ARTIST ROOMS: Alex Katz, a focused selection of 19 landscape paintings made by Katz (b. 1927) between 1967 and the late 1990s.;



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