Saturday, March 9, 2013

Leger, Fernand

Woman with a Book
oil on canvas
116 x 81.4 cm (45 3/4 x 32 1/8")
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA

"I had broken down the human body, so I set about putting it together again," (Leger)
The smooth surfaces of this volumetric woman, bunch of flowers, and book evoke mechanical parts assembled together. The metallic sheen and tight geometry are stylistic treatments that recur in many of Leger's paintings of this period.
Leger believed that the mechanical age had the capability of curing the chaos that occurred during World War I, and reduced the figures in his paintings to mechanical shapes for this very purpose. In this painting, he has reduced the shape of the woman down to simple forms, which have been placed back together like a machine. This portrait thus gives of the impression that the woman is a mechanized version of herself. The simple, solidified forms were his attempt to use enduring images to recover from the devastation of the war.

Fernand Leger (1881-1955), painter, sculptor, and filmmaker, was born at Argentan, France. He began his career as a an artist by serving an apprenticeship in architecture and working as a architectural draughtsman. In 1900 he went to Paris and was admitted to the art school in 1903. The first profound influence on his work came from Cezanne. Leger became friends with Delaunay and maintained ties with great artists, including Matisse, Rousseau, Apollinaire and leading exponents of Cubism. As a painter Leger exerted an enormous influence on the development of Cubism, Constructivism and the modern advertising poster as well as various forms of applied art.

Leger's experiences in World War I had a significant effect on his work. Mobilized in 1914 for service in the French Army, he spent two years at the front in Argonne. He produced many sketches of artillery pieces, airplanes, and fellow soldiers while in the trenches, and painted Soldier with a Pipe (1916) while on furlough. In September 1916 he almost died after a mustard gas attack. During a period of convalescence he painted The Card Players (1917), a canvas whose robot-like, monstrous figures reflect the ambivalence of his experience of war. As he explained: ...I was stunned by the sight of the breech of a 75 millimeter 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. 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.

After his experiences in the First World War, he became convinced that art should be accessible to all. He moved away from pure abstraction towards the stylized depiction of real objects, laying great emphasis on order, clarity and harmony. By 1920, Leger had achieved a mechanistic classicism, a precise, geometrically and harshly definitive monumental rendering of modern objects such as cog-wheels and screws, with the human figure incorporated as an equally machine-like being. Surrealismus left its mark on Leger in the 1930s, loosening up his style and making it more curvilinear.

Among the most prominent artists in Paris in the first half of the 20th century, Leger was prolific in many media and articulated a consistent position on the role of art in society in his many lectures and writings. His mature work underwent many changes, from a Cubist-derived abstraction in the 1910s to a distinctive realist imagery in the 1950s. Leger taught at Yale University from 1940 until 1945. He attracted numerous students to his various schools, and his ideas and philosophy were disseminated by modern artists throughout Europe and the Americas. By now his dominant motifs were drawn from the workplace and were post-Cubist in form, combined with the representational clarity of Realism.