Tate Liverpool is currently hosting a major exhibition of the work of Fernand Léger.
Léger (1881–1955) is one of the 20th century’s great modernist artists. He worked in a diverse range of media which the exhibition successfully brings together with abstract and figurative paintings, a large-scale mural, films, graphic designs, drawings, books and textiles.
Born in Normandy at the end of the 19th century, Léger’s work reflects the growth of industrial capitalism, large scale mechanisation and, in the arts, the impact of new forms of visual communication such as photography, cinema and advertising posters.
He originally trained in architecture, but by the 1910s he had moved to Paris and begun to paint. His early works reflect the affect of Cubism, with bold, graphic and colourful statements reflecting the bustle and rhythm of modern life — though his work was sometimes (almost disparagingly) referred to as “tubism” because of the cylindrical shapes that dominate his early works.
Léger’s experiences of the First World War had a significant impact upon his work. He spent two years at the front and produced sketches of artillery pieces, planes and soldiers. In 1916 he almost died from mustard gas poisoning at Verdun. During his convalescence he painted The Card Players (1917). The canvas shows robot-like, monstrous figures, replete with military medals, and captures something of the horror of war.
In the post-war period he entered his “mechanical period”. In works such as The Propellers (1918), The Disc (1918), Mechanical Elements (1919) and The Tugboat (1920) elements of abstract painting — the emphasis of line, form and colour — are used to capture aspects of industrial modernity.
Léger was strongly committed to the idea that art should be accessible and enjoyed by all, not simply the plaything of the rich and powerful. He experimented with photography and film. The exhibition includes his 1924 experimental film collaboration, Mechanical Ballet.
In the film Léger, director Dudley Murphy and artist Man Ray, play with camera angles and montage. They experiment with shapes, faces and snippets from daily life. It’s set against a musical score by George Antheil.
Politically Léger was radicalised by his experiences during the war. By the late 1930s he was a supporter of the French Popular Front government. During the war he fled to the US. On his return to France in 1945 he joined the Communist Party.
This political development coincided with a shift in his artistic style.
In 1937 Paris hosted the Exhibition of Arts and Technology. In collaboration with architect and designer Charlotte Persians, Léger produced the large-scale photomural Essential Happiness, New Pleasures, which is shown here for the first time in Britain.
The mural was a major highlight of the exhibition and is a piece supporting the Popular Front Government’s land reform proposals.
The Popular Front government also introduced paid worker’s holidays. Léger’s paintings increasingly focus on the beauty of everyday life, labour and leisure.
In Leisure — Homage to Louis David (1948-9), The Acrobat and His Partner (1948), Two Cyclists, Mother and Child (1951) and Two Women Holding Flowers (1954) his subjects, ordinary men and women, are portrayed with a sense of monumentality and dignity.
In The Constructors: The Team at Rest (1950) we see workers on a break from their jobs. The radiant blue sky in the background sets off the colours of the building, but also poses a remarkably modern question about the impact of construction on nature.
This is a thoughtful exhibition that allows us to see some of Léger’s finest work. If you are in Liverpool, do yourself a favour and go to see it.