Art: Fire!

3 minute read

As an unknown young painter in Paris, Fernand Léger made his living retouching photographs, but he grew heartily sick of the fuzzy grey pictures he had to pretty up. A stretcher-bearer in World War I, he found a sort of solace in looking at cannons, planes and tanks. The milder beauties of nature were not for him, he decided. What he wanted his paintings to rival was the harsh power and blank precision of modern machinery.

Using a minimum of tools, he succeeded. As Jean Cassou, curator of Paris’ Musée d’Art Moderne put it, Léger became “the greatest primitive of our modern industrial age.” A retrospective show which Cassou’s museum was staging last week proved the point. With the few elements Leger allowed himself—poster colors and shapes that looked as if they had been stamped out of sheet metal ” —he made just what he had in mind: paintings such as Disks in the City that were loud, bold, intricate and fierce as fire engines.

At 68, Leger has lost none of his fire. Cluttering his little Left Bank studio are sketches for a book to be called The Circus, costume and set designs for the new Darius Milhaud opera Bolivar, and studies for a memorial to the U.S. war dead which he hopes to decorate with huge, gay, half-abstract ceramics of planes, ships and smiling young men with their helmets off.

Léger spent the war years in the U.S., admired “its vitality, its litter and its waste.” Bad taste, Léger once remarked to Critic James Johnson Sweeney, “is also one of the valuable raw materials of the country. Bad taste, strong colors—it is all here for the painter to organize and get the full use of its power. Girls in sweaters with brilliant-colored skin; girls in shorts dressed more like acrobats in the circus than one would ever come across on a Paris street. If I had only seen girls dressed in good taste [in the U.S.] I would never have painted my cyclist series . . .”

After his return to France in 1945, Léger continued his cyclist series with Les Loisirs (“Leisure”—see cut), which was one of the hits of his Paris show. As stiffly posed as a daguerreotype, the painting echoed Léger’s early days as a retoucher as well as the paintings of the granddaddy of Paris primitives, Le Douanier Rousseau. Les Loisirs came as close to nature as anything Léger had done for years; he even painted the sky blue instead of dark red as he had first intended. Even so, its handsomeness was like that of a glistening machine designed and put together by a master engineer.

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