“Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” at The Philadelphia Museum of Art

The City

Fernand Léger, The City (1919), oil on canvas, 7′ 7″ x 9′ 9-1/2″; courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, A.E. Gallatin Collection

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“Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” is, in focus and scope, an ambitious enterprise and, as such, often exhilarating. Anyone fascinated by the trajectory of, and crosscurrents within, early Modernism will count this exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a “must see.” Be aware, however, that it isn’t a typical monographic overview. Only a third or so of the pieces on display are by Léger. The majority of items—drawings, paintings, sculptures, architectural maquettes, theater designs, films, and posters—are by his friends, colleagues, and contemporaries. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more impressive Who’s Who of the Avant-Garde: among those included are Piet Mondrian, El Lissitzky, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Francis Picabia, and lesser lights like Amédée Ozenfant, Theo van Doesburg, Gino Severini, Georges Vantongerloo, and Marcel Duchamp. By the time viewers reach the end of this sprawling exhibition, they can be forgiven for wondering if its emphasis has been misplaced. “Modern Art and the Metropolis, with Special Guest Fernand Léger” is more like it.

Make that “With Special Guest Painting, The City.” Here is where the exhibition is brazenly Philly-centric. Anna Vallye, the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art and exhibition organizer, is on a mission. She wants to posit The City (1919), a cornerstone of the museum’s collection and already an iconic painting, as a cultural game-changer on par with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). The Léger picture, after all, “capture[s] the shifting ground of knowledge of the modern self and world”:

Everything that in the Demoiselles concentrates and amplifies with the heated immediacy of sexual initiation, in The City shatters and disperses with an alienating force, like an approaching locomotive.

That The City takes as its subject “a public, collective, and disunited subject” is key to understanding Vallye’s attempt at taking Picasso down a peg. Léger, having brought modernism out of the studio—and, lest we forget, out of the boudoir—and into the streets, proved himself down with the people, or so the reasoning goes. At a time when the definition of art is increasingly elastic, being a populist is preferable to anything so sniffy as a mere painter.

Leger Photo

Fernand Léger circa 1916

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Truth be told, Léger (1881-1955) was a populist. A relative latecomer to Cubism, Léger brought to the style a voluble, robust, and rambunctious—dare one say masculine?— character. In the introductory galleries, Leger’s distinctive riffs on Cubism, derisively referred to as “Tubism” by a critic of the time, barrel over the competition. The propulsive rhythms and insistent convexities of Houses Under Trees (1913), Contrast of Forms (1913), Acrobats at the Circus (1918), and even the relatively restrained Smoke Over Rooftops (1911) don’t crash the party; they dominate it. It’s clear that the parameters of easel painting were something of a constraint on Léger’s vision. (“Abstract art,” he would write, “is in trouble when it tries to do easel painting.”) Léger looked to Renaissance murals and modernist architecture as means of giving pictorial form to societal shifts brought about by advances in technology. Not that all these advances were beneficent. Having served in the military during the First World War, Léger witnessed the industrialization of combat and the “blinding and new” reality it ushered in.

But how much of an effect did the war have on Léger? Any feelings of despair or cynicism provoked by first-hand contact with its carnage are markedly absent from the work. Léger was, in fact, invigorated by the contact with his “new companions” in the Engineer Corps—“the whole of the French people”. Then there was the “dazzling” sight of “the breech of a 75-millimetre gun which was standing uncovered in the sunlight: the magic of light on white metal.” World War One didn’t alter Léger’s take on the machine. If anything, it emboldened a sensibility already entranced by the machine’s regularity, precision, and power. Admittedly, a revived humanism did enter the work, if not always in imagery—Léger’s figures are always robots or symbols, never flesh-and-blood entities—then in spirit and reach. Compare Leger’s art with that of post-war contemporaries like Otto Dix, Max Ernst, or Max Beckmann, and Léger comes off as positively sunny. Not every artist who has experienced suffering has to suffer in the studio. Léger remained something of a utopian until the end of his days. You can’t help but think: More power to him.

The exhibition’s most literal moment of angst is found in The City. Just below center is a hulking figure rendered in a smudgy array of grays—engulfed in shadow, presumably— stalking a more individuated silhouette. This vignette is of a piece with a panorama that is, if not typified by threat, then overwhelmed by impersonal phenomena: maze-like passageways, towering shards of architecture, cluttered purviews and fractured words, signs and figures. During the war, Léger pined for Paris: “If I’m lucky to go back there . . . I’ll walk about in it like I’ve never before walked about there.” Though the poet Blaise Cendrars likened The City to Paris’s Place Clichy, where he and Léger wandered the streets after war’s end, the painting doesn’t depict a specific location. Rather, The City provides an unmistakable sense of (to use a contemporary phrase) information overload. In Léger’s hands, the urban environment is a monumental entity whose components disassemble even as they demand our attention. Notwithstanding subtle shifts in space, the composition is relentlessly frontal. The City brings to mind Yeats’s “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” albeit without the Biblical intimations. It is a testament to Léger’s talent that the composition holds together without sacrificing its compellingly disjointed energy.

RMN106726Fernand Léger, Composition à le main et aux chapeaux (1927), oil on canvas, 97-3/4″ x 73″; courtesy Centre Pompidou, Paris

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Léger’s contemporaries did not miss this accomplishment. The critic Maurice Raynal called The City “a performance more than a painting.” Cendrars remarked upon the thoroughness with which Léger tapped into the dynamism of industry: “The painting becomes an enourmous thing that moves.” Yvan Goll, another poet, described the canvas as “a monstrous entity striding toward us.” Vallye commends The City for ingraining the social transformation of post-war Paris, and for having “opened painting to a fateful and exhilarating contamination”—that is to say, popular culture: “As painting ushered in cultural practices traditionally foreign to itself,” she continues, “the work produced became an uneasy hybrid, laced with generative frictions.” The curator’s up-to-the-minute jargon—can we please excise the word “practice” from the lexicon of art?—is enough to make one think she values the art of painting for everything it isn’t. Still, you don’t have to completely buy into the line about Léger’s “new ethics of modernity” to find truth in Vallye’s assertions. “Modern Art and the Metropolis” makes a heartening brief for the inclusivity of influence, of art as an absorptive and transformative endeavor.

Given its central role in “Modern Art and the Metropolis,” The City pops up curiously early, following quickly on introductory galleries placing Léger within the context of Cubism and Futurism. The painting itself is surrounded by myriad studies, done on canvas and paper, which emphasize how Léger went about bending both styles to his will. At this point the exhibition dedicates itself, in a series of discrete and didactic segments, to the aforementioned contaminants or, as the wall texts have it, “Publicity” and “Spectacle.” We see Léger’s art in the midst of advertising, print illustrations, movies, designs for the theater, and “Space,” a category reflecting the artist’s faith in the “simple and rational architecture that is going to conquer the world.” Ballet Mécanique (1923–1924), the experimental film Léger made with Dudley Murphy, is highlighted, as is Charlot Cubiste (1924), the painted plywood relief of Charlie Chaplin in which it figures prominently. Léger had mixed feelings about the cinema, fearing that money and celebrity, along with the “frightful ‘good taste’ of the French,” would stunt the art form. In many respects, the amateur film critic proved prescient.


Gerald Murphy, Razor (1924), oil on canvas, 32-1/4″ x 36-1/2″; courtesy Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection

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Displayed near Ballet Mecanique are additional films celebrating speed and rhythm, including Abel Gance’s The Wheel (1922) and, in a gratuitous byway dedicated to Parisian Dada, cinematic efforts by Duchamp, Picabia, René Clair, and Man Ray. (That Léger loaned his work to some of the Dadaists’ stunts doesn’t mean their nihilistic trivialities have to be vindicated for, like, the umpteenth time.) Vintage posters by Cassandre, Jean Carlu, and Francis Bernard are juxtaposed with Léger’s own studies for posters, his set designs for the film L’Inhumaine (1924), and canvases like Composition with Hand and Hats (1927), with its droll orchestration of hats and playing cards, and the steely grandeur of Mechanical Element (1924). Razor (1924), a proto-Pop canvas by the underrated Gerald Murphy, an American expatriate and friend of the artist, holds its own in this heady milieu. Then there is Leger’s delightful work for the theater. The reconstructed backdrop for Skating Rink, a ballet commissioned by the Ballet Suédois in 1921, would seem to capsize the exhibition through size alone—it measures 16’ x 32’—but is dwarfed, in aesthetic terms, by the playful primitivism of Leger’s costume designs.

It is at this point, however, that “Modern Art and the Metropolis” loses steam, at least Léger-wise. What can it mean that the theatrical studies, at least as seen in Philadelphia, are considerably less engaging than those of his peers? As charming as Curtain Design for Skating Rink (1922) might be, it can’t hold the proverbial candle to, say, El Lissitzky’s Victory Over The Sun (1923), a suite of ten lithographs done for an opera, endowing the conventions of Russian Constructivism with unexpected comic sprightliness. Man Ray and Delaunay-Terk bring a crystalline eye for color, counter-point and interval to costume design. And then there’s Alexandra Exter, who is, for this critic anyway, a find. A trio of Exter’s marionettes bridges the folkloric and the modern with consummate ease. If her poichoir studies of stage lighting are for specialists only, Construction (1922–23), a brash orchestration of geometric forms done in oil on canvas, deserves greater renown. The Museum of Modern Art owns the picture and could do worse in establishing its PC-bonafides than placing the Exter on public view in the permanent collection. Perhaps Curator Vallye’s next project will be the resuscitation of this intriguing figure’s “practice.” We can hope as much, anyway.


Alexandra Exter, Construction (1922-23), oil on canvas, 35-1/8″ x 35-3/8″, courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, The Riklis Collection of McCrory Collection

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A loss of vigor continues in the galleries dedicated to “Space,” an exploration of the relationship between color and architecture that constitutes the exhibition’s finale. (Léger’s studies for a never-realized mural at Rockefeller Center, seen in a side gallery directly before the exit, are the stuff of self-parody and barely count as a postscript.) As seen in the company of de Stijl, Léger comes off as an adept and not altogether convinced follower; he’s fairly knuckled under by the rigorous élan of Mondrian and Van Doesburg. Léger’s omnivorous love of architecture—he considered himself the Modernist painter “closest in contact with the new builders”—seems to have coincided with a diminution in invention and purpose. Modernist innovation consequently became reiterated, not transfigured, and the loss of tone is palpable. When ticky-tacky contrivances by Ozenfant, Le Corbusier, and Willi Baumeister encroach upon Léger’s star-power you know something’s gone awry. Still, Léger’s increasing pictorial flabbiness shouldn’t detract from an exhibition replete with significant pleasures. Whether The City will ascend to the rank of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon remains to be seen. In the meantime, The Philadelphia Museum should be encouraged to stick out its curatorial neck more often if doing so results in exhibitions like “Modern Art and the Metropolis.”

© 2013 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the December 2013 edition of The New Criterion.

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  • Katharine  On May 27, 2015 at 5: 36 am

    Nice critique and photo of Leger! I wonder if you could help me with my search of Leger or an early collector (such as Kahnweiler) with one of his drawings from 1913, Figures descendant un espalier. Any advice would be most appreciated!
    Many thanks for your attention,

    • Mario Naves  On May 27, 2015 at 5: 43 am


      Thanks for the kind words. As for your search: I’m afraid that’s out of my realm of expertise (such as it is). Have you tried contacting some of the auction houses who have dealt with Leger pieces in the past? They can be surprisingly accommodating.



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