Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

V · LEGER AND PURISM

The mystic, secluded atmosphere of Juan Gris's Cubism could hardly be more remote from the world of the fourth major Cubist, Fernand Léger ( 1881-1955). Léger, the son of a Norman farmer, is antithetical to Gris in viewpoint. For the activities of the intellect he substitutes the physical activities of the human body and the machine; for the privacy of the artist's world of still-life objects, the public experience of the contemporary industrial world; for the intimacy of a refined pictorial language, the impersonality of a classic, monumental style. Léger, in fact, offers the most sustained twentieth-century statement of vigorous, optimistic acceptance of the often lamented realities of our mechanized environment. To him, Cubism was a means of transforming the equation of the human and the mechanical, whose implications could be so frightening to many modern observers, into something positive and even beautiful.

Léger's early evolution is somewhat conjectural, for he destroyed most of the work he executed between 1905 and 1910. By 1910, however, he had seen the work of Picasso and Braque at Kahnweiler's gallery, though, stimulated as he was by Cézanne and Delaunay, he may well have been moving independently in the direction of Cubism. In any case, the Woman Sewing of 1909-10 parallels the blocky, regularized forms of Picasso's work of 1908 and 1909, so that the figure takes on the curiously powerful and elemental quality of such work as Picasso Nude in the Forest. But already one can discern Léger's distinct personality, for his treatment of the genre theme of a woman sewing is aggressively contemporary. Not only has the woman herself been joined together out of simple blocks and cylinders, as one would construct a machine, but her implied movements of hand and arm have a comparably regular and automatic quality. Recalling earlier versions of this theme, which extend back to the drawings of Seurat and ultimately to Vermeer famous Lacemaker in the Louvre, one is tempted to retitle Léger painting "Sewing Machine."

In the same year, 1910, Léger completed a major canvas, Nudes in the Forest, which explored these attitudes still further. Here Picasso's childlike forests and subhuman block figures of 1908 have been transformed into an even stranger environment in which three gigantic and animated figures are densely compressed in a landscape crowded with hills, bushes, and trees. If this expansive trinity of nudes in a natural setting resumes a great French classical motif popular at the turn of the century in masters like Cézanne, Matisse, and Derain, its interpretation of this theme is distinctly new and distinctly Léger's. The figures, who resemble art students' anatomical manikins, are composed of chunky, regularized

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V, III

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