Leger's Modernism

Article excerpt

If pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has necessitated it. The existence of modern creative people is much more intense and more complex than that of people in earlier centuries. The thing that is imagined is less fixed, the object exposes itself less than it did formerly.... The view, through the door of the railroad car or the automobile windshield, in combination with the speed, has altered the habitual look of things.... The compression of the modern picture, its variety, its breaking up of forms, are the result of all this.

--Fernand Leger, 1914

I once had a student who wrote a term paper in which he compared the forms in Fernand Leger's Three Women (1921), in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, with the forms of the engine room of the Navy submarine in which he had served during the Korean war. While older and with more experience of the world than the other undergraduates I was then teaching, this student was new to the mysteries of modern painting. Mine was the first art--history course he had ever signed up for, and he had never before entered an art museum before I assigned the class to study certain pictures at the Museum of Modern Art--not slides or other reproductions but the actual paintings--as a preliminary to reading anything about them. His reaction to Leger was instant and electric. He seemed to understand everything about the painting, including its humor.

One of the things that was interesting about this response to Leger was its relation to the student's wartime experience. For there was no way, in that early stage of his study of modern painting, that he could have known of the role that Leger's own military experience in the First World War had played in the development of his art. About the effect of that experience on his artistic thought, Leger was nothing if not explicit and unequivocal. "During those four war years" he later recalled,

   I was abruptly thrust into a reality which was both blinding and new. When
   I left Paris my style was thoroughly abstract: period of pictorial
   liberation. Suddenly, and without any break, I found myself on a level with
   the whole of the French people; my new companions in the Engineer Corps
   were miners, navvies, workers in metal and wood. Among them I discovered
   the French people. At the same time I was dazzled by the breech of a
   75-millimetre gun which was standing uncovered in the sunlight: the magic
   of light on white metal. This was enough to make me forget the abstract art
   of 1912-13. A complete revelation to me, both as a man and as a painter....
   Once I got my teeth into that sort of reality I never let go of objects

It was not that Leger was ever inclined to glorify the violence of the war. Whatever his affinities with the Futurists in other respects, he did not share their cult of violence. Nor, for that matter, was his conversion to a modernism based on machine forms quite as sudden, perhaps, as his later account of it implies. He had, after all, reflected on the way machine technology had "altered the look of things" in 1914, prior to his wartime encounter with "the magic of light on white metal," and the abstract paintings he produced in the Contrast of Forms series in 1913 had already infused the Cubist aesthetic with a machinelike dynamism quite unlike anything to be found in Picasso or Braque.

Yet what John Golding has written about the effect of the war on Leger's artistic thought--that "no other artist of his generation was to extract such positive conclusions from its squalor and horror"--is certainly true. Leger came out of the war with a clear conviction that modern technology, both as an experience to be encompassed in art and as a determinant of its pictorial form, had something important to contribute to modern painting, and it was upon that conviction that all of his subsequent achievements were based. …