Fernand Léger 1881 - 1955
One of the most intriguing things about Fernand Léger is that he made it his mission to make sure his works were accessible to all members of the public from any class. His simplistic but striking works, therefore, act as a precursor to Pop Art, a movement that would follow years later. The works focus on turning social realism and the norms of modern life into interesting and engaging subjects. Léger himself came from humble beginnings, being born into a peasant family in a small town in Normandy, France. After a fairly uneventful childhood spent in the countryside, Léger undertook a two-year apprenticeship in an architect’s office in Caen. This would be the first step in his quest to Paris, the artistic hub of the world. Arriving in 1900, Léger continued working as an architectural draftsman and also as a retoucher of photographs.
Unsatisfied with his work as a draughtsman, he decided to enrol in the Paris School of Decorative Arts in 1903. Despite failing to get into the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Léger began to study under two of its professors as an unofficial pupil. He took this time to develop his own style and hone his artistic knowledge. He was also largely influenced by a retrospective of Paul Cézanne’s work at the Salon D’Automne of 1907.
'Man needs colour to live. It’s just as necessary
an element as fire and water.'
By 1908, Léger was renting a studio in La Ruche (“the beehive”), which was an artistic settlement on the edge of Montparnasse and was a hub for the avant-garde. Here, he met Robert Delaunay, Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine among sculptors and poets. It was through the poets that Léger gained a connection with the Cubist movement. Many of the poets were close friends of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque; the fathers of Cubism. Léger had been painting in a style that blended Impressionism and Fauvism. Under this new urban environment, though, he became more attracted to Cubism. Léger adapted the techniques of Braque and Picasso by breaking down their flat forms into tubular shapes. As a result of this, his work was aptly nicknamed, “Tubism”.
By 1913, Léger was painting a series of abstract studies in an effort to illustrate his theory that, in order to achieve the strongest pictorial effect, one must juxtapose contrasts of colour, line, and shape. He explained this idea further, in a lecture, that the modern world should welcome new industry and technologies, such as colourful billboards in sleepy landscapes; reinforcing the idea that contrast and juxtaposition should be, and would become, an enriching force in modern popular culture.
'Above all, it is a matter of loving art, not understanding it.'
During the First World War, Léger fought as a military engineer on the Frontline. Meeting many soldiers, he realised how inaccessible art was to the working class and made it his quest to create accessible art. At the time, his interest in cylindrical shapes continued, which was perhaps influenced by the shapes found in the weaponry he was handling. After being gassed at the Battle of Verdun, Léger was hospitalised for a long period and finally released from the army in 1917.
After the war, Léger transitioned into what is known as ‘the mechanical period’ of his work. It was characterized by a fascination with motors, gears, bearings, furnaces and factory interiors. He attempted to depict the beauty of urban life by portraying humans as geometric and mechanised figures, their environments mechanised also. By the mid 20s, Léger was associated with the formalist movement Purism. It was an attempt to strip Cubism of its decorative aspects. Consequently, Léger adopted flatter colours with bold black outlines. From this point on, his work was mostly figurative and during the Second World War period, he began to draw figures in grey and black.
After the Second World War, Léger experimented more with more materials, including film, photography and set design. In so doing he learned to create mosaics and stained-glass windows. He even referred back to his young self’s apprenticeship days, becoming fascinated by the relationship between colour and architecture.
In 1945, Léger joined the French Communist Party and during the last years of his life he created more of his major paintings that depicted leisure activities of working-class people in an attempt to appeal to the wider general public. Unfortunately, however, they never achieved wide popularity. Few art artists accepted the industrial revolution like Léger did over his long and consistent career. Today at Biot, in Southern France, a museum is dedicated to his work.