Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures

Fernand Léger, 1881-1955 and Charlotte Perriand, 1903-1999 Essential Happiness, New Pleasures. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures presents a vibrant selection of the artist’s works, bringing some of these together for the first time in the UK. It is unusual to see so many of his paintings in one place. Often we encounter Légers work alongside other members of the French modernist canon; on bringing forty of his paintings together, the exhibition feels somewhat revelatory as if we are encountering his work for the first time. Léger’s use of colour is particular striking; strong, primary colours resonate throughout the distinct periods of his work presented here (colours which are echoed in the curators’ choice of wall colour for specific sections of the show).

The exhibition is not (nor is it intended to be) a comprehensive study of Léger’s work; its framing logic is the artist’s commitment to modernity and modern life in the early to mid- twentieth century. One reason for this fascination is offered through highlighting the artist’s engagement with politics. Léger was born into a modest farming family, and his interest in technological progress and modernisation is demonstrated in works as early as ‘The Disc’ (1918) and ‘The Tugboat’ (1920) through to his ‘Mechanical Ballet’ (1923-4) film and the mural for the Ministry of Agriculture Pavilion for the 1937 International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Paris – ‘Essential Happiness, New Pleasures’ – in which the Eiffel Tower overlooks an image of rural life. 

This wall-length mural is a surprising diversion within the exhibition. The 2011 reproduction offers an opportunity to see Léger’s collaborative working practices – the furniture designer Charlotte Perriand selected images for the mural and another close friend and collaborator, the architect Le Corbusier, is also present in this room through his ‘Study for a Contemporary Aesthetics with sketch for a monumental painting based on Fernand Léger’s “Composition with Three Figures”’ (1936). Le Corbusier’s ‘Still Life with Roots and Yellow Rope’ (1930) is later exhibited alongside similar Léger works. The inclusion of the mural also functions as a historical marker the context in which Léger worked; amongst images of the 1937 International Exhibition, we see both the Soviet Russian and German pavilions reminding us of the divergent international political ideologies in 1937. 

Although the machine – and its inevitable kin: work – hint at Léger’s fascination with urban life, he repeatedly returns to landscape and nature, through either combining still (modern) life with landscape, or a later post-war focus on nature as subject. After witnessing the use of new technologies during the war and the rise of fascism (Léger was exiled in the US during the occupation of Paris), nature as subject matter may have provided a welcome distraction for the artist. It was also in 1945, after returning to France, that Léger joined the Communist Party. Exhibited works suggest that Léger was not just referencing communism; he attempted to bridge the gap between art and daily life through, for example, his collaboration with Dan Fuller for mass-produced, cheaply available textiles.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, it appears that Léger was not interested in painting modern bourgeois life. Although stylistically his work belonged to the modern – the abstract and fragmented elements common to the Parisian avant-garde art of his earlier period – Léger’s choice of subject matter in the displayed paintings, books and films often draws from daily life; these are items recognisable to a broader public. The reference to these connections makes this a refreshing exhibition that attempts to strike a balance between Leger’s practice and the wider context in which he worked. 

Danielle Child is an art historian and Lecturer in Art History at Manchester School of Art. 

Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures is on at Tate Liverpool until 17 March 2019. 

Published 26.01.2019 by Sinead Nunes in Reviews

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