The Heroic Object and Fernand Léger

Suppose the faithful Marmon or Velie, that’s been in the family for generations, breaks down in the hills above Figeac, and you coast into town and a helpful routier gives you a push into the one garage. Does the mechanic tell you to get rid of that piece of junk? Does he look in vain through his strictly up-to-date Motor Manual? Does he tell you he can’t fix it? He does not. He whistles through his teeth, rolls a cigarette, then asks you wistfully for an American cigarette, lights it with profuse thanks, opens the hood, detaches the dodecahedron polymerizer from the reciprocating cam, smiles brightly, says, “Ah, m’sieu, c’est la bonne chance, ce fait rien,” and proceeds to make another one, better than the first, using no manuals of any kind and only a pliers and a file.

There are not fifty million mechanics like him, but there are a considerable number, and if it weren’t for them France would not be in existence today, and would certainly not have survived the years since 1870. Léger is one of them. He is the man who knows what to do when it breaks, the man who can always make it go.

After the first painting of his apprentice days, he is always completely competent to the task at hand. He knows what he wants to do, and he does it with a machinist’s efficiency. It is possible that the tasks he has set himself are not the most complex in the history of painting, but each one is conceived with complete clarity and economy and finished with neatness and dispatch. In fact, it might well be said that Léger’s directness has bypassed all those problems of modern painting which are not immediately demonstrable as admitting a simple, rational solution, a manipulative rather than a mentalistic, verbal, expressive solution. It should not be forgotten, in these days when Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler rule the café terasses, that this used to be called the specific French genius. And, for that matter, even the bagarre of Saint-Germain is only a formalistic and Tedescan elaboration of attitudes always held in Puteaux or Saint-Denis.

The matter-of-fact competence in the face of life’s problems which the French common man has always had, must have or go under, did not need a name from the International Set. Everybody in France who doesn’t own five pairs of shoes has always been an existentialist. And so, if they want him, Léger is an existentialist painter. An existentialist of the means at hand. An existentialist without a capital E. Such were the men of the seventeenth century, who made the French spirit out of mathematical models and devices for tracing complex curves, over which the countesses and courtesans swooned in the salons. Such was Racine, expert campanologist of the heart strings, supremely efficient tear-jerker. Such was Rimbaud, the child who applied to decadence the efficiency of a future gunrunner.

We often forget that of the major Cubists, only Braque and Léger are French. Between them they divide the Gallic utterance of Cubism, soft and hard, feminine and masculine, ingenious and manipulative, the midinette and the mechanicien, the chef and the peasant. The rest of Cubism is international megalopolitan, except for Picasso’s Black Spain of blood and sand.

This is not idle impressionist, exhortative criticism. The qualities which I have mentioned literally overwhelm you in Léger’s comprehensive — better, definitive — show [the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1953]. In room after room the vast paintings take possession of you. You feel like a character in science fiction, a spectator at a congress of intelligent outsized instruments of precision. There is nothing abstract about these pictures. They are portraits of things, of a man, and of a people.

A lot of nonsense, very plastic, has been written and said about Léger, not least of all by himself. Nothing illustrates the fortuitous character of most critical “modern” seeing than the way in which he has been invested, and has been able to garb himself, with the whole panoply of the contemporary formal revolution, or revolutions. Léger is one of the few artists left who still talk about passéistes, Renaissance servility to Nature, “photographic realism,” the Greeks who could only copy anatomy. Actually, he is not a modern painter at all in the formal sense, but a man of the Renaissance, a composer of objects in representational space, and a Greek of the Greeks, or at least a Roman of the Romans, a painter of isolated human archetypes.

It shows in his first paintings: a portrait of his uncle, modeled up from a shallow indeterminate background with broken color, Pissarro applied to Carrière; a hillside in Corsica, ochre houses and terre verte trees piled up on a hillside like fruit heaped on a platter and seen from above, a problem and a solution which were to satisfy Waroquier for a lifetime. In both pictures the technique is that of an apprentice, but for all that, Léger is perfectly sure of himself even in his mistakes, and the surfaces are certainly modeled. When the uncle was new and the colors bright, he must have more than popped out of the picture.

The next pictures are in what is usually called the African period of Cubism, and it is at this point only that Léger actually joins Picasso and Braque. Nudes in the Forest is a minutely painted large canvas completely filled with cubes, tubes, cylinders, and cones of gunmetal blue. It takes Cézanne’s injunction literally. The forms of nature are reduced to their geometrical elements. But the elements are represented literally. There is no ambiguity, no interplay of forms. Compare it with Picabia’s Sacre du Printemps — probably the best picture any of them produced in this period (the Picassos and Braques are very disagreeable productions) — and you will see immediately what I mean. In the Picabia, a blaze of scarlet planes does define the dancers, but no plane stays in place, all weave back and forth, facets first of one form shaped by the attention, then of another. The Léger begins in Mantegna and ends in Wyndham Lewis, and never touches the world of Cubism at all.

Similarly in the heroic age of Cubism, the analytical period, only the appearance of the paintings of the other Cubists is echoed. The picture surface is completely fragmented into a flicker of values. But the flicker is not the result of the transparencies, interpenetrations, and plastic punning of the Guitar Players and portraits of Bass’s Ale and Le Journal; there is no attempt to create a saturation of space; it is simply filled up with a lot of little sharply rounded objects. Incidentally, the catalog says that the portrait of his uncle is the only representation of an actual person known in Léger’s oeuvre. If the people in Three Figures are not portraits, what are they? One is certainly Carco, the woman might be a caricature of Colette of those days, the other face is a masterpiece of portraiture. The grin, sardonic and jolly, even a little tipsy, is the sort of thing you find in self-portraits, but I think Léger had a mustache then.

All the paintings of the analytical period have the same character. The space is filled up, rather than saturated. The planes all stay in one place, the forms are sharply modeled, the “Cubism” itself is merely a geometrical schematization. This is a kind of popular Cubism, a mechanic’s idea of what the problem was. As such, it was far more successful than Picasso, Braque, Metzinger, or Gleizes with the public, at least the public of artists around the world. It spread to Italy to the Cubo-Futurists, to Russia, to Chicago to Rudolf Weisenborn, to England to Wyndham Lewis and Wadsworth and their friends. At its worst it died over the mirrors of a thousand Bar Modernes in the postwar (I) world.

Léger’s highly articulate remarks about his intentions in these days are very misleading. Of Woman in Blue he says, “I obtained rectangles of pure blue and pure red in painting the Woman in Blue.” So? Raphael obtained triangles of the same colors in the Madonna of the Meadow. Both painters modeled their forms in the same way, and, Léger to the contrary, “Passéiste” and Modernist, for the same ends, aesthetically speaking.

It is interesting to note that in the more ambitious analytical paintings Léger does seem to be bothered by the bas-relief, piled-up character of his space, and he does try to open it up and cut into it. But to do this he must paint representations of recessions — carved-out slices and corridors, and the steplike figure which from now on he will use again and again. He carries them over into a field in which no one else used them, the postwar period of plane Cubism, of Picasso’s Red Table Cloth, Braque’s Still Life with Head, and the finest work of Gris and Marcoussis, a period dominated by the theories of Gleizes.

The great Léger of these days is The City. It is, without doubt, a monumental picture, a landmark if not a milestone, in twentieth-century painting, and it is represented in the show by eight or ten different treatments, including the definitive and semi-definitive oils, and a number of closely related watercolor still lifes. Here at last we can see that Léger is not the Douanier of Cubism, he is not a naïf, a primitive. He knows precisely what he is doing. The earliest watercolors, and the painting, Composition, 1917-1918, 97 × 71½, are perfectly straightforward arrangements of planes in bas-relief, piled up toward the spectator — that is, the center plane is the nearest. There is some illusionist modeling, mostly in the oil, only a cylinder in the watercolors. There is a great deal of spiraling movement of form transversely, in the plane of the picture, and even some advance and retreat of planes, all achieved primarily by centrifugal patterning and color snap, by what were called non-illusionist means. They might have been painted by Gleizes in a lively moment.

But when it comes to the painting itself, the final form, all have been subtly altered. The colors are tied to the forms — local colors — the nearest plane is defined by a sharply modeled mauve column which cuts the picture in extreme and mean ratio; behind it two yellow planes recede in conventional perspective, planes of buildings, all brightly colored “for their own sake,” recede like stage sets. In the background is a ship; railed staircases lead back in a narrow corridor through the center of the picture, and down them, to complete the illusion, come two black, sharply modeled figures, relatives of the lay figures of Chirico. This may be Cubism but it is not the Cubism of Léger’s colleagues. It is the Cubism of Piero della Francesca, perhaps a little reduced. It is as though Léger had deliberately turned his back on the complexities of Gleizes and Gris as trivial.

Once again we have a rejection of the plastic subtleties of intellectual painters in favor of an approach capable of a wide measure of popularization. Out of the work of this period, especially the still lifes, was to come the Suprematism of Ozenfant, some of the Bauhaus painters, particularly Baumeister, and the whole cult of antiseptic modernity in popular art.

The City has already taken a long step in this direction. What city? Possibly a modernized Delft of Vermeer, certainly never the Faubourg St. Antoine, the Marais, or La Villette. This is the imaginary city of the movies and the urbanists.

For this reason alone I would prefer, of this period, Léger’s The Great Tug, a vaguely nautical Gleizes-like mass of colored planes which chooches and chugs through a schematized river landscape. Of course it is a complete contradiction. The “Neo-Cubism” of Léger’s colleagues set out to analyze exhaustively the picture area in terms of large planes of color, the surfaces of saturated color volumes, optically retreating and advancing in space. Now this is what Léger says he was doing too. But he was doing nothing of the sort. The tug, the central mass of colored planes, is an object, an abstract object, like a Calder, but representationally though simply painted, and it does not depend on the proportions of the frame directly. On the contrary, it floats in a space which differs little from the background of Piero’s Queen of Sheba.

Now come the mid-Twenties and Léger’s own revolution, “the reinstatement of the object.” In other words, he decided to admit what he had been doing all along, and stopped trying to make his paintings look even superficially like other people’s. For my taste, these are the best Légers until very recent years. They are completely individual. They look like nobody else, though lots of other painters try to look like them. And they achieve what Léger can do best, and achieve it superlatively — a wonderful objective immediacy of realization, a true neue-süchlichkeit — “Neo-realism” maybe, but the French already had a word for it — clarté. Boucher had a clear image like this of La Petite Morphi, as Chardin had of pots and pans, and Diderot of Louis XV, and Saint-Just of Louis XVI. This is the virtue that has kept France great, as once it made her strong.

This is the period of the heroic human figures, beginning with the Mechanic and the Three Women, including Woman with Book and The Readers. They have been called impersonal abstractions. But they are abstractions only in the sense that Hans and Fritz and Mama and the Captain are abstractions. They are perfect idealizations of universal French types. They have been compared to Poussin, but they are certainly very shallow Poussin. To me they look more like Roman funerary bas-relief, and they have the same archetypical character as the best Roman portraiture. After them come the medallion-like pictures of the late Twenties, most of them rather wittily, and certainly very originally, bifurcated. I like best The Mirror, and it is certainly typical, in its wit, its polish, its enormous self-confidence. Now the craftsman knows his craft by heart. It is his heart. His highest spiritual experience is the sense of absolute competence in the face of the problems of the conquest of matter. Cubism, and the problems of modern space architecture, are ignored completely. These are not even bas-reliefs, they are cameos.

So, the next period — of “free color,” by which Léger does not mean dissociated color moving as color volume, but just free color, applied as it struck his fancy; and “free form,” that is, painting built without a base, floating in air. In part, this latter development is a protest against Picasso, whose compositions all depend on their enormous specific gravity. But Léger’s forms do not really float in the “free space” of the space cadets and the Baroque ceilings. They revolve around a center, without top or bottom, like medals — still the same approach. Although the besetting has-relief is attacked by reducing much of the form to purely linear relationships, they are never the linear swoops and plunges of either Sesshu or Tiepolo. They are always exactly there where the painter put them. I think, curiously enough, the most successful is not the famous The Divers, but the quite simple Chinese Juggler.

During this period, too, Léger was developing his alphabet of human types. It was then he began — to work on it for nineteen years — his Three Musicians, three numeros from a bal musette, the Fourteenth of July on the Boulevard La Chapelle. It is an independently conceived and painted picture, but no one could miss the implied criticism of Picasso’s internationalized, déracinés, Ballet Russe ogres.

And this brings us to the culmination, paintings of pure human archetypes, very human, very pure, and very localized to a class and a land, as is Léger himself. In a way the accomplishment of Léger’s later life is not unlike that of William Butler Yeats, who was able to achieve in his old age a whole heroic mythos, the kind of an endowment only a Heroic Age gives most peoples, for the ungrateful Irish. Leisure, The Great Julie, The Chinese Juggler, and the rest are close to being Platonic Ideas of the French common people. If you doubt it, ponder Adam and Eve, represented as hero and heroine of the théâtre de foire, snake charmers, street performers such as you might see any sultry August, in a neighborhood place anywhere in France, the immortal parents of Little Remi, Vitalis, and their dogs and the monkey, Joli-Coeur.

And finally, there is the great picture, The Builders, on whose title and subject many philosophical and sociological speculations and reveries might be based. These are the builders of France, after another time, out of so many years of war, disorder, and betrayal. And plastically Léger has moved on a little. The space is deep and open, with interchanging diagonals. One is reminded of Signorelli, but a Signorelli in which all the figures are standing at attention. It may be Egypt applied to the High Renaissance. But neither Egypt nor the High Renaissance produced a great many more profoundly moving pictures of human beings.



This essay originally appeared in Art News (October 1953) and was reprinted in Bird in the Bush (New Directions, 1959). Copyright 1959. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays