1881 – 1955
In 1972, Wally Findlay Galleries held an important exhibition of thirty museum quality gouaches by Fernand Léger from his late period (1945 to 1955). The exhibition was especially significant, for the works were being exhibited in the United States for the first time. This biography of Léger is taken from the catalogue for that monumental exhibition.
The vigor and inventiveness that characterized Léger’s work until his death, the compositions – spontaneous and floating in air – reflect his lifelong interest in form, space and light. Many of the subjects synonymous with his art are evident: machines, bicycles, figures, flowers, musicians, railway wheels – always majestic, though impersonal automatons. They were executed as projects for some of his notable murals, stained glass windows, sculpture and large paintings.
The dynamic phase of Fernand Léger’s work began about 1917 during the period of cubism. While his friends – Braque, Picasso and Gris – chose such familiar objects as playing cards, a packet of tobacco, newspapers and drinking themes for creation, Léger used objects invented and constructed by industrial civilization: railway wheels, cogs and tugs. He introduced human figures – workers, acrobats and signalmen – into his mechanical universe.
Up until 1921 figures were part of his compositions as machines, themselves devoid of humanity. From 1921 on, however, the human figure dominated his works, but it still appeared as an automaton. His love for the beauty of machinery had no boundary. In the years that followed, his desire for stability and purity was accentuated, and he returned to still life, executed murals, decorative, frankly abstract paintings which permitted him to liberate color from form. After this abstract and constructive period Léger painted the series of works known as Objects in Space in which unrelated objects were scattered in an artificial space. This series led logically to Figures in Space.
His escape from the advancing Germans led him to Marseilles where, inspired by dockers swimming in the port, he created his series of The Swimmers. During World War II, Fernand Léger lived in the United States, settling in New York in 1940. His series during this period of refuge, known as his American Works include The Dancers and The Acrobats. Returning to France in 1945 he embarked on his famous Leisure series, dwelling on popular amusements.
Evidence of Léger’s bold experiments with techniques other than painting can be found in his decorations for the Chapel of Assy (1946), the Bastogne memorial (1950), stained glass windows for the churches at Audincourt (1951) and Courfaivre (1954) and the hospital at Saint-Lo (1954-1955). He also did illustrations, tapestries, polychrome sculpture and ceramics (1950-1955) which were made at Boit, where the museum, which bears his name, was later built.
Fernand Léger belongs to his time; he spoke the language of his period. No art is more different from traditional art than his. He never entered a museum, he never copied. With him everything was new: the form, the space, the colors. He deliberately ignored the culture and disciplines which had preceded him. He was at ease everywhere; in the street, in the fields, in the factory, everywhere there is life. And it is precisely because he belongs so much to his period and his country that he created work with a lasting and universal character.