Retrospective

From the Archives: Henry Geldzahler on the Late Work of Fernand Léger, in 1962

Fernand Léger, La Partie de campagne (Deuxième état), 1953.

© CENTRE POMPIDOU, MNAM-CCI/SERVICE DE LA DOCUMENTATION PHOTOGRAPHIQUE DU MNAM/DIST. RMN-GP
© ADAGP, PARIS, 2017

On the occasion of the 1962 exhibition “Fernand Léger: Five Themes and Variations” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the curator Henry Geldzahler penned the following essay, which describes the painter, who died in 1955 at the age of 74, as a “sentimental Communist” whose “goal was to reach the worker and teach him the beauty of his world” and examined how he continually revisited specific themes in his work, particularly later in his career. Free-flowing and a touch eccentric, the piece by Geldzahler (who was then 26 and working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) features lines like “His art does not endear itself through compromise, but wins by its indifferent, naked presence” and includes a lengthy excerpt of a 1923 lecture by Léger, in which the artist recounts watching workers (among them a “sixteen-year old urchin, with fire-red hair”) examine art. Originally published in the March 1962 issue of ARTnews, the article is being reprinted on the occasion of “Fernand Léger: Beauty Is Everywhere,” which runs at the Centre Pompidou–Metz in France through October 30. The Guggenheim has more material about its 1962 show, including a digitized film of the opening, which sports appearances from Adlai Stevenson, Madame Alphand, and many nattily dressed guests. —Andrew Russeth

The Late Léger: Parades of Variations
By Henry Geldzahler
March 1962

The Guggenheim Museum exhibition emphasizes how this master modern kept returning with dogged inspiration to his great themes.

The late works (1940–55) of Léger are on view at the Guggenheim Museum. The exhibition includes the major transportable pictures of these years (that is, no murals) and presents a comprehensive view of his achievement at the end of his career.

Fernand Léger, Les constructeurs (état définitif), 1950.

© RMN-GRAND PALAIS (MUSÉE FERNAND LÉGER) / GÉRARD BLOT © ADAGP, PARIS, 2017

The exhibition breaks Léger’s late work down into five major themes, each with a great many preparatory drawings and paintings and each with a culminating statement, l’etat définitif. The five major themes are The Divers, 1944; Leisures, Homage to J.-L. David, 1948–49; The Constructors, 1950; The Country Outing, 1954; The Parade, 1954. The dates are those of the definitive stages.

It is characteristic of Léger’s working methods that the execution of the état définitif did not signal the end of his interest in a theme; just as Picasso was still producing “studies for” Guernica in 1938, so Léger continues with his themes after the culminating statement, with less passion perhaps than Picasso, but with greater doggedness. Léger’s treatment of his themes has a stolid, flat-footed grace, a slow but inevitable elegance that pleases not quickly but eventually. His art does not endear itself through compromise, but wins by its indifferent, naked presence; it won’t be ignored.

Just as Léger is loth to give up a theme once he is on to it, so also the themes themselves are built up slowly; there is a 1943 drawing for The Country Outing, the état définitif of which is 1954; and The Parade, état définitif, 1954, is first sketched in 1940. Even here we can move farther back for the origin of a theme, for the three figures to the left of the Parade, as in the 1940 sketch, evolve from Three Musicians, 1925–44 (in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art); itself, perhaps, a competition piece with Picasso’s several Three Musicians.

Fernand Léger, Étude pour ‘Les Constructeurs’: l’équipe au repos, 1950.

© ADAGP, PARIS 2017

Then, too, the themes cross over with fugue-like seriousness; thus, we get cyclists from Leisures, Homage to J.-L. David in a 1950 study for The Constructors, and in 1955 a reclining woman, reading, with a bird at her feet (not in the show) combining themes from the early ‘20s with the ‘50s. It would seem then that these thematic elements have little specific meaning; they can be torn from their contexts and interchanged without embarrassment. If these elements, the woman reading, the woman with a bird, the cyclist, the blasted tree, have little specific meaning, the meaning they do have, in the context of Léger’s work, is all the greater; they are constant formal elements which are arranged, changed and rearranged in the elegiac formal compositions with which Léger was always experimenting. In one painting they are stage center, in another subsidiary, for, in the final analysis Léger strove for visual rather than thematic clarity. And while these themes have no specific meaning, they have constant and abstracted meaning, the women are generalized and stand for Woman at Rest, the builders are Man Creating His Environment, and if all this seems heavy and overserious, it is Léger, and we must contend with it.

We talk of the heaviness of Léger, his plodding quality, and yet the sense of beauty is there and cannot be missed. We feel his wonder at the beauty of the mechanized world, not the speed and destruction that the Futurists saw, but the cold durability, its geometrical presence. In 1923 Léger writes an address to the Collège de France:

“I shall always recall the year when I installed the Autumn Salon and was fortunate enough to be next to the Aviation Show which was about to open. Through the partitions I could hear the hammer and songs of the mechanics. Although accustomed to these shows I had never before been so much impressed. Never had so brutal a contrast confronted me. I passed from enormous dull grey surfaces, pretentious in their frames, to beautiful metallic objects, hard, useful, with pure colors, to steel with its infinite varieties, with its play of vermillion and blues. The geometric power of forms dominated all.

“The mechanics saw me pass, they knew that they had artists for neighbors and in their turn they asked permission to see the show; and these good fellows who had never seen an exhibition of pictures in their lives, who were uncorrupted, who had been reared close to the first beauty of materials, fell into ecstasies before works which I shall not trouble to mention.

“I shall always see a sixteen-year old urchin, with fire-red hair, a new jacket of bright blue, orange trousers and his hand stained with Prussian blue, gazing enraptured on the nude women in their gilt frames, not having the slightest suspicion that with his modern workman’s clothes, blazing with colors, he literally killed the Salon: there remained on the walls only vaporous shadows in old-fashioned frames. This dazzling boy, who had the look of having been brought forth by an agricultural machine, was the symbol of the exposition next door, of the life of tomorrow, when prejudice shall be destroyed, when finally all the world shall see clearly and the Beauty of the true artisan and of the true artist shall be released.”

Fernand Léger, Les Loisirs-Hommage à Louis David, 1948–49.

© CENTRE POMPIDOU, MNAM-CCI/JEAN-FRANÇOIS TOMASIAN/DIST. RMN-GP
© ADAGP, PARIS, 2016

It is necessary to quote this long, exhilarated statement, this romantic evocation of the “hammer and songs of the mechanics,” this equivalence of the stark beauty of the machine with the forward march of history, for, better than the oft-quoted sentence about the beauty of the cannon’s glinting steel, it describes the grandeur and the limits of Léger’s vision. The Rousseauian natural boy confronted with the original sin of Art: the tabula rasa boy of the American Dream, himself the audience for which Léger yearns, is transfixed before the grey salon nude that Léger detests. Léger, the sentimental Communist, wants his subject matter and his audience to be identical. His theme is the beauty of mechanized life, but his audience, dehumanized, is a victim to the sentimentality that Léger strives to destroy. Much later, in the early ‘fifties, Léger wrote of having installed The Constructors in the Renault factory and of the worker’s comment he overheard, “Those fellows will never be able to work with hands like that,” and of his profound disappointment with their reaction. Léger’s art was programmatic and his goal was to reach the worker and teach him the beauty of his world. The irony is that he reached instead the bourgeoisie who have the leisure to permit themselves to admire the vision and beautiful of a mechanized world.

Fernand Léger, Les trois musiciens, 1930.

© VON DER HEYDT-MUSEUM WUPPERTAL / PHOTO: MEDIENZENTRUM, ANTJE ZEIS-LOI
© ADAGP, PARIS, 2017

Léger’s work continues to look modern, even contemporary in the way that Matisse’s late work is so relevant today. There is modern art that doesn’t look so immediate. When we think of Braque we imagine a painting in greys and browns in a conventional space, looking quite comfortable in an old master frame. Léger’s most impressive work of the last years is open, and lateral, the space tends to read up and down and sideways, rather than in and out, and in the 1954 Country Outing, the dissociation of form and color has reached the point where it is tempting to ready away the drawing in black paint; we are left with an abstract composition of blocks and curving rectangles of pure color that looks remarkably like the work of the younger American painters. Léger remains relevant to an audience other than the one he intended to reach.

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