“The Léger Legacy”
By Marcelin Pleynet
A retrospective for this Paris master at the International Galleries, Chicago, poses the question of his place in the modern tradition
The work of Fernand Léger was and remains problematical. I mean by this that in each of the periods that comprise it, as well as in its evolution, the contradictions which dominate and limit it remain even today more interesting than the classicizing qualities one could grant it. To paraphrase Apollinaire’s famous quip, I would say, “When I look at Léger, I am not very content.”
This characteristic disappointment which, on the level of criticism, gives the sketches, gouaches, series of versions of a single theme, drawings and studies a definite interest and essential place, this disappointing treatment of the problems inherent in the painting of our century, continually haunts the work of Léger. And in this respect, the recent small retrospective at the International Galleries in Chicago was significant. It was unfortunate that this show of about 60 works included none of the earliest ones (1905-07) which, at the start of Léger’s career, take up the representational function of traditional painting; Léger was in fact never to abandon it. It seems to me regrettable to place a Léger retrospective under the sign of the large Table and Fruit (1909) of the Minneapolis Art Institute: this is the same as situating Léger in the wake of Cézanne, which has already, and quite vainly, been attempted. Such an explanation accounts for only a few short years of the painter’s career (1910-14) and does so quite imperfectly: in excluding practically the entire oeuvre of the painter it finally explains nothing at all. On the contrary, it is the very first paintings (which are, nonetheless, a bit beyond student works) which should be allowed to speak; in these it is the cultivation and emphasizing of everything that links Impressionism to nineteenth-century academic painting that we should deduce, and never more so than when Léger attacks the questions raised by Cézanne. Table and Fruit dates from 1909; we mustn’t forget that Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in 1907, nor that Picasso finished the Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, which is also the year of Matisse’s Blue Nude and Braque’s Large Nude, if we are to understand how the most Cézannesque of Léger’s paintings falls short of the experiments of his contemporaries and of Cézanne himself, even though at various times Léger was to comment on the importance that Cézanne’s work had had for him, without ever succeeding in understanding its qualities. He wrote of Cézanne in a 1914 text titled Pictorial Realizations of Our Time: “In numerous paintings of Cézanne one can see, barely roughed in, that unquiet sensitivity to plastic contrasts. Unfortunately . . . his highly Impressionist milieu and his own times, so much less condensed and less desultory than our own, could not lead him to the concept of multiplicity: he felt it, but without understanding it. All his pictures are composed in front of the subject, and in his landscapes in which houses jostle each other clumsily among the trees, he had felt that the truth was there.” This misunderstanding of Cézanne through what Léger calls “plastic contrasts” (an interpretation which will continue to occupy a prominent place in his work) and shortly thereafter, through extra-pictorial preoccupations and justifications (mechano-modernism, the heritage of that depressing idea of progress so dear to the nineteenth-century thought)—all this was to lead Léger further and further away from the revelations of Cézanne, back to J.-L. David (Hommage à David) and to what Clement Greenberg calls “popular vignettes.”
What might be termed the “Cubist Misunderstanding” actually occupies, quantitatively and qualitatively, a very small place in Léger’s work, and can be situated around the year 1913, starting with the Contract of Forms series (which were represented in the International Galleries’ exhibition by six gouaches dating from 1912 to 1914). The unities of formal vocabulary which Léger used around this time, with figures shown as larger at the center and smaller and smaller at the edges, gradually imposed the look of Luca Cambiaso’s quasi-geometrical figure drawings, which of course have nothing to do with Cubism, and create a space in which volume regains its traditional function. The painter’s evolution toward a composition placed prominently in the center of the canvas is apparent in these six gouaches. The first Landscape (1912) covers a whole page with volumes of equal value, eliciting on a flat surface the narrow depth which the color implies, while already in the second Contrast of Forms (1913) the surface is organized and constructed around a vertical accordion-like figure (not unlike the one Brancusi used in his Endless Columns) placed squarely in the center. We shall find this format again, employed in a manner highly significant for the painter, in another gouache, Woman in an Interior (1914)—a female figure in a kitchen which the breaking off of geometrical planes establishes in a highly realistic fashion. I don’t mean of course that this series of gouaches is absolutely representative, chronologically, representative of Léger’s work during these three years: one could easily find pictures of 1912 in which the space is obviously much less properly Cubist than in the gouaches shown here, just as one could find works of 1914 which illustrate masterfully this same idea. It is none the less true that throughout his Contrasts of Forms series, throughout the problems and contradictions which arise for him and which he in fact resolves in the course of these three years, Léger’s evolution tends toward a centered construction defined in realistic fashion, within the space of the picture.
Everything which follows after and which gradually detaches itself from a formal vocabulary directly borrowed from Cézanne, everything that Léger henceforth will emphasize more and more, is thus conditioned by a misunderstanding of the implications of Cézanne and justified by theories whose anecdotalism is close to the theories of the Futurists. Whether in the series called Mechanical Elements (represented here by a minor painting of 1919); in the series built around the Grand Déjeuner (represented by an interesting Study for the Grand Déjeuner, 1919-20, and by The Red Blouse, 1922, in which one can and should observe a crucial aspect of Léger’s work—the objective game of formal displacements within a determined series: compare for example this Red Blouse with Woman Holding Flowers, another canvas of the same year, show at Louis Carré in 1945); whether in these series, or in the Profiles, or Keys (represented here by Dancers with Keys of 1929), or in the Compositions with Figure, which as early as 1932, fix Léger’s imagery definitively—we find in each “period” the same misunderstanding of formal problems. This misunderstanding is hidden (for the painter and for us) behind an emphasis on a self-styled objectivity of form as anecdotal destruction: a move which of course merely affirms, by disrupting, the anecdote it seeks to erase. A representative painter, a phenomenalist ultimately more interested in modernist sparkle than in the history of painting (“Modern life is so utterly unlike that of a hundred years ago, that contemporary art must be its total expression”—The Function of Painting), Léger was to understand Mondrian no more than he had understood Cézanne (“Modern life, tumultuous and rapid, dynamic and full of contrast, batters fiercely at this light, delicate edifice emerging from chaos”—ibid). And so he proceeds from the Composition with Parrots—inexpressive figures entirely conditioned by the volume they occupy in the indefinite space in which they float (the study for this composition shown at the International Galleries was, from this point of view, most illuminating)—to that regrettable period in his work of which a very good example is the Portrait of Maud Dale in the National Gallery, Washington.
If the International Galleries’ show was disappointing for not including any of Léger’s major works (except for loans which were already well-known; although, curiously, almost nothing from his American period of 1940-45 was included except for three quite routine drawings), it nonetheless gave us a whole series of canvases, gouaches, sketches and drawings which are still useful for understanding a problem which it will one day be necessary to examine in detail (and no doubt through Léger first of all) if we are to understand that mysterious something which has sterilized for almost 30 years what is vainly called the School of Paris.