Born in France, the son of a farmer, Fernand Léger believed that his art was for the working man, to offer a relief from the fast pace of modernity. His experiences in war shaped his oeuvre and can be seen in the subtlety of an expression or shape. In 1960, the Musée Fernand Léger was opened in Biot, Alpes-Maritimes, France, and is still open today.
The works on Art UK by Léger all date from after the First World War and are held in collections across the country, from Aberdeen to Cambridge and from Chichester to Birmingham.
Composition with Fruit at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts is not dissimilar to a large piece of a jigsaw puzzle standing tall, or part of a machine, proud to be alone. Form and line prove powerful in this relatively modest work.
Another example of a work centred on form is Nature morte avec un vase, held at Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums. It is an incredibly beautiful image; the lines are thinner than those in Composition with Fruit, creating a neater outcome. Nature morte avec un vase is a collage of thoughts and objects, the striking, deep beetroot-coloured vase dominates the painting, and focuses the eye.
Pallant House Gallery also holds a work by Léger, titled L’engrenage rouge (Nature morte en rouge et bleu). This is less classically beautiful than Nature morte avec un vase, but has more energy to it, the object in the centre of the image moves its spindly arms around tickling the objects on either side of it. There is a humour about this work. However, there is a dark side to Léger’s work and life.
In 1917, during his time served in the trenches in the First World War, he was gassed. These experiences had a profound effect on the way Léger saw society and how he chose to represent it through art. One of the first paintings he completed after his experiences was The Card Players, painted in 1917 (held at Kröller-Müller Museum). People are represented using tubular shapes, they are robotic and painted in cold colours; the image is cramped and reminiscent of the trenches.
Once you know a little more about Léger, it is not difficult to see the effects of war on his artwork. The stone-faced expressions of the women in his last masterpiece, Three Women (held at MoMA) and the cold metallic colours in The Card Players that stain the canvas and freeze the image, so strongly tell of the intense pain faced by Léger during the First World War.
Time and time again in his work we see industrial shapes and structures, and people treated in a machine aesthetic. The First World War could be seen to be Léger’s greatest influence on his art.
Léger also designed murals in collaboration with his friend, the architect Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier’s work, Still Life, painted in 1920 and now held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has great similarities to some of Léger’s work, in particular the lines and gradient colours.
In 1950 Léger suffered the loss of his wife, but remarried in 1952.
The painting owned by The Fitzwilliam Museum, Young Girl Holding a Flower, was made only one year before Léger passed away and not long after he remarried. The work seems bold but also has the same almost emotionless expression that the sitters in Three Women have.
Léger painted as though a machine could have stamped the clean lines of his work a hundred times over, yet little did he know that his name would be stamped all over the history books, as one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century.
Alice Payne, Art UK Senior Editor