Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, June 9, 2014

War Artist Fernand Léger

Léger in His Studio, Probably After the Great War

Fernand Léger (1881–1955) was an established French artist at the time war broke out. He had seen earlier national service and was recalled to the army in 1914 and was assigned to the Engineer Corps. He saw extensive service in the Argonne sector near Verdun for two years when he became a victim of mustard gas. His most famous war work, known as the "The Card Players" was created while he was recuperating. His style is described as a  naive, energetic modified form of cubism, with machine-like figures using flat tones of pure primary colors, black, white, and gray.

July 14, 1914
Last Work Before the Declaration of War

The Proof That the Man Descended from the Monkey, 1915

But how much of an effect did the war have on Léger? Any feelings of despair or cynicism provoked by first-hand contact with its carnage are markedly absent from the work. Léger was, in fact, invigorated by the contact with his “new companions” in the Engineer Corps—“the whole of the French people”. Then there was the “dazzling” sight of “the breech of a 75-millimetre gun which was standing uncovered in the sunlight: the magic of light on white metal.” World War One didn’t alter Léger’s take on the machine. If anything, it emboldened a sensibility already entranced by the machine’s regularity, precision, and power. Admittedly, a revived humanism did enter the work, if not always in imagery—Léger’s figures are always robots or symbols, never flesh-and-blood entities—then in spirit and reach. Compare Leger’s art with that of post-war contemporaries like Otto Dix, Max Ernst, or Max Beckmann, and Léger comes off as positively sunny. Not every artist who has experienced suffering has to suffer in the studio. Léger remained something of a utopian until the end of his days. You can’t help but think: More power to him.

Commentary by Mario Naves in his blog Too Much Art

The Card Party, 1917

The Plane Crash, ?

Léger consistently embraced an industrial style for the rest of his career. He took refuge 1940–45 in the USA, where he started to make compositions of divers, acrobats, and cyclists. Returning in 1945 to France, became a communist, and in his last years was active not only as a painter but as designer for the ballet and of polychrome sculpture in ceramic, mosaics, and stained glass. Léger died at Gif-sur-Yvette in 1955.

Disks, 1918
One of  Postwar "Disk" Series

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