French painter and designer, born at Argentan in Normandy in 1881; died in 1955. Though he was of peasant stock and left the soil to follow his irresistible vocation, nobody remained more faithful to his humble origins than this robust, simple, generous man, this artist gifted with powerful instinct and unfailing good sense. In 1897 he became an apprentice in an architect's office in Caen. He went to Paris in 1900, did his military service at Versailles, and after a short spell in the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, settled at La Ruche in 1905. He was first influenced by Cézanne. He met Picasso and Braque in 1910. He had just shown his Nudes in the Forest in the Salon des Indépendants. In the following year he joined with Gleizes, Delaunay and Metzinger in the first Cubist exhibition in the same Salon. Between 1912 and 1914 Léger had painted objects reduced to their geometrical form -- cones, cylinders, polyhedrons; the dynamic phase of his work began about 1917.
Léger enlisted in the army and served as a sapper in the front line, then as a stretcherbearer. The war was 'a complete revelation to me as a man and a painter'. It enlarged his outlook by bringing him into contact with people from different social classes and walks of life and also by underlining his feeling for the beauty of machinery: 'During those four war years I was abruptly thrust into a reality which was both blinding and new. When I left Paris my style was thoroughly abstract . . . Suddenly, and without any break, I found myself on a level with the whole of the French people; my new companions in the Engineer Corps were miners, navvies, workers in wood. Among them I discovered the French people. At the same time I was dazzled by the breech of a 74-millimetre gun which was standing uncovered in the sunshine: the magic of light on white metal. This was enough to make me forget the abstract art of 1912-13 . . . Once I had got my teeth into that sort of reality I never let go of objects again.' After being gassed, he spent more than a year in hospital and was discharged in 1917. In that year he painted Soldiers Playing at Cards (Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller), which he regarded as 'the first picture in which I deliberately took my subject from our own epoch'.
He renewed his inspiration and choice of subjects from what he saw about him. While his friends -such as Braque, Picasso and Gris -- chose such familiar objects as playing-cards, a packet of tobacco, newspapers and drinking-glasses as themes for creation, Léger used objects invented and constructed by industrial civilization: railway wheels, cogs and tugs. He introduced human figures, workers, acrobats, Negro chauffeurs and signalmen into his mechanical universe. He painted Discs, The Town and Man with Wheel. Broad planes and large areas of colour create rhythm and space in these pictures, which have the impersonal precision of machines. But these various elements are not arranged in a naturalist manner: that is to say, in combining them Léger had no intention of reproducing some aspect of reality. His works are images proceeding from direct experience, immediate sensation, stark, evident, familiar, banal reality, which we see every day without really seeing it because the veil of fiction intervenes between it and us. Up to 1921 the people he fits into his composition only form accessory elementssimple fragments of architecture, cogs of machines, machines themselves -- and are, therefore, devoid of humanity, physiognomy and name. From 1921 on, however, the human figure begins to dominate in his pictures, but it still appears as an automaton or puppet. Léger seemed to renounce movement in favour of a static art. His immobile forms, his machines in masses in repose. Up to 1924 he constructed a monumental art, peopled with proletarian gods, with a mythology both strange and common, unusual and concrete, majestic yet vulgar. Such famous canvases as Fisherman, Women Holding Flowers, Man with Sweater, Woman with Vase date from this period.
In the years that followed, his desire for stability and purity was accentuated, he returned to still life, executed mural, decorative, frankly abstract paintings which permitted him to liberate colour from form, to discover the value of coloured surfaces in modern construction. To create space with colour was perhaps the problem which most occupied Léger from then onwards. Already, in his Woman in Blue ( 1909), he felt it, and then, in The Town ( 1919), he clearly enunciated it. From 1924 to 1926 he brought out convincing solutions which he developed later in some still more important works: Sports ( Brussels Exhibition, 1935) and Transport of Forces (Palais de la Découverte in Paris, 1937). Since then it is no exaggeration to say that Léger's entire production was conceived in relation to a wall: whether real or imaginary, does not matter. What is important is that mural painting has a deep connection with the social life and aspirations of humanity.
After this abstract and constructive period Léger painted the series of pictures known under the generic title of Objects in Space, in which architectural elements are replaced by scattered objects, then the series of Contrasted Rhythms, Divers and American Works; he also produced paintings, tapestries, mosaics and ceramics. In spite of this, however, he always thought, while working, of the conditions of modern life, made up of violent contrasts, tumult, speed and tension; he always dreamed of the monument, the surroundings, the décor, the new space in which we are obliged to move. Léger never suggested this new space by colours alone but also by forms and their contrasts. Everything is contrasted in his art. There is a contrast of motifs: of flowers and mechanical elements, a figure and a bunch of keys. There is a contrast of lines: a step and a wheel, a disc and a chessboard. There is a contrast of rhythms: a tree-trunk and a dancer, a thick plank and a rotating screw. The oddest objects find themselves united: the most static forms with the most dynamic. Léger only needed to intervene to arrange the most unexpected things, the most trivial and absurd, for them to acquire all the force and strength of truth. Léger belongs to his time; he speaks the language of his period. No art is more different from traditional art than his. He never entered a museum, he never copied, even in his early days, a picture by some Florentine or Flemish master. With him everything is new: the form, the space, the colours. He deliberately ignores the cultures and disciplines which have preceded him; he is at his ease everywhere: in the street, in the fields, in the factory, everywhere there is life. And it is precisely because he belonged so much to his period and his country that he created work with a lasting and universal character.
He was a decorator as well as a painter. The costumes and décors which he executed in 1921 and 1922 for the Swedish Ballet (Skating Rink, La Création du Monde) have enriched theatrical art. In 1924 he created the first film without scenario: Le Ballet Mécanique, a kind of poem of pure movement. He created monumental ceramics, tapestries, mosaics (the church of Assy), and his stained glass for the church of Audincourt is one of the masterpieces of our time. No one has more profoundly marked his period than Fernand Léger, or in more diverse domains. And yet his fame has only lately been widely recognized. It is only today that we see him in all his grandeur. One wonders why this has been so. After the revolutions which have succeeded one another since Cézanne's time, total liberty has come to mean misunderstanding, uncertainty and unreasonableness. But in Léger's work our age has found a justification and a rallying-point. In a world of subtle analyses, of abstract ideas, acquired cultures, Léger is perhaps the only artist who has been a man among men, neither proud nor sad nor complicated. Would he have been less great if he had been more refined, less sure of his force and his instinct? He was a labourer of painting -- a labourer gifted with genius. He was probably the only painter who neither took nor borrowed anything from anyone (with the exception of Cèzanne, who influenced him at first). Themes, forms, colours, composition -- he drew everything from the depths of his own being. He was the most modern of painters in the sense that he went beyond his own time and that his raison d'être lay in the future, not in the past. He invented a form, a space, a colour range, without rejecting the world; and he respected the beings and the things among which he had to live. And at last he brought us something new. Where can one find the unyielding labour of the working man or the peasant, the rhythmic chant of the machine, the hearty fraternity of the factory, the simple joy of picnics, if not in Léger's work? But everyday existence is recalled only by a strict language of lines, forms and colours, a direct and living language which is joined by the inner road of the mind to that of the great civilizations of the past. His Divers could easily mix with the dancers in Tarquinia's tomb. One can imagine his Adams and his Eves on the tympanum of a Romanesque church, his mechanics by the side of Uccello's armed men. And yet there is no trace of archaism in his painting, no references to history or to literature. Neither mystic nor lyric and still less Romantic, Fernand Léger was compound of the virtues -- order, generosity, honesty, integrity and health. The American critic James Johnson Sweeney has called him the Primitive of modern times. That he was also the Classic is equally certain.