Form, Colour, Light

Artist: Fernand Léger
Born: 4 February 1881, Argentan, France
Nationality: French
Died: 17 August 1955, Gif-sur-Yvette, France

Fernand Léger

Léger built his reputation as a Cubist but his style varied from decade to decade between figuration and abstraction and showing a wide range of influential sources. He worked in a variety of media including paint, film, ceramic, theatre and dance sets, print, glass, and book arts. Despite his style variations, his work was consistently graphic with a leaning towards primary colours, pattern, and bold shape and form.

Nudes in the Forest by Fernand Léger, 1909-10. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Muller State Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

Retaining the interest of portraying illusion in three-dimensions, Léger embraced the Cubist concept of fracturing objects into geometric shapes. His unique form of Cubism is distinguished by his focus on cylindrical form and robot-like human figures expressing a harmony between human and machine. Léger expressed the noise, dynamism, and peed of new technology and machinery creating a sense of movement and the optimism of pre-World War I. By embracing subject matter and the illusion of three dimensions with abstraction and non-representation Leger synchronises the competing dualities of 20th century art.

The City by Fernand Léger, 1919. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA

Born in rural Normandy, Léger was raised to take up a valuable trade. While he wasn’t encouraged to be an artist, he showed a talent for drawing and was sent to apprentice an architect in Caen. In 1903, after finishing his military training, he studied at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs and Académie Julian in Paris. During this time he supported himself doing architectural drawings and retouching photographs.

La Joconde aux Cles by Fernand Léger, 1930. Oil on canvas. Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot, France

Léger moved to Montparnasse in 1909 and painted early Cubist works, including Le Compotier sur la Table. He had met Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Rousseau but his closest friends were writers Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars. Léger exhibited at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants achieving recognition as a major Cubist artist, in particular for Nides in the Forest. He continued exhibiting at the Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne until 1914 when he was drafted. He returned in 1916 with a head injury resulting from being gassed at Verdun. His experience during the First World War fuelled his interest in the human form.

The Constructors by Fernand Léger, 1950. Oil on canvas. Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot, France

Léger married Jeanne-Augustine Lohy in 1920, and in the same year he met Le Corbusier with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. He aligned closely with Le Corbusier’s circle who shared his interest in machinery and depictions of speed and motion. In the 1920s, Léger branched out into other methods and styles of creative expression including illustrated books, theatre sets, costumes for theatre and ballet productions and in 1924 he made the film Ballet Mechanique.

Les Grand Plongeurs Noirs by Fernand Léger, 1944. Oil on canvas. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France

During the 1920s and 1930s Léger’s subject matter reflected his interest in social equality. He was part of the Interwar Classicism movement, during this time he began several series of paintings that have been called cycles which show different groups of men in action such as cyclists, divers, and construction workers. He often combined these works with his interest in painting technology and machinery.

Le Grand Déjeuner by Fernand Léger, 1921. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

Léger visited the USA in 1931 and relocated to New York City to escape the Second World war. Between 1940-45 He administered a series of lectures at Yale University called ‘Colour of Architecture’ and is recognised as an influence on New York School painters. Léger returned to France in 1945 and joined the Communist Party. In 1950 his wife died and in 1952 he married Nadia Khodossevitch. Increasingly, Léger became more interested in large-scale public art and created mosaics, stained glass windows, and murals in Europe and South America until his death in 1955

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