Painter Fernand Leger's Explorations A Modern Of Urban Machine-age Culture Were A Master Largely Upbeat Precursor To Pop Art.

March 02, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The instant appeal of Fernand Leger's art almost sabotages it. Its balloon-like people, its machine-age contraptions, its bright colors and general air of good humor make it suspect. It may appear superficial to those who think that in modern art, good means esoteric, confusing and anxiety-ridden.

As the excellent retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art shows, though, Leger's images may be lighthearted, but they're not lightweight. Collectively, and sometimes individually, they act almost as maps of the territory of modernism.

This is the first major Leger retrospective in America for 45 years, and high time, too. Leger, a French painter who lived from 1881 to 1955, is generally recognized as one of the greatest artists of the first half of the 20th century. He created works of broad appeal that also explore issues central to 20th-century art.

Take the 1921 masterpiece "Three Women," for instance. The century's enduring discourse between the forces of abstraction and representation are nowhere better summed up. Three women gather around a large sofa enjoying food and drink in front of a background wall that's painted as a geometric abstraction.

But Leger takes the discussion further than that. Situated between the basically realistic table and the objects on it in the foreground, and the abstraction behind, the three women act as mediators displaying elements of both. In their stylized bodies, kneecaps become circles and breasts become spheres; forearms are cones and necks are cylinders. Leger reduces the organic to its geometric essentials, smoothly bridging any imagined gap between representationalism and abstraction.

There's also a dialogue between innovation and tradition. Even to today's eyes, this 77-year-old picture looks thoroughly modern. But its elements are the very stuff of tradition - the domestic interior, the incident from everyday life (known as the genre scene), the reclining nude, the still life of table with objects on it. Leger has taken not one but four traditional art subjects and brought them all up to date at once.

And there's an undercurrent here, as elsewhere in Leger's work, of dialogue between the classical and the romantic traditions. Typically, the symmetrical and static are elements of the classical; the asymmetrical and dynamic are elements of the romantic. But Leger's mature work often balances the asymmetrical and the static, the first quality providing tension and the second monumentality.

The static monumentality of a Leger results from the careful ordering of everyday objects. In "Composition with Hand and Hats" (1927), the furniture of an ordinary life - hats, a pipe, what appears to be a stylized typewriter, spoons, playing cards, liquor or wine bottles - have been organized into a design of exquisite balance and resolution that gives them heightened importance. Thus Leger raises popular culture to the level of high art.

Leger's admirers have drawn connections between his work and many of the 20th century's movements and even individual artists. He has been associated with cubism at the beginning of the century, abstract expressionism at the middle, and recent artists including Frank Stella and Brice Marden. Above all, he has been seen as anticipating pop art with his use of elements of popular culture, urban modernity and machine-age products.

But there's an essential difference between Leger's art and pop. Pop art is often interpreted as satirical or ironic in its presentation of popular culture as high art. Leger's "pop" sprang from a commitment to make his work accessible to the working class. He gained immense respect for ordinary working people while serving in the army with them during the First World War. And this war experience transformed his art from a rather precious form of cubist-based abstraction into the mature style that he reached only in his late 30s.

A native of Normandy, he was born in 1881 (the same year as Picasso) and, as a teen-ager, became an architect's apprentice before going on to study in Paris with academic painters, including Jean-Leon Gerome. In 1908 he destroyed most of his early, impressionist-influenced work and soon entered a not entirely successful cubist period.

With his "Contrast of Forms" series of 1913-1914, he carried cubism to the point of abstraction. But he soon retreated to more representational work, such as "Exit from the Ballets Russes" (1914), whose cone-shaped figures are faintly ridiculous. Leger entered the war as an artist still in search of a style. The war left him little time for art, but he matured immensely during the next four years.

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