MoMA Gives Fernand Léger the Exhibition He Deserves

In the summer of 1918, after receiving a medical discharge from the French army in which he served in World War I-he had recently been diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis-Fernand Léger visited the home of Claude Monet at Giverny. The younger artist, already a confirmed votary of the Cubist school that was in revolt against Impressionism-Paul Cézanne, not Monet, was the god of the Cubists-did not find Monet’s famous water garden much to his taste. He pronounced it, not surprisingly, ” trop impressioniste “-in other words, far too Impressionist. To his dealer, Léonce Rosenberg, Léger afterward remarked, “A vegetable garden is better constructed than a flower garden, and more brightly colored.”

Now whatever this remark may be worth as a critical assessment of Monet’s garden, it is a pronouncement that has much to tell us about Léger himself-about his down-to-earth tastes as a man, and about an affinity for clearly articulated structures and vivid saturations of pure color in his painting. It may also have something to tell us about his deadpan humor. These were to be the governing characteristics of Léger’s painting for the remaining decades of his career. He died in 1955 at the age of 74.

It was just before his passing-in 1953-that New York last saw a major exhibition of Léger’s paintings. It took place at the Museum of Modern Art, where Carolyn Lanchner has now-almost half a century later-organized in Fernand Léger an exhibition consisting of some 60-odd paintings and more than 20 drawings. Why it has taken so long for New York to be given a Léger exhibition is a subject about which we can only speculate. I doubt if I am alone in feeling that I would have been willing to do without one or another of the many Picasso exhibitions we have been given over the last 20 years for the sake of a single Léger retrospective. Alas, I suppose Picasso was judged to be better box office.

The current show is, in any case, based on the Léger exhibition seen last year in Paris and Madrid. We are told, “MoMA’s showing differs from those of the other two venues in its greater selectivity”-which means, of course, that the New York exhibition is an abridgment of the show seen in Europe. Never mind. The exhibition that Ms. Lanchner has brought us in Fernand Léger is, if not the full retrospective one had hoped for, simply wonderful in itself. So wonderful, indeed, that it makes one sad to think that two or more generations of artists have come of age in New York without having an opportunity to see as much Léger as they needed to see.

For there can be no question but that Léger is one of the greatest painters of the modern era. He is not the deepest or subtlest, perhaps, in the range of feeling he brought to his art-on that score, he is no match for Henri Matisse or Georges Braque-but he had the great virtue of embracing a wider range of modern experience in his painting than any of his contemporaries in the School of Paris. He was also more open to the innovations of the avant-garde movements that challenged the orthodoxy of Cubism itself. Who else in his generation in Paris was as responsive to and understanding of the Italian Futurists, for example, or the radical ideas of the De Stijl group? Who else, indeed, committed his art so unequivocally to the modernity of the 20th-century metropolis, and did so with such an exuberant spirit and such a mastery of the forms appropriate to its unprecedented dynamism?

It has been said of Léger that he was the only first-generation Cubist to get out of the studio long enough to notice that the visual culture of modern urban street life offered the pictorial imagination a subject that lent itself to monumental treatment, and the current exhibition certainly confirms such a view. Yet equally important to the development of his art, I think, was Léger’s remarkable response to his experience as a soldier in the First World War. Whereas so many other artists who served in the war came out of it deeply and permanently embittered about the horrors of the modern world, Léger’s response was quite different.

It was in the army, he famously said, that he “discovered the French people.” It was also in the army that he came to appreciate the beauty of the machine esthetic. “I was dazzled by the breech of a 75-millimeter gun which was standing uncovered in the sunlight: the magic of light on white metal … A complete revelation to me, both as a man and as a painter.”

Before the war, Léger had already showed himself to be a painter of commanding gifts and high ambition. In the first big pictures we encounter in the MoMA show- The Wedding (1911) and Woman in Blue (1912)-we are in the presence of a Cubist master, and in his Contrast of Forms (1913) that mastery makes its initial entry into the realm of pure abstraction. It was his experience in the war, however, that, as Léger later said, made him “forget the abstract art of 1912-13.” As both a social experience and an esthetic revelation, the army, amazingly enough, proved to be a transforming event for Léger. “Once I got my teeth into that sort of reality,” he wrote, “I never let go of objects again.”

The masterworks that Léger produced in the years immediately following the war-above all, The City (1919), but also The Disks (1918) and Disks in the City (1920-21)-must be counted among his greatest achievements. They are not, to be sure, everyone’s idea of what the painting of “objects” might ideally be. For these are paintings that, if not entirely abstract, are governed as much by an esthetic of abstraction as they are responsive to the “reality” of objects. It was, in fact, out of a dialectic of abstraction and representation that Léger was always to create his finest work, and that work was mainly produced in the decade that followed the armistice of 1918. The terms of the dialectic would shift in the course of that decade, with objects-which now included the human figure-given more of a role, as they are in what remains his single greatest picture, Three Women (Le Grand Déjeuner) (1921). And figures came more and more to serve as the principal “objects” in his later versions of this dialogue between abstraction and representation.

Does the later work represent a falling-off in the quality of Léger’s painting, as some critics have claimed? Well, I suppose it is true-but there is certainly no falling off in the sheer high spirits that govern the later work. Leisure, Homage to David (1948-49), painted in the immediate aftermath of another world war, is certainly one of the most amusing pictures of its day, and in any case-does it need to be said?-even the lesser Légers of the later years exist at an esthetic altitude that few living painters today will ever reach, or indeed aspire to.

This is a marvelous exhibition, and it remains on view at MoMA through May 12.

MoMA Gives Fernand Léger the Exhibition He Deserves