Fernand Léger (1881-1955)
Born in 1881 in Argentan (Orne), Fernand Léger studied at a religious school. From 1897 to 1899 he held an apprenticeship with an architect in Caen, before moving to Paris. In 1913 he enrolled in the École des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, where he could indulge his budding passion for drawing and painting. The location of his studio in Montparnasse enabled him to meet and become friends with the avant-garde artists of the period. By 1908 he had met Robert Delaunay, Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Marc Chagall. Though at first he was primarily influenced by Impressionism, his discovery of Cézanne’s paintings in 1907 and the experimentations of Picasso and Braque in the same year led him toward Cubism. Nevertheless he developed his own aesthetic, based upon the contrasts of forms and colours. Léger thus painted the first canvas of his Cubist period, La Couseuse.
In 1911, the painter exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. Indeed, the war that broke out in 1914 marks a turning point in his painting. ‘He served on the frontlines in a regiment of combat engineers, carrying the wounded on stretchers. This is the determining shock factor which crystallised both his artistic and social direction, his sense of belonging to the working class, and his shared worship of mechanical beauty,’ wrote Jean Leymarie in the catalogue of the retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1971.
Léger henceforth aimed to harness and transcribe the dynamism of his time. The art critic Tériade welcomed his work to the period, recognising a ‘modern [oeuvre], which seems to exalt the power and vital qualities of our time.’ At the end of the war, Fernand Léger signed a contract with the gallerist Léonce Rosenberg. In the 1920s, he was especially active. He illustrated Blaise Cendrars’s La Fin du monde, filmée par l’ange de N.-D. (‘The End of the World’; conceived as a screenplay but published as a book); he worked for Abel Gance’s film La Roue (‘The Wheel’); he conceived theatre sets for Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (‘The Inhuman Woman’); and he designed costumes for the Swedish Ballet. With Dudley Murphy in 1924, he created the experimental film Ballet Mécanique (‘Mechanical Ballet’) (a kaleidoscopic series of shots and repeated images of people and objects in motion).
‘The painting must personify movement and life in all its power’, he explained at the time. ‘All that surrounds [movement and life] must be colourless.’ In 1930, he painted what would become one of his most recognised paintings, La Joconde aux clés (‘Mona Lisa with the Keys’).
His work began to receive international recognition as early as the 1930s. His work was exhibited in the United States, in Belgium, and in England. During the Occupation, Léger sought refuge in the United States, where he painted his celebrated series of Cyclistes (‘Cyclists’). Léger saw New York, the ultimate modern city, as the ‘greatest spectacle in the world’.
He returned to France in 1945, joined the Communist Party, and took on a new project: the decoration of the church of Sacré-Cœur in Audincourt (Doubs). He also made stained-glass windows for a church in Switzerland as well as a pair of murals for the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
At the same time he guided multiple schools of painting including one in Montrouge.
In 1955, he won the Grand Prize at the São Paulo Biennale. He died the same year in Gif-sur-Yvette. The Musée Fernand Léger was established in Biot in 1960.
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Art works from Fernand Léger
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