1881 - 1955
© Fernand Léger SODRAC (Montréal) 1999
From 1914 to 1917 Léger served in the First World War, where he spent "four years without colour." It is from this environment that Léger attributes his inspiration for the machines and bold, robust figures that appear in works such as The Mechanic, a figure who, according to Léger, is "the electrician in blue smock, modern god, emperor-king, chief of us and of all" (Katharine Kuh, Léger, 1953).
After he was discharged from the army in 1917, Léger returned to civilian life with a renewed commitment to art. His work during this time was precise, colourful, and polished, exemplifying the "machine aesthetic" of sharp, angular forms. Responding to the technical developments of the age, he created dense cityscapes such as In the Factory (1918) and The City (1919-20), works in which elements of urban life are carefully assembled in a play between the abstract and the literal. In the mid-1920s Léger began a series of murals, attracted by possibilities of large-scale work. In 1925 he participated in the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris, exhibiting with Le Corbusier in the Esprit Nouveau pavilion and creating murals for the entry hall of the Ambassade Française. During this time Léger also made forays into the rigid world of Neo-Plasticism with works such as Mural Composition (1924), which restricted itself to a linear framework, an absence of representation, and a limited palette.
During the 1930s Léger made several trips to the United States, exhibiting at various galleries in New York. He also began a series of murals for fair pavilions, including the Palais de la Découverte in Paris (1937) and the New York World's Fair (1939). Singling out the "object," he freed it from the constraints of its contexts, as, for example, in a work from the Objects in Space series, where he juxtaposed an image of the Mona Lisa with a set of keys. Léger went on to liberate the shapes and forms on his canvas, giving them a loose, curvy, organic composition, combining the figure and technology with the natural world, as if they came from the same source.
In 1940 Léger travelled again to the United States, where he remained for the duration of the war. He taught at Yale University and Mills College and exhibited in New York with his contemporaries Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst, and Marc Chagall. Returning to Paris in 1945, Léger designed sets for theatre and ballet, lectured at the Sorbonne, and exhibited throughout Europe. His work during this time was alive with scenes of circuses, musicians, and acrobats, and wide strips of blue, red, and green running through the compositions. He died in France in August 1955, after a life spent portraying the world in the grips of modernity.
Text by Erin Fitzhugh
Born in Argentan, France, 04 February 1881
Died in Gif-sur-Yvett, France, 17 August 1955
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