Sex Machines

Fernand Léger and his women.

“Fernand Léger”
The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Feb. 15-May 12

Click on any image to see an enlargement.

The painter of the machine age: That’s the standard line on the French painter Fernand Léger (1881-1955). It’s also the theme of the retrospective–the first in New York in 43 years to be devoted to him–mounted at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s easy enough to go along with, too, especially with Anjelica Huston’s voice purring in your ear (audiotapes have replaced wall panels for this show) about how Léger was peerless in portraying the feel of the modern city.

A hulk of a man with a capacious appetite for women and red wine, Léger seemed the right choice to muscle French painting out of the cafe and the artist’s studio and into the world of steel girders and factory smoke. He took elements from the major 20th-century schools of art–Cubism, but also Futurism, Neoclassicism, and Surrealism–and forged his own peculiar idiom, one that seemed as racy and street-smart as slang. Of the modern masters, he came closest to capturing the dynamism and rhythm of our headlong century.

B ut beyond his up-to-the-minute virtuosity, Léger doesn’t play his designated role of machine-age hero all that convincingly. Born on a Normandy farm, the only child of a cattle breeder, Léger never lost a palpable nostalgia for the countryside, reminders of which appear in some of his most urban paintings–such as the incongruous tree branches on the elevated platform in Construction Workers of 1950. By 1900 he had made his way to Paris, where he first trained as an architect, then studied at a couple of traditional art academies. He fell in with the Cubists, whose reverence for Cézanne’s Formalist innovations–depicting landscape and figures with interlocking planes–he shared. Later, Léger would claim he freed himself from Cézanne by means of abstraction; the path-breaking paintings he called “Contrast of Forms” (circa 1913)–fully abstract exercises in funnels, cylinders, and arcs–retain all their vigorous charm.

During World War I, Léger served for a year in the worst regions of the Western Front. It was a democratizing experience by his own account, making him feel, as he put it in an often quoted remark, “on a level with the whole of the French people.” His extraordinary Card Game (1917) uses those “contrasting forms” to reconfigure a traditional genre subject (Cézanne’s Card Players is the most familiar example). Léger captures a leisurely break from the battlefield routine, but his tin-can soldiers are still fully armored, and their cards suggest an equation between war and a game of chance. The earth-colored table is as riven and scarred as the trenches of the Argonne.

A fter the war came The City (1919), probably his single most famous painting. Some grimly monochromatic figures mount the stairway in the center of the picture–returning soldiers, perhaps?–but otherwise the city seems a cheerful, colorful refuge, decked with tasteful advertising posters. “Never has the poetry of the first machine age been so grandly and proudly exalted,” comments the art historian John Golding in the exhibition catalog. Maybe so, but there’s something opportunistic about Léger’s abrupt embrace of urban life. It’s as though after wrestling long and hard with Cézanne’s dictum that the artist should paint the world of nature in terms of spheres, cylinders, and cones, Léger realized: Hey, here’s an environment that’s actually made of these shapes!

The cogs and pistons that dominate his paintings of the early 1920s remain unusually intimate, human-scale. It’s true that he’s drawn to machinery, but his favorite devices are typewriters and accordions and siphons–nonthreatening mechanisms that lack the depersonalizing, menacing quality of, say, Fritz Lang’s nightmarish film Metropolis. Although Léger was a Communist, with pronounced sympathy for the working man, his experience of factory conditions apparently was limited to what he’d heard from his fellow card-playing soldiers. (His Social Realist Construction Workers was displayed in the canteen of the Renault auto factory, to predictably tepid response. It was the same factory where the French philosopher Simone Weil worked long hours to experience the true lot of the worker.)

T he alienation of modern life–a central theme in the work of Léger’s literary friends Henry Miller and Blaise Cendrars–doesn’t enter the painter’s resolutely optimistic vision. Even New York City, where he waited out World War II, takes on cozy contours for Léger, who was quickly hired by Nelson Rockefeller to decorate his New York apartment (the fireplace surround is in the MoMA show). Léger saw the city of the 1940s through a 1920s temperament, reworking a drawing of 1924 into his appealing oil The Three Musicians (1944), a particular hit of the MoMA show. The looming skyscrapers of Georgia O’Keefe’s between-the-wars paintings or Charles Sheeler’s threatening smokestacks have no counterpart in Léger’s work. His Good-bye New York (1946), the cover illustration for the exhibition catalog, has no urban feel at all, despite some free-floating girders and a row of neckties glimpsed at a Times Square stall. The stray fences and tree limbs, from the upstate countryside where Léger spent his summers, are more prominent. Back in Paris, he painted stilted idylls in the countryside, utopias no one would want to live in. The most sophisticated machinery here is the bicycle.

The story that MoMA’s show tells about Léger–his heroic struggle with Cézanne, his escape into abstraction, his flirtation with competing schools of Modernism, his late monumentality–is the same story that MoMA’s permanent collection tells, with Picasso as the hero. But there’s another way to think of Léger’s development. As the machinery shrank in his pictures, his women grew in prominence and size. So many Modernist breakthroughs involved the visual dismantling of a woman–Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) on the second floor of MoMA, de Kooning’s Woman, I (1950-51) on the third–that it should come as no surprise that Léger began the same way, with his systematically fragmented Woman in Blue (1912), the first piece in the exhibition.

M any of Léger’s key paintings seem to have been inspired by the question of what women are, exactly. Are they companions in the human realm or visitors from the natural–or even the mechanical–world? Are they animal, vegetable, or mineral? The metallic moving parts of Woman in Blue yield to the Neoclassical contours of the marmoreal Three Women (1921), who are as still as the still-life lunch they’ll never eat. has a primitive, Easter Island look: Léger paints a holly leaf in exactly the same black-on-red idiom, as though the nude woman is a botanical exhibit. A decade later, in his Composition With Two Parrots (1935-39), the women are still bulbous and inert, but there’s blood in their veins. The painting suggests an equation between two forms of wildlife: the clothed boy holds a parrot, his companion holds a woman.

Léger’s ideas about women are inseparable from his ideas about machinery. His clever Ballet Mécanique–an influential little non-narrative film he made in 1924 (MoMA has it on a continuous reel)–intercuts dancing pistons and kitchenware with blinking eyes and a mouth that opens and closes rhythmically. The idea, Léger claimed, was to prove “that machines and fragments of them, that ordinary manufactured objects, have plastic possibilities.” In other words, detached from their familiar uses and manipulated on film, such objects could be animated, rendered flexible, and–in the sculptural sense–“plastic.” Conversely, Léger was also implying that human beings are composed of moving parts. But the blinking eyes in his mechanical ballet are heavy with mascara, while the sexy mouth shines with lipstick. In his dreams of the future, Léger wanted his machines to be as sexy and intimate as beautiful women, and his women to be as available and predictable as household appliances.