Art: Léger, avatar of post-WWI modernism
Here is how he expressed the emergence of modern art in 1914, the year the trauma of World War I began to profoundly reshape Western society:
"If pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has necessitated it. The existence of modern creative people is much more intense and more complex than that of people in earlier centuries . . . .
"The view, through the door of the railroad car or the automobile windshield, in combination with the speed, has altered the habitual look of things . . . . The compression of the modern picture, its variety, its breaking up of forms, are the result of all this."
Léger dominates the show, curated by Anna Vallye, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow, but he doesn't own it exclusively. Besides painting, he was involved in film, illustration, and even designing for the ballet.
His art from the period is presented within a context that includes work by a number of contemporaries, from Robert Delaunay and Marcel Duchamp to Piet Mondrian and Alexandra Exter.
The efflorescence of postwar creativity is represented by 179 objects, including a number of film clips projected on flat surfaces within the installation.
The film segments add an important dimension to the re-creation of a particular cultural milieu, even though their soundtracks can distract visitors looking at nearby paintings and works on paper.
Léger began life as an unlikely herald of modern art. He grew up on a farm in Normandy, and as a teenager was apprenticed to an architect in the city of Caen.
The pervasive structural character of his paintings, especially of the immediate postwar period, may spring from these roots, and also from working as an architectural draftsman after moving to Paris in 1900.
The bold, mechanistic imagery that instantly identifies Léger today was catalyzed by his experience of war. It emerged like a butterfly from a cocoon after he was demobilized, having nearly died in a 1916 gas attack.
As he later recalled, the intricacy, mobility, muscularity, and functional purity of 20th-century war machinery offered him new aesthetic possibilities. As he once rhapsodized:
"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. This was enough to make me forget [my] abstract art of 1912-13. [It was] a complete revelation to me, both as a man and as a painter. Once I got my teeth into that sort of reality I never let go of objects again."
Léger had been an unconventional cubist. Instead of using the intricate crystallization of objects invented by Braque and Picasso, he fragmented his forms into geometric solids - cylinders, cones, and cubes.
In postwar paintings such as The City, he adapted this language to create carefully balanced, semiabstract evocations of what a modern city looked and felt like - colorful, dense, and rich in overlapping sensations.
The exhibition is built around The City, which is owned by the Art Museum. It's installed at the transition between the precursors of postwar modernism (cubism, futurism, early Mondrian) and the dynamism of Paris in the early 1920s.
Picasso and Matisse, the two most prominent modernists, had backtracked into neoclassicism and decorative realism, respectively. But Léger charged ahead, raising the energy level of his paintings by packing them with shoulder-to-shoulder motifs rendered in vivid primary colors, plus green, black and white.
Paintings such as The Scaffolding (First State) evoke the constant construction one finds in burgeoning cities even today, while The Large Tugboat calls to mind the bustle of a busy seaport.
Leger's paintings of the immediate postwar years are usually sensitively balanced, the relationships among their elements precisely calibrated. This is why even a busy composition such as Les Disques, with its suggestion of colorful traffic lights and signs, generates a pleasing harmony of parts.
A collaboration with Man Ray called Ballet mécanique stands as his most successful film venture, while his lively backdrop and costume designs for the 1922 Swedish ballet Skating Rink moves cubism forward while showing his ability to work at theatrical scale.
The other artists in the show are most prominent in the opening section, where they reveal where modernism was before the war. Some, particularly the Italian futurists, were also pushing art into more energetic expression.
Futurists like Giacomo Balla identified motion and speed as the quintessence of modern life, and invented effective ways to simulate these conditions. But Léger aimed for a blend of urban sensations, which he achieved powerfully in his visual manifesto The City.
The relatively brief period covered by the exhibition reveals Léger at his most inventive and energetic. In later decades, he moved toward a more figurative approach that some have criticized as static and "robotic."
Much like Marc Chagall, Léger in his late career - he died in 1955 at 74 - settled comfortably into his signature style, as successful artists often do. But here we find him at his peak, setting the tone for art's upbeat response to a devastating war.
Art: 'Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis'
At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Jan. 5. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, and to 8:45 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays.
Admission is by special ticket: $25 general, $23 for seniors; $20 for students and ages 13 to 18; $12 ages 5 through 12. Tickets for admission on weekdays after 3 p.m. are available through Dec. 1 at $19. A special student discount of $15 is available for weekdays after noon with valid student ID. These tickets must be purchased at the museum. Other tickets are available by phone at 215-235-7469, on the website, or at the museum during regular hours.
Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.
"Art" by Edward J. Sozanski and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear in alternating weeks.