It’s an alien and hypnotic world revealed by the camera as it rises up the Eiffel Tower. Made in 1900 by Thomas Edison (with James White), the short film that greets visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Fernand Léger exhibition still feels strangely modern and disorienting, with metal girders sliding by at oblique angles, and an increasingly distant ground plane reduced to an abstraction of streets, parks and rooftops.
Early paintings by Léger hang nearby, and the juxtaposition is striking. A 1913 painting, “Houses under the Trees,” seems to show an urban landscape seen from on high, while a 1911 canvass, “Smoke over Rooftops,” appears to show the world from multiple perspectives, not quite focused and in motion, as if bits and pieces of a film scene have been sliced together into a single, static image.
It’s easy, and often reductive, to position a painting in relation to its presumed inspiration in the real world, as if Léger was simply taking a kind of visual stenography from the cues of Edison. And yet seeing Léger next to this crudely made, black-and-white film reveals much of what is interesting about the artist: his close relation with cinema and with its wide, popular audience, and his fascination with Paris and the mechanical underpinnings of modernity that made wonders like the Eiffel Tower possible.
“Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” is built around a major work held by the Philadelphia museum, “The City,” painted in 1919. It is a huge canvass, more than nine feet long, brightly painted, with glimpses of what may well be pieces of the Eiffel Tower, filled with shards of signage, jarring contrasts of color and strong vertical lines. It is a flat image, as if the entire city has been compressed into a shallow plane of energy and motion. Even the two men traversing a staircase in the center of the painting add little depth to the design.
The format of the picture, a long, horizontal rectangle, immediately recalls both the size and shape of a film screen, as do Léger’s attempts to capture a sense of motion, simultaneity and perhaps even montage, the condensation of information and time into something dense and frenetic. Léger, like many artists returning from World War I, was looking for something new and revolutionary, and film became an essential part of how he saw art moving forward. An encounter with the films of Charlie Chaplin — known in France as “Charlot” — shocked and inspired the artist. Chaplin broke with old styles of theater acting, he dominated the screen and he reinvented the body’s motion on camera. He became a beacon, for Léger, out of the darkness and misery of death and slaughter and into a new world of art that would circulate far more widely, and with greater impact, than the art which belonged to the world torn asunder by the Great War.
The sheer size of “The City,” argue the curators, demonstrates Léger’s interest not just in film, but in mural, in art that breaks free of the easel and the interior wall and moves out into the city it depicts, rubbing shoulders with people on the street, and competing with the energy of popular culture, advertising and the spectacle of the street. But “The City” was also an effort to create something monumental, something arresting, not just to celebrate urban life, but to contain it in a way that made it comprehensible and manageable. In a telling analogy, Léger once compared effective image making (and advertising) not to jazz, but to orchestration, as if it should balance and integrate the city’s energies rather than boost the urban metabolism.
The exciting thing about Léger is how closely he tracks with very contemporary definitions of what artists do. He made easel paintings, to be sure, but he also worked as a teacher, as a theorist, he contributed to journals, designed sets and costumes for the theater and played an instrumental role in assembling one of the most important and radical film experiments of the century, “Ballet Mecanique” from 1923-24. He sought inspiration and collaborated with architects, including Le Corbusier (whose paintings always look like second-rate Légers) and the Dutch De Stijl group (which helped inspire him to conceive of art as fully integrated into everyday life). He also worked with poets and writers to create images that far surpass mere illustration, books and prints that integrate text and imagery in novel ways. His creative energies were seemingly moving in all directions at once, his idea of a “career” as unorthodox as the career of most artists today.
The weakness, unfortunately, in any exhibition of Léger is the art of Léger. When you encounter his paintings in a gallery of 20th-century art, near the work of cubists, surrealists, expressionists and other contemporaneous styles, Léger’s paintings often feel like a pleasant respite from all the rest. They are orderly, well-made and have a pleasing sheen to them. They are agreeable, like rectangular relief valves, allowing an occasional respite from the aggression in other work. They are almost like windows opening on a cartoon version of the city, without the angst and anguish of other more trenchant artists’ visions. Nothing bad ever seems to happen in Leger’s city.
Léger would have hated to hear that, especially the part about windows. The window stood for everything that he disliked in the old ways of doing art, framing and delimiting the image; paintings that looked like windows on the world were generally too representational and illusionistic for his taste. But for all of his theoretical or intellectual commitment to a boundless, energetic urban art that drew on spectacle and film and everything else that made the modern city hum, Léger had the visual sensibility of a good advertising man. He knew how to give order to information, to clarify and reduce and to make things appealing on the surface. Compare his 1926 “Homage to the Dance” with advertisements and poster art of the same period, and you see where Léger’s real affinities lay. Léger’s painting shows two legs, one in black and the other in white, seemingly spinning on a turntable in bold red and yellow. The combination represents both time (with the legs serving as the hands of a clock) and the magical encoding of information in the phonographic disk; but for all these references to time and motion and noise, the image is stationary, sedate and silent. It entices because, like a product on offer in a shop window, it seems to contain legion of possibilities, pent up energy, the promise of dance, music and life.
The strength of the exhibition turns out not to be the sustained encounter with Léger, but with other artists who were struggling to move art in similar directions. A print of one of Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici’s interior spaces gives a sense of how truly fine and sensitive artists could accomplish the integration of color and design into domestic architecture; one of El Lissitzky’s geometric constructions (“Proun 2” from 1920) makes a far stronger impact than Léger’s attempts at similarly architectonic design; lithographs for a manic, crazy, brilliant opera spectacle called “Victory over the Sun” (also by El Lissitzky) are a high point of the show, which also includes architectural models, sculpture and film. Many of the greatest names of one of the most experimental eras in art are present: Alexander Archipenko, Jacques Lipchitz, Marcel Duchamp and Robert and Sonia Delaunay.
In the end, one may wonder if Léger’s ambition to fuse art with the city wasn’t flawed from the beginning. In his public comments about city life, about the “pandemonium” of the street and the too-muchness of modernity with its speed and endless barrage of new sights and sensations, he reveals himself more as a flaneur — a spectator, bemused and slightly apart from the chaos — than an impresario of radical new spectacles. He was a dynamic nodal point for ideas about art, a fine but not great artist and, very likely, a brilliant graphic designer who never settled on the right career.
is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Jan. 5. For more information, visit www.philamuseum.org.