All Things Entertaining and Cultural
When I was a teenager, I collected and decorated my bedroom with post cards and posters I bought at art museums. I didn’t know the names of all of the paintings or some of the artists who created them, but the collection had two centerpieces, an abstract by Joan Miro of a man and a dog and a lively piece by Fernand Leger that I called “Shrimps and Drums,” because of its various geometric shapes, series of blue stripes, and vivid colors.
Older and more worldly, I now know the Leger has a real name (as opposed to a Neal name), “Contrast of Forms,” and is actually a cubist depiction of a woman descending a staircase, a popular subject for painters a century ago.
Such knowledge makes only a slight difference. To me, the work continues to appeal for its cascading assortment of truncated cylinders (the drums) and vibrant dashes of color, mostly red and blue, my favorites. Leger’s zest for design and movement make me happy. They excite. Leger, through primarily abstract, speaks to me. He makes me think of jazz and light , variety and activity, sophistication and the vivacity of the everyday. His canvases exude an appreciation of life and all of its infinite pursuits. Leger and I have been lifelong companions as artist and audience. What a thrill to see my friend receive an exhibition as thoughtful, inclusive, and pulsating as the artist’s own work in “Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) through January 5!
The PMA show doesn’t merely present Leger’s art. It makes a boulevard of it. The minute you enter the exhibition space, you see a series of open galleries that lead to Leger’s masterpiece, “The City,” the focal work in the PMA mounting. The vista, in which Leger shares space with Robert Delaunay, Pablo Picasso, Jacques Lipschitz, Piet Mondrian, and sundry others, creates a corridor of color that makes one appreciative of life and the creative souls who have leavened it so brightly and entertainingly. Galleries leading to the “The City” narrow as you proceed forward, forming a point that reminds one of coming to the end of a pencil. Or the tip of the Eiffel Tower. “The City” is its own reward, an artistic destination of sorts, comprising as it does all the bustle, motion, exuberance, diversity, and routine of the metropolis, in Leger’s case, Paris.
Leger was a draftsman. He originally arrived in Paris in 1900 to study mechanical drawing. As a result, his lines are crisp and sharp, his geometric shapes orderly and well-defined. There is variety, juxtaposition, and commotion without muddle. So many pieces command attention, and so many segments of Leger’s paintings rate individual inspection, not to look at brush strokes and effects so much as to appreciate all of the elements and ideas the artist loads congenially into a work. The grand news is at PMA there is time and space to satisfy the appetite “The City” and the works leading to it inspire. Ample galleries to the left and the right of “The City” offer more works — there are 179 in all — displayed with equal accessibility and splendor. These include films, sculpture illustrations, advertisements, set and costume designs, marionettes, and a working mechanical representation of a ballet, some by Leger, others by his talented contemporaries. The point is to encompass all of the art forms, new and evolving, that found burgeoning expression in Paris in the first half of the 20th century. I spent three hours taking in all the treasures PMA curator Anna Vallye and others assembled for “Modern Art and the Metropolis,” and I intend to return to the exhibition more than once before it closes in January. It’s that wonderful a show.
The first work you see upon entering the initial gallery is by Thomas Edison. It’s an experimental film Edison, a pioneer in moving picture photography and projection, made while taking an elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower in 1900. The famous structure, relatively new to the Paris landscape, becomes obvious to the viewer as Edison frames various views of Paris through its recognizably intricate lattice work, his plane widening at he ascends and the Tower tapers. You see both the fabled roofs of Paris and many of its landmarks, Sacre Coeur bring one that stands out for its interesting shape and contrasting whiteness. This literal, if fabulous, view of Paris neatly sets up the PMA show because it familiarizes you with the look and feel of the metropolis Leger and others will represent so lovingly in paint and other forms. As you walk around the movie screen, the film now playing behind you, you see “The City” at the end of its cleverly plotted path. As you peruse the galleries that lead to it, you see early pictures by Leger, “Smoke Over Rooftops,” and Delauney, “The Eiffel Tower No. 2,” that impressionistically and evocatively capture the Paris Edison documents on film. I couldn’t stop myself from humming the famous tune, “Sous Les Toits de Paris,” (“Under the Roofs of Paris,” Josephine Baker’s rendition) as I looked at the Leger, admiring its composition though surprised by the browns and grays that hadn’t yet given way to his more vibrant palette of primary colors.
The technology Edison develops remains popular throughout the early 20th century and is represented liberally in that period’s art. One film projected on the walls of “Modern Art and the Metropolis” shows the gears and cogs of a locomotive churning in all their symmetric angularity. Vallye says people in 1900 were so fascinated by moving pictures, they could watch that one continuing motion for several minutes, or even hours, and not get impatient or bored. More tellingly, the smokestacks and billows of steam and mechanical elements of Parisian industry figure into the works of many artists, Leger among them. The energy of the Industrial Revolution is captured in Giacomo Balla’s painting, “Abstract Speed.” Leger weighs in with a painting called “Mechanical Element” and a study for it entitled, “Man in a Mechanical Landscape.”
Smokestacks and pipes are generally cylindrical. Their shape provides focus and influences design. Cylinders invite cubes, spheres, and pyramids to join them, and the paintings of Leger and his contemporaries celebrate geometrical solids. My beloved “Contrast of Forms” is an example. Though it has a literal subject, a fashionable woman walking down stairs you see in miniature in the lower left corner of the painting, the immediate perception is of cascading geometric forms. That use of shapes and solids permeates the entire exhibition. It the core of Leger’s style, his way of presenting a subject or theme.
He certainly has company in making bold use of color, dramatic shapes, and cinematic shadow and light a signature part of his works. “Modern Art and the Metropolis” derives much of its charm from the at once lively and lovely works collected. Leger’s friend and colleague, Robert Delaunay, is sometimes quieter of palette and more literal in his approach, but his works such as “Three-Part Windows” and “Political Drama” add much to the PMA exhibition.
Cubist and abstract representation of people and their activities dominate the turn of the century, perhaps in response to the animation available in film, certainly in a conscious effort to present a new view of portraiture, landscape, and human endeavors.
“Contrast in Forms” again illustrates this, and Leger’s depiction of a woman descending a staircase is contrasted and augmented by the famous painting by Marcel Duchamp on the same subject. Gino Severini’s “The Milliner” is a happy, exciting example of new forms in telling a story about an individual. Joseph Csaky’s beautifully tactile “Abstraction (Standing Figure)” is a stunning example of both the use of geometric solids and an unique representation of the human figure. Jacques Lipschitz contributes “Half-Standing Figure,” which has features of pre-colonial American art incorporated in it, also exemplifies the new style in portraying man. Leger enjoys placing people in his work, and “Acrobats at the Circus” and “Man in the City” show how felicitously and boldly he does so. A collage dedicated to Charlie Chaplin illustrates another way Leger pays tribute to his fellow man.
Landscapes, especially views of Paris from many points of view, are an integral part of “Modern Art and the Metropolis.” Leger (“Houses Under Trees”) and Delaunay (“Eiffel Tower”) again contribute mightily. They are joined by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger in paintings called “Landscape,” Metzinger using gleaming paint textures, and Leopold Survage in his 1918 piece, “The City.” Even Piet Mondrian, in an early work, “Construction No. 6,” offers a busy city and urban architecture seen through windows, in a style that is not as rigidly ruled and organized as the works for which the Dutch painter is more famous.
Leger, whose career was interrupted for three years while he fought as a soldier in World War I, shows his patriotism and regard for the people who waged war with him, in “Bastille Day at Verdun,” which shows the various flags of countries that fought with the French, and “Flag,” a bold and interestingly crafted tribute to France’s tri-color.
Disks play a major part in Leger’s work. Presaging his various studies and stunning canvases that employ disks is a piece by Frank Kupka, “Disks of Newton” (“Study of a Fugue in Two Colors”), a dazzling, delightful ramble of interweaving circles. Leger’s “Study for Disks in The City” is positively kinetic. You feel as if you’re following a machine, or a Rube Goldberg construction to some conclusion. Disks dominate again in “The Level Crossing.” Of course, disks are the subject and object of the masterwork, “The Disks,” a symphony of circles and half-circles framed beautifully and suggesting forward motion.
Most of the above culminates with arrival at “The City,” the thematic painting of the PMA exhibition. “Man in the City,” with its lack of perspective, and a series of studies — forceful, colorful, and interesting individually — foreshadow Leger’s galvanizing masterpiece that brings Paris alive by representing, clearly and completely, all the elements that compose a metropolis that is both a center of art, industry, technology, and innovation and a town where people live, relax, and recreate. The eye is bombarded, the imagination excited. Everything from billboards and smokestacks and ships and bridges to men on a staircase is included. The painting incorporates and conveys the variety of a city, the related and disparate features and activities that make it impossible to pinpoint one Paris or one London or even one Philadelphia.
Arriving at “The City” completes only the first stage of the journey through “Modern Art and the Metropolis.” Along the way, you’ve seen the various images that lead up to and contribute to Leger’s centering work. Gallery walls en route are also lined with advertising posters that show a new, artistic approach to promotion that became popular at the beginning of 20th century Paris with the influx of painters and designers and the latest improvements to typography and printing. Leger’s painting, “Typographer,” is a witty, sumptuous work that uses shapes that suggest the mechanics of printing and the printer himself. Leger’s poster designs for the movies, “La Roue” and “L’Inhumaine,” hang cheek by jowl with other clever advertising pieces like Cassandre’s stunning railroad promotion, “L.M.S. Best Way” and evocative ad for a publication, “L’Intransigeant,” Djo Bourgeois’s alternate poster for “L’Inhumaine,” Jean Epstein’s cover and interior drawings for “Bonjour, Cinema,” and various works by Leger and Blaise Cendrars. Leger’s “Homage to the Dance” and Jean Carlu’s poster for “Disques Odeon,” also show how smart and creative advertising was in the early 20th century.
Ads, coupled with his common theme of city life, inspire Leger to paint the smile-generating “Composition with Heads and Hats” and to get involved with other arts.
Leger, like Picasso and some others, was a complete artist who wanted to participate in lots of activities and disciplines where design was needed. “Modern Art and the Metropolis” includes the set and costume sketches he did for a ballet, “The Skating Rink,” which employed his designs. His curtain design provides bright fun. I’d borrow it for a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” today. With Dudley Murphy, he created black and white images for the film, “Ballet Mechanique.”
Alexandra Exter, a lighting designer provides marvelous sketches of how dancers can be lit. Her figures look lithe and majestic bathed in swaths of white in front of colorful sets. Exter also constructed a set of marionettes that are witty and a key part of the PMA exhibition. Ballet is celebrated in happy and stunning fashion in a mechanical model for the set of “Le Pas d’Acier” (“The Steel Step”) by Georgii Yakoulov. The piece, designed in 1925, was restored by Canadian artists in 2009 and is operable.
Leger enjoyed the cinema, an evolving form in his youth that became a major force in his early adulthood. He particularly admired the works of Charlie Chaplin, which, like his own, often depict a lone human in a world of confusing bustle and more confusing machinery. His “Charlot Cubiste” is a wonderful tribute to the premiere film artist of Leger’s day. In the upper corner of a gallery to the left of “The City”” as you face the painting is an ongoing reel of Marcel Duchamp’s film, “Anemic Cinema,” complete with jangly music.
Wanting to illustrate as many movements of the time as possible, “Modern Art and the Metropolis” includes a gallery dedicated to the brief Dada initiative. It also offers a lively gallery featuring the colorful works of Eli Lissitsky, Man Ray, and Sonia Delaunay.
Leger works until his death in 1955, and his later works are as brimming with color, life, and theme as the seminal paintings he completed before World War I. Special among the pieces of later years are “Scenic Design for God-like Figures for ‘La Creation du Monde,'” “The Large Tugboat,” which is almost like an architect’s elevations of a ship, “Man With a Cane,” “Mural Composition,” “Houses,” and “Study for a Cinematic Mural.” Delaunays’s “Circular Forms” show that artist’s later work also to be vigorous and continually inventive.
The object that caught, held, and delighted my eye in the later galleries is a ‘Model for a Private House” by Theo van Doesburg. The model, reconstructed in 1982 from van Doesburg’s 1923 original, is a marvel in shape and color. Somewhere on Earth, it should be built immediately. Rather than a home, I see it as a design for a multi-purpose theater and concert hall. The best of Leger’s colors and Mondrian’s sharp planes are visible in van Doesburg’s exciting work that makes Philadelphia’s Constitution Center and Kimmel Center look even more boring and tedious than they are. Mondrian, by the way, is well represented in the final galleries of the Leger exhibition. Sculptures by Alexander Archipenko, Henri Laurens, and Georges Vantongerloo are worth noting, as are two paintings by Amadee Ozenfant
As enthusiastic as I’ve been is writing about and providing a tour of sorts to “Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis,” I don’t think I’ve exaggerated or overstated the splendor of this exhibition. PMA may get more attention when it builds shows around Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso, or Cezanne, but Fernand Leger can take his place with all of them. Philadelphia deserves to be an art destination for the duration of this marvelous show…
“Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” runs through Sunday, January 5 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in Philadelphia. Exhibition hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday , Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Wednesday and Friday. Admission ranges from $25 to $19 with discounts for seniors, students, and children ages 5 to 12. For general information, please call 215-763-8100 or go online to www.philamuseum.org.