Fernand Leger, The Slanted Version of Purism

By Chris Patton

 

In 1881 Fernand Leger was born in Argentan, Normandy where he grew up the son of two peasant parents. He would eventually move to Paris which is where he would begin his artistic career as an architectural draughtsman. Before the First World War his work was very diverse. He painted many different styles which ranged from Impressionism, Fauvism, and even having a major impact on Cubism. As the First World War came into fruition, Leger’s career would change drastically as he would become fascinated by machine-like forms. 1 His works would emerge as a combination of past and present ideas with near perfect color balance. One of his most recognizable paintings during Purism is The Mechanic which approached the feeling of modern life characteristics and reality. After the First World War, Fernand Leger would focus his works on mechanical forms, color coordination, and balance to create geometric paintings during his Purist movement.

The influence that World War I had on Leger was career changing. Leger enlisted in the army and served on the front line during the First World War. He witnessed unimaginable deaths and saw the true meaning of war. He came to the realization that there was not any nationality or spirit on the battle lines because the war was all about attrition warfare. Leger stated that the war was a, “complete revelation to me as a man and a painter….. During those four war years I was abruptly thrust into a reality which was both blinding and new. When I left Paris my style was thoroughly abstract…..” and when Leger faced a 74-millimeter gun he said that it was, “enough to make me forget the abstract art of 1912-1913, Once I had got my teeth into that sort of reality I never let go of objects again.” 2 From this point forward Leger’s work began to focus on machine-like forms. Several of his paintings that will be discussed later showed humans that looked like robots and took on shapes that were circular and deformed in size. This switch became related to a movement known as Purism, a variant of Cubism. His name would be associated and recognized along side Le Corbusier and Amedee Ozenfant.

Corbusier and Ozenfant believed that Cubism was becoming too decorated because it condensed background space to focus on the subject of the painting and the overuse of bright colors. As a result, in 1918 they released a manifesto named After Cubism, and protested that Cubism needed a change. 3 The artistic movement known as Purism would be more simple than Cubism by having a more modern expression in its works and a simple architectural form that used a vertical or horizontal plane. They used the Golden Ratio in order to allow for a geometrical and proportionate painting. Purist works along with Leger wanted mathematical order that was balanced and had great organization. They viewed the machine as a main idea that would be addressed in all their works. 4 The History of Modern Art summarizes the details of Purism saying, “In 1920, the year Purism reached its maturity, both feature frontally arranged objects, with colors subdued and shapes modeled in an illusion of projecting volumes. Symmetrical curves move across the rectangular grid with the antiseptic purity of a well-tended, brand-new machine.” 5 Due to Leger’s immediate interest in machines, he would follow the movement and become the third leg of the Purist movement. Purism for Leger could be defined as a combination of classical styles of Cubism that focused on the industrial world.

The First World War showed the importance of machines and industrialization to society. However, Leger still instilled Cubism in his works that would address a style of Classicism and use of abstract images. Leger was part of the ‘Call to Order’ movement and believed that things needed order. Several Purists and Leger believed that, “the clear perception of the great general law is superior to the brute pleasure of the senses. The highest delectation of the mind is the perception of order, and the greatest human satisfaction is the feeling of collaboration or participation in this order.” 6 The order that Leger used was more related to a mechanical classicism. He was very precise and the outlines used in his works were very defined. Leger began to draw geometric handcrafted objects rather than standardized forms. Using geometric hand crafted objects allowed him to be classical by using great precision in drawing the objects using great organization in his proportions.

The Purists had two categories of sensation that wanted the individual to feel when looking at a painting, they are known as the primary and secondary sensations. 7 The primary sensation, for the viewer, is based on the forms and colors used in the painting. These sensations are obvious and all humans would perceive an image in the same manner. 8 If an image were a large orange sphere, everyone would say that it is a basketball. The secondary sensation on an object would vary on the individual due to their cultural background. Due to the Golden Ratio used by Leger the subject of the painting does not to stand out anymore than the background. Everything is perfectly organized and placed that many objects in his works could be the subjects. Leger’s paintings all had importance both in balancing the subjects of the painting and its background. Leger and the Avant-Garde describe Leger’s painting The Mechanic as it, “combines the analogy between the practice of painting and the process of machine-manufacture with an image of mechanical and human order in urban life, and all this without loss of dissonant pictorial power.” 9 The mechanic is just as important as the background in the picture, the colors used in the background allow the painting to look geometric. Nothing stands out in the painting unless it is looked at in detail because everything matches in composition.

Leger and the Purist artists did not focus immensely on color coordination, however they used a color system that allowed them to bring about a geometric feel to the painting. To create a ‘dynamic scale’, they used citrus yellow, orange, and blue to make the objects feel as if they were retreating or advancing. 10 The ‘transitional scale’ which were not fully colored or a light tint allowed ‘the great scale’ colors such as reds, white, black and earth colors to stand out and even the picture color plane. In order for Leger to keep the geometric balance throughout the entire painting he would use these three color codes. 11 If the subject were standing out too much, Leger would use a transitional color to even out the object. Using this process would allow the entire painting to not have an object that stood out too much and allowed the painting to stay balanced. Balance to Leger showed mathematical order.

Leger’s Purist approach would become known as the ‘Call to Order’ because he used classicism with the idea of industrialization. Leger combined both dissonance and harmony into one painting. He accomplished this by forming a geometric background with a geometric figure. 12 His style was very unique because he incorporated a perfectionist style of drawing. He stood out from Ozenfant and Corbusier because he used precise lines with stable colors. It could be described as economic because it created great balance. It could also be described as peripheral art because the background is balanced with the front image as demonstrated in The Mechanic.

The over decorated looks of Cubism, were being re evaluated during the 1920’s to form a more simple and architectural form. Purists such as Leger wanted a more industrial and machine-like form after witnessing the atrocities of World War I. Becoming more industrial meant that life would become more easy due to technology and materialistic things could be more accessible with the use of machinery. He would use a perfect balance of color and outlining to make his paintings feel in balance. Although Leger is not considered one of the main running candidates for Purism, he created a diverse style of Classicism and a present day look that allowed him to stand out from Ozenfant and Corbusier. Leger used Cubist principles within his Purist style in his works during the 1920’s due to his creativity and talent as a diverse artist.

 

 

Notes

  1. Ian Chilvers and Jogn Glaves-Smith. Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art “Léger, Fernand” Oxford University Press Inc. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  Millsaps College.  25 March 2012  <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t5.e1511.

 

2. Quoted in Chilvers, Ian and Jogn Glaves-Smith. Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art           “Léger, Fernand” Oxford University Press Inc. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford          University Press.  Millsaps College.  25 March 2012  <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t5.e1511.

 

3. Harvard H. Arnason and Marla Prather. History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography. 4th ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998: 305.

 

4. Harvard H. Arnason and Marla Prather. History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography. 4th ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998: 304.

 

5. Harvard H. Arnason and Marla Prather. History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography. 4th ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998: 305.

 

6. Quoted in Mark Antliff and Patricia Dee Leighten. Cubism and culture. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001: 213.

 

7. Christopher Green and Fernand Léger. Leger and the Avant-Garde. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976: 204.

 

8. Christopher Green and Fernand Léger. Leger and the Avant-Garde. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976: 205.

 

9. Quoted in Werner Schmalenbach and Fernand Léger. Fernand Léger. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1976: 199.

10. Christopher Green and Fernand Léger. Leger and the Avant-Garde. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976: 204.

 

11. Christopher Green and Fernand Léger. Leger and the Avant-Garde. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976: 205.

12. Harvard H. Arnason and Marla Prather. History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography. 4th ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998: 222.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Antliff, Mark, and Patricia Dee Leighten. Cubism and culture. New York:    Thames & Hudson, 2001.

 

Arnason, H. Harvard, and Marla Prather. History of Modern Art: Painting,    Sculpture, Architecture, Photography. 4th ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams,        Inc., 1998.

 

Chilvers, Ian and Jogn Glaves-Smith. Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art       “Léger, Fernand” Oxford University Press Inc. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford     University Press.  Millsaps College.  25 March           2012  <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entr       y=t5.e15111

 

Green, Christopher, and Fernand Léger. Leger and the Avant-Garde.                                  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

 

Schmalenbach, Werner, and Fernand Léger. Fernand Léger. New York:

H.N. Abrams, 1976.


1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: