Classical Bodies, New Humanity
In 1925, German art historian Franz Roh (1890–1965) wrote, “The latest painting wants to offer us the image of something totally finished and complete, minutely formed, opposing it to our eternally fragmented and ragged lives as an archetype of integral structuring, down to the smallest details. Someday man too will be able to recreate himself in the perfection of this idea.” 8 This ideal of well-formed paintings and equally formed people became a model across the political spectrum.
This transformational approach to pictorial language, appropriate for a new world order, can be seen in the paintings of Fernand Léger (1881–1955). His use of streamlined forms derived from mechanical imagery dates from WWI, when he served in the French army. “His predilection for military hardware and their gleaming surfaces coincided with his feelings of solidarity with fellow foot soldiers in the trenches. The machine aesthetic he adopted at this time reflected his hopes of creating a truly popular art form that would describe and inspire modern life. After the war, he turned away from the experiments with pure abstraction that characterized his earlier work and infused social meaning into his art.” For Léger, “rendering the mechanical world became a necessity,” and his postwar paintings freely mix both mechanical and human elements.
As a call to order resounded throughout postwar French society, Léger introduced the monumental, classical figure into his work. He offered an idea of classical women reminiscent of Picasso but without the aura of antiquity. Léger’s distinct style includes the clean, geometric forms of industry and mass production that signaled a renewed social and aesthetic environment. Many of his paintings took mechanical devices as their subject, and all were informed by cool precision and exacting workmanship.
“Women occupied a traditional place within Léger’s ideal new order. Counterpoints to the urban world of industry and work, Léger’s many depictions of women embody a domestic realm of tranquility and leisure. He treated his depictions of women no differently than the most austere mechanical form: edges are sharp, colors are distinct, and modeling follows a conspicuously stylized formula.” 11 Léger’s modern women are as upright as columns, their hair, with its metallic shine, falling to one side. Two Women (Deux femmes, 1922) combines these precise robot women with sharply delineated details of an idealized, domestic interior.
- Describe this painting carefully. What colors, forms, and shapes do your students notice? What adjectives can be used to discuss this work?
- As a class, how many items in this painting can your students name? Which ones remain ambiguous?
- Léger developed a distinct style of painting that mixes organic and mechanical forms. Through a group discussion, have the class work together to write a description of his style.
- Discuss the connection between the two figures in the painting. What visual clues has Léger provided to help us understand their relationship?
- In books or on the Internet, research Léger’s work. Compare
paintings done before 1914, the beginning of WWI, with those
created after the conflict. The Guggenheim’s Collection Online
features a good selection of his work. Have your students describe the
differences that they notice. Are there similarities? Would one know
that these works were by the same artist? Explain.
- Toward the end of his life, Léger recalled,
“It’s in the war that I got my feet on the ground. . . . I found myself on the same level as the entire French people; as I was assigned to the Engineering Corps my new comrades were miners, ditch-diggers, artisans who worked wood or iron. . . . At the same time I was dazzled by the open breech of a 75-millimeter gun in the sunlight, by the magic of the light on the white metal. . . . That open breech of a 75 in the full sunlight has taught me more for my plastic development than all the museums in the world.”
Léger said that the contact with other soldiers turned him away from his prewar style and toward the monumental figure paintings that mark his later work. He credited his time in the military for changing his views of both life and art. Ask students to speak to someone who has been affected by war and learn how the experience changed his or her point of view.
- WWI was one of the largest and bloodiest conflicts in history.
Research its causes, impact, and aftermath.