Fernand Léger (1881-1955) has long been acknowledged as one of the major artists of his time. His art, however, has been subject to more misunderstanding than that of any of his peers in the founding generation of twentieth-century modernism. In 1927 Alfred H. Barr, Jr., who became MoMA's first director, defined Léger as a "French Cubist whose forms are polished and cylindrical like steel, clangorous in red and black like new fire engines." As applied to an artist whose mature working career had then lasted scarcely twelve years, Barr's judgment was fair and succinctly descriptive. Unfortunately, this notion of Léger's art endured, and he is still popularly perceived as a painter of circumscribed technique whose modernity rests on his preoccupation with the machine.
The Léger retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art shows his achievement in its true richness and diversity. The main focus of the exhibition is on the artist's paintings, of which some sixty examples are included, representing every important phase of a career that lasted over forty years. Opening with the artist's first stylistically orginal work of about 1911, and closing with his last paintings of construction workers, the exhibition reveals Léger as a painter who addressed the central aesthetic issues of his time with a unique directness and consistency.
This century has witnessed no more heated artistic debates than the partisan battles over representation versus abstraction and the related problematics of flatness and depth. Léger left the polemics to others and created a vivid, powerful art that simultaneously reconciles and exploits the contrasting qualities of the abstract and the illusionistic. No other major painter of his time welcomed elements from such a wide range of his era's artistic movements into his work: Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Purism, Neo-Plasticism, Surrealism, Neo-Classicism, Social Realism--Léger used the sometimes arcane language of pictorial modernism to express the vernacular experience of twentieth-century modernity. He was, as one critic put it, "a heavyweight champion who could box like a nimble bantam."
Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture
Fernand Léger was organized by Carolyn Lanchner, Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture. This exhibition is made possible by a generous grant from an anonymous donor. Additional support for the exhibition is provided by the Lily Auchincloss Foundation, Inc., and the Estate of Mr. and Mrs. Edmund J. Kahn. An indemnity for the exhibition has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The publication accompanying this exhibition is made possible by a generous grant from the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund.
© 1998 The Museum of Modern Art, New York