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Ballet mécanique

Fernand Léger
(French, 1881–1955)

0. 35mm film (black and white, silent), 12 min.

He grew up in a small town in France, but Fernand Léger was urban to his core. Modern machines, products, technologies, speed, and mass media thrilled him, and he found their most concentrated expression in the city. From his base in Paris and influenced by stays in cities like New York and Chicago, he spent his career developing a visual language for his time. “If pictorial expression has changed, it is because modern life has necessitated it….” he wrote. “A modern man registers a hundred times more sensory impressions than an eighteenth-century artist.”1

Though he was a painter, Léger experimented with other mediums. He made his foray into film in 1924 with Ballet mécanique (Mechanical ballet), on which he collaborated with artists Dudley Murphy and Man Ray. It opens with a shot of a woman on a swing. Back-and-forth she goes until—suddenly—three bottles of wine, a triangle, a straw hat, and a smiling mouth flash by in rapid, disjointed succession. A brief pause. The camera lingers on the mouth until another burst of disparate images races past. Soon these images—among them kitchenware, machine parts, people, geometric shapes—become kaleidoscopic, multiplying across the frame. Toward the film’s end, Léger includes a headline that screams in block letters: “On a vole un collier de perles de 5 millions” (Pearl necklace worth 5 million stolen)! Like nearly everything else, these letters and numbers break apart, dancing and blinking across the screen.

Avant-garde musician George Antheil composed a live musical accompaniment for Ballet mécanique, its staccato rhythms and forceful momentum a livewire complement to the film’s frenetic pace and frequently splintered imagery. Eschewing linear structure, Léger instead sought to capture the pulsating energy of modern urban life and the explosion of modern commercial advertising with a cacophonous overload of fractured, flashing, dancing, jumpy, repeating, speeding images. Ballet mécanique careens by like the city at rush hour. And just as we receive the sights of bustling urban streets as fleeting impressions, so does Léger present us with an assemblage of glimpses—imbued with his optimistic view of modernity and its boundless possibilities.

Fernand Léger, quoted in Jodi Hauptman, “Imagining Cities,” in Fernand Léger, Carolyn Lanchner (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 75.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).

Resembling or using the simple rectilinear or curvilinear lines used in geometry.

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.

A person whose job it is to research and manage a collection and organize exhibitions.

French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.

Ballet mécanique Helps Set MoMA’s Film Collection on Its Course
As an influential early experimentation in film history, Ballet mécanique was selected to be one of the first films to enter MoMA’s Film Library when it was established in 1935. The Film Library was the first department in an American art museum dedicated to the medium. By beginning its collection with Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique and Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), the curators set the course for how their fledgling department would regard film: as both an art form and a form of commercial entertainment.