‘The City’ (1919) by Fernand Léger
‘The City’ (1919) by Fernand Léger © Arts Rights Society

The beautiful is everywhere. Perhaps more in the arrangement of your saucepans on the white walls of your kitchen than in your 18th-century living rooms or in the official museums,” proclaimed Fernand Léger, heroic champion of the interwar avant-garde.

A true believer in the élan of the machine age, he harnessed urban chaos, jumbling streetlights, staircases, cranes and billboards into kaleidoscopic paeans to modernity. But that doesn’t mean he abandoned the fusty art establishment. He was no stranger to the ornate bourgeois living room he scoffed at. If today his work sits so comfortably in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it’s because a century ago he repackaged the volatile world of steel and steam for more sedate sanctums.

Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis, the Philadelphia Museum’s rambling and sporadically exciting show, squares the populist painter in overalls with the aspiring immortal by surrounding him with sympathetic contemporaries such as the Delaunays, Mondrian, Picabia and Le Corbusier. With each step into the new terrain of technology, Léger kept his supply lines to the past intact; he built new monuments with the tools of the great tradition.

Léger may not have been a virtuoso but what he lacked in loveliness he made up for in ebullience. He was a visionary of the electric metropolis, a fierce advocate of progress who believed in elite art for the masses. The Philadelphia exhibition is built around “The City”, from 1919, which synthesised competing “isms” into an original tour de force on a grand scale.

Léger’s ‘Composition à la main et aux chapeaux’ (1927)
Léger’s ‘Composition à la main et aux chapeaux’ (1927) © Centre Pompidou

Curator Anna Vallye navigates the avant-garde tributaries that fed Léger’s masterpiece. First, of course, is Picasso, whose collage “Bowl With Fruit, Violin and Wineglass” (1913) absorbed bits and pieces of café culture. Léger also channelled futurism’s passion for objects careering through space. An example here is Giacomo Balla’s “Abstract Speed” (1912), where intersecting rays and overlapping spirals realise the very essence of velocity. Another mentor, Robert Delaunay, fractured his surroundings into clattering planes, though Léger ultimately preferred opaque solidity to Delaunay’s translucent shimmers.

Traces of all these influences appear in “The City”, where Léger layers vibrant colours, flashing lights and clangorous typography. Buildings contort and rearrange themselves; advertising posters clash in vibrant dissonance. It’s hard to locate our position in the cityscape that unfurls madly before us. Are we looking out of a window, or about to climb a winding stairway to nowhere?

But, for all its hectic energy, “The City” is still a graceful, balanced painting. Léger arranges tumult into an anchored composition, stabilised by vertical piers. Diagonals galvanise the grid without undermining its essential solidity. Complex systems of rhyming shapes and contrapuntal accents cohere into a robust whole.

In a study for the 1920 “Disks in the City”, a circular gear taps out a jazzy beat, accompanied by a round street lamp and an iron wheel. The red torso in one billboard echoes the white one in another, and both rebound off the grey figures of two men. The effect is of a harmonious visual poem, an epic on the theme of modernity. Léger’s people are less alive than the whirring industrial stuff that shoves them to the margins. Clouds of smoke are more palpable than the smokers themselves, a practical demonstration of his statement that “the human body is of no weightier plastic interest than a tree, a plant, a piece of rock or a pile of rope”.

Léger refined his ideas in numerous studies, aping academic technique. His goal wasn’t to disrupt so much as to update tradition, to forge a new kind of history painting worthy of his hurtling times. From a distance, the paintings seem to flash like the shiny, sterile products of the assembly lines. Up close, surfaces dissolve into irregularity. Bright, solid patches of primary colour edge into ambiguous shades. Feathery brushstrokes underscore the work’s handmade-ness. Léger invokes the seamlessness of industry only to undercut it – to prove its inadequacy as a vehicle for art.

‘Razor’ by Gerald Murphy
‘Razor’ (1924) by Gerald Murphy © Dallas Museum of Art

The Philadelphia show invites a comparison between two short films, one by Léger and another by his more anarchic Dadaist peers. Léger wanted to aestheticise modernity, to construct order out of chaos. In Ballet Mécanique (1924), which he created with Dudley Murphy, a corps of pans, whisks, dummies, machine parts and human limbs dance to George Antheil’s soundtrack of pounding rhythms and calculated clanks. Under the guise of lunacy, choreographed order reigns.

Entr’acte (1924), by Francis Picabia and René Clair, with a score by Erik Satie, plunges straight into weirdness. It begins with a cannon firing directly at the audience. The rest is a raucous mash-up of funeral, chase scene and circus, ending when the dead man climbs out of his coffin and makes everyone disappear. Throughout, a ballerina filmed through a glass floor bounces relentlessly, her feet pounding the transparent surface as if she were tenderising meat. Comic exuberance rubs shoulders with nihilism but no one takes anything too seriously, and beauty is utterly beside the point.

The tension between the classical and the contemporary points to a conflict at the core of Léger’s output: how to reconcile the tastes of the people with a fundamentally elitist approach. Workers, he thought, simply needed time to acclimatise to novelty. Politics would liberate their eyes and their minds. (Léger joined the Communist party in the 1940s.) In the meantime, he needn’t coarsen his approach to appeal to less educated palates; the people would catch up.

Yet after the stock market crash of 1929, when industry no longer seemed quite so redemptive, Léger’s romance with the machine age soured. The roar of the factory gave way to a domesticated soundtrack of clinking teaspoons and polite murmurs. At that point his painting, so finely balanced between timeliness and transcendence, began to founder. Wisely, the Philadelphia show cuts away at this point, avoiding the embarrassment of disorientation and decline.

‘Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis’, Philadelphia Museum of Art, until January 5. philamuseum.org

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