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"Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis" on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Fernand Léger, The City, 1919. Oil on canvas, 7 feet 7 inches x 9 feet 9 1/2 inches (231.1 x 298.4 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art, A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1952, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- This multimedia exhibition comprising 179 works, including loans from public and private collections in Europe and the United States, unites The City, a major work of 1919 by the French painter Fernand Léger (1881–1955) with other important paintings from this momentous period, and with key works in film, theater design, graphic and advertising design, and architecture by the artist and his avant-garde colleagues. Returning to Paris after military service in World War I, Léger encountered a changed city, infused with a new boisterous energy that would inspire him to create one of his landmark achievements, the monumental painting The City. The creation of this work signaled the beginning of the most experimental period in Léger's work, lasting through the 1920s, when the artist challenged and redefined the practice of painting by bringing it into active engagement with the urban popular and commercial arts. Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis examines the centrality of this masterpiece in Léger’s career and for the European avant-garde in the years immediately after World War I, placing it in context with works by Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, Cassandre, Amédée Ozenfant, Le Corbusier, Francis Picabia, Alexandra Exter, Gerald Murphy, and others.

Timothy Rub, the George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said: “Léger’s The City, donated to the Museum by the artist and collector A.E. Gallatin, is one of the greatest works in our collection and a landmark in the history of modern art. This exhibition examines the painting in context and marks the first time that the culture of the modern metropolis is explored as a catalyst for Léger’s pursuits in a variety of media.”

In the United States, the exhibition is seen only in Philadelphia. Following its presentation at the Museum, it will travel to Venice where it will be on view at the Correr Museum, Piazza San Marco (a Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia institution).

A monumental painting in a post-Cubist style, The City was intended by the artist to convey viscerally the density and spatial complexity of the urban environment. Léger considered The City a “mural” painting both because of its grand scale and because he believed it spoke to a mass audience. With its composition characterized by montage-like cross-cuts from one scene to the next and dramatic “close-ups,” The City emulated the most popular of modern urban entertainments, the cinema. During the 1920s, Léger, with his enthusiasm for modernity and urban culture continuing to grow, considered abandoning painting for filmmaking. In 1922–24 he designed, produced, and directed for the cinema and theater. During this time, in collaboration with Ozenfant, Léger established a free school where he taught from 1924, with Exter and Marie Laurencin. In 1924, influenced by the work and theories of van Doesburg and Le Corbusier, Léger produced the first of his entirely abstract "mural paintings.”

The exhibition is organized thematically to reflect the fertile relationships between painting and urban culture during this period. The first section of the exhibition examines the notion of “publicity” and the excitement Léger felt for the evolving visual language of mass communication in the city: the bustle of billboards, traffic signs, and shop window displays. Léger’s paintings, his designs for advertising posters, and his print illustrations are seen alongside work by other artists and designers, such as Murphy, Cassandre, and Jean Carlu. The exhibition also explores Léger’s interest in public entertainment and staged performance, mainly the theater and cinema, highlighting the set and costume designs produced by Léger for film and ballet. This part of the exhibition surveys avant-garde activities around cinema and the stage, and includes works by Picabia, Exter, Georgii Yakoulov, and others. The exhibition’s final section addresses the theme of “space” by presenting the artist’s abstract mural compositions of the mid-1920s, intended as decorative architectural panels, in the context of the avant-garde’s exploration of integrating architectural and pictorial space. This section of the exhibition includes works by artists, architects, and designers such as Mondrian, van Doesburg, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Alexander Archipenko and Le Corbusier.

“For many artists, the metropolis imposed a new way of seeing and demanded new practices of art making,” comments exhibition curator Anna Vallye, the Museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art. “It inspired Léger to challenge boundaries between the arts, and between fine art and common culture.”

The son of a cattle farmer, Léger was born in Argentan, Orne, Basse-Normandie, in 1881. From 1897-1899, he trained as an architect and in 1900 he moved to Paris where he became an architectural draftsman. After military service, in1902–1903, he enrolled at the School of Decorative Arts while also attending classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and studying at the Académie Julian. Léger began painting seriously at the age of 25. His early work was influenced by Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. In 1909 Léger moved to Montparnasse, where he met leaders of the artistic avant-garde including Alexander Archipenko, Jacques Lipchitz, Marc Chagall, and Robert Delaunay. In 1910 Léger and several other artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Delaunay, Jacques Villon, Henri Le Fauconnier, Albert Gleizes, and Francis Picabia formed an offshoot of the Cubist movement, the Puteaux Group, also called the Section d'Or (The Golden Section). During this period of Cubist influence, Léger’s paintings became increasingly abstract.

While in the French Army during World War I, Léger produced sketches of artillery pieces, airplanes, and fellow soldiers. In 1919 he married Jeanne-Augustine Lohy, and in 1920 he met the architect Le Corbusier, who would remain a lifelong friend. Starting with The City, Léger’s paintings emulated, rather than illustrated, distinctive features of urban visual culture: his paintings acquired the formal qualities of street signs or billboards, frames of a film, theatrical backdrops, or walls of buildings. Léger also expanded his range of production into filmmaking, theater design, graphic design, and mural decoration, while at the same time his avant-garde friends and collaborators—artists, poets, architects, and filmmakers—were also seeking new social relevance by taking inspiration from the urban popular arts and the metropolitan environment.

During World War II Léger lived in the United States, finding inspiration in industrial refuse found in the nation’s landscape—the juxtaposition of natural forms and mechanical elements. After the war, Léger returned to France and joined the Communist party. His work became less abstract and he produced many monumental figure compositions.

In his final years, Léger lectured, designed mosaics and stained-glass windows, and continued painting. Works he produced during this time include his series The Big Parade. In 1954 he began a project for a mosaic for the São Paulo Opera, which he would not live to finish. Fernand Léger died at his home in 1955.

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