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Fernand Léger: Reconstructing Reality" opens at Musée national Fernand Léger
Fernand Léger, Nature morte au masque de plâtre, 1927. Huile sur toile, 89 x 130 cm. Riehen/Bâle, Fondation Beyeler © Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler collection. Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel © Adagp, Paris 2014.

BIOT.- Although he is classed as a ‘realist’ painter in phase with modern life; from the twenties to just after World War 2 Fernand Léger combined objects in disconcerting ways, played with differences in scale, let objects float in space and used biomorphic motifs. He stayed true to “realism in conception,” which he defined as realism in line, form and colour, but he was receptive to the experimental art of the Surrealists. He made friends with Man Ray and Duchamp and, during his exile in the United States, he moved in the same circles as Masson, Tanguy, Matta, Breton and Ernst and made no secret of his friendship with the Surrealists, particularly at the “Artists in Exile” exhibition at the Pierre Matisse gallery in New York in March 1942.

A close look at Léger’s oeuvre reveals currents that could be compared to precepts characteristic of Surrealism.

Contrasting Objects and Disruption of Scale
Contrasting shapes are a fundamental part of Léger’s experiments in art, but incongruous combinations of objects are not unusual in his work. The object is freed from all constraints and becomes an entity in its own right: an umbrella, a compass, a box of matches, a splayed bunch of keys, ball bearings, a baluster, a typewriter, a bowler hat… all figure in Léger’s iconography and, as in Mona Lisa with Keys, create sharp contrasts and random encounters, ultimately quite close to the Surrealists’ idea of objective chance. Let us not forget that the Surrealists took a line from Lautréamont “Beautiful as the accidental encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella,” Les Chants de Maldoror as one of the definitions of their aesthetic.

Looking for a New Space: Objects out of Context and Floating in Space
Like the Surrealists, Leger was fascinated by window displays, that often odd assortment of things freed from their usual context. His oeuvre went through a period known as “objects in space.” It seems to go from the monumental to the sculptural and puts the priority on reverse perspective, which can be seen in his whirling compositions. His creations in this period seem to culminate in a sort of visual oxymoron, in which initially inert objects are suddenly brought to life by being set in motion. In his earlier compositions objects stood on tables or stands as if anchored in reality, now they are released from the laws of gravity: they float weightless against an often plain coloured background sometimes tethered only by cords, strands, plaits or ribbons.

Often interested in the life sciences, many artists in this period used a formal vocabulary that could be called “biomorphism”. Artists such as Arp, Miro, Tanguy and Dali adopted this language to forge a link between the real and the imaginary. Between 1929 and 1933 Léger left the world of machines and industry and turned to natural forms he found in the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms. He was strongly influenced by Jean Painlevé, whose science films broadened visual awareness of the time by scrutinising the microscopic world. Léger turned away from the fast-paced spectacle of modern life and took a slower approach to reality. He floated soft, flexible abstract forms, vaguely resembling organisms, against the neutral backgrounds of his objects in space series.

Objects Detached from Reality
A strange series of black and white drawings, reminiscent of printing techniques in the play of light and shade, reveals painstaking research. Objects from Léger’s everyday surroundings (a jacket, gloves, spectacles, a compass…) undergo a sort of metamorphosis as parts are blown up and the context changes. After intense observation of reality, imagination takes hold and the drawings are filled with an entirely new lyrical power.

The exhibition at the Musée des beaux-arts, Nantes and the Musée national Fernand Léger, Biot, in 2014, explores the relationship between Léger’s oeuvre and surrealist precepts which look, at first glance, quite foreign to it. “Fernand Léger: Reconstructing Reality” brings out the similarities between worlds that seem far apart, but, being contemporary, nonetheless show some affinities.

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