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Fernand Leger

The Later Years

Edited by Nicholas Serota. With essays by

Ina Conzen-Meairs, Judi Freeman, Kann v. Maur,

Simon Willmoth, and Sarah Wilson.

1 92 pages, 1 97 illustrations, 88 in full color.

Fernand Leger is a central figure in the art of our century.

oks acknowledge the importance of this unusual

artist, although the focus of these publications is usually the

Several I

cs of the 1 920's that were created in response to

Cubism and the purist tendencies of this time. It was, how-

ever, in his late works that Leger's life-long search for a

humanistic, and at the same time abstracted art, found its most convincing expression.

This important, continuous 25-year creative phase is the

subject of this book. It illuminates Leger's work in Pans in

the pre-war years, his stay in the United States from 1 940

to 1 945, and his continuing political and artistic activity

upon his return and until his death in 1 955. It becomes

apparent how closely Leger's concept of "popular" art was

tied to both his political convictions and the events of the

time. In particular, the monumental cycles "Les Plongeurs",

"Les Loisirs", "Les Constructeurs", and "La Grande Parade"

show a fascinating side to Leger's work: he worked in the

classical tradition, developing his compositions in innumer-

able studies.

Leger's unerring and influential path is documented in

studies, sketches, and gouaches, and the final work itself,

accompanied by text commentaries: a long-overdue honoring of the "late" Leger.


Fernand Leger: The Later Years

Fernand Leger, 1941

Fernand Leger

The Later Years

Edited by

Nicholas Serota

With contributions by

Ina Conzen-Meairs Judi Freeman Karin von Maur

Simon Willmoth Sarah Wilson


This book has been published in conjunction with

the exhibition Fernand L6ger:

The Later Years has been organised

by the Whitechapel Art Gallery and will be shown at the gallery from 27 November 1 987 - 21 February 1 988

and subsequently at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

from 26 March - 19 June 1988.

The exhibition in London has been sponsored by

Bankers Trust Company

Photographs have been provided by the lenders and authors

All illustrations of works by Fernand Leger © DACS 1 987

Cover: Fernand Leger, detail from Les Constructeurs 1955,

lithograph, courtesy Sotheby's, London

Frontispiece: Fernand Leger (Photograph by Arnold Newman;

© Arnold Newman)

Catalogue published by the Trustees of the Whitechapel Art

Gallery, London

©The Authors and the Trustees of the Whitechapel Art

Gallery, 1987

Designed by Richard Smith at Peter Saville Associates, London Typesetting and Printing by Lecturis bv, Eindhoven

Color separation by Nemela & Lenzen GmbH, Monchengladbach

Binding by R. Oldenbourg Graphische Betriebe GmbH,

Heimstetten bei Munchen

Printed in the Netherlands


Nicholas Serota



Ina Conzen-Meairs


Revolution and Tradition, The Metamorphosis


of the Conception of Realism in the Late

Works of Fernand Leger

Judi Freeman


L'Evenement d'Objectivite Plastique:

Leger' s Shift from the Mechanical to the

Figurative 1926-1933

Karin von Maur 33

Rhythm and the Cult of the Body, Leger and

the ideal of a 'New Man'

Simon Willmoth


Leger and America

Sarah Wilson


Fernand Leger, Art and Politics 1935-1955




Biography and Bibliography



Lenders to the exhibition

Galerie Beyeler, Basel

Stefan T


Collection, Chicago

Galerie Gmurzynska, Cologne

Galerie Schmela, Dusseldorf

Galerie Neuendorf, Frankfurt

Thomas Gibson Fine Art, London

Josefowitz Collection, London

Private collection, courtesy Ellen Melas

Kyriazi, London

Marlborough Fine Art, London

Waddington Galleries, London

J., J. & M. Holtzman, New York

Mr. & Mrs. Martin James, New York

Sidney Janis Gallery, New York

Emily Fisher Landau, New York

Mr. & Mrs. Donald B. Marron, New York

Perls Galleries, New York

Collection Galerie Jeanne Bucher, Paris Galerie Louis Carre et Cie, Paris Collection M.J., Paris Collection Quentin Laurens, Paris Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris Collection M. et Mme. Adrien Maeght, Paris

Private collection, Samir Traboulsi, Paris

Collection Daniel et Danielle Varenne, Paris Galerie Vercel, Paris

Private collections

Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Berlin Musee National Fernand Leger, Biot

Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Caracas, Venezuela

The Art Institute of Chicago

Museum Ludwig, Cologne

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Sprengel Museum, Hannover

Sonja Henie-Niels Onstad Foundations, Hovikodden,


Herbert F. Johnson Art Gallery, Cornell University,


The Trustees of the Tate Gallery, London

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh

Musee d'Art et d'Histoire de Saint Denis

Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Musee d'Art Moderne, Villeneuve


The very brilliance of Leger's early work is such that for

many commentators the second half of his career is

marked only by a gradual decline in significance, especially

in comparison with those other two masters of a late

flowering, Picasso and Matisse. The principal question to be answered by an exhibition which traces the evolution

of Leger's work on canvas and paper from the mid-point

in his career is 'Is this a fair judgement?' But there are

also important subsidiary questions, some relating to the precise nature of Leger's art and his ambitions, others to

the standpoint from which such judgements are made.

Leger is now generally taken as one of the pioneers of a

more public role for the artist, and yet during his lifetime,

he achieved little of permanence in this field.

Furthermore, any current evaluation of the importance

of Leger's late work will necessarily reflect changing attitudes to subject matter in painting. Only one major exhibition has previously

examined the late work of Leger in some depth - the

exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, organised with

such insight by Thomas Messer in 1962. That exhibition

brought together works from the American sojourn and

the post-war period. Taking as its starting point the

Divers series, it traced the impact of America on Leger

and the relationship between the themes of divers,

musicians, acrobats, and the circus, cyclists and leisure

pursuits. Leger: The Figurative Work, an exhibition

covering the whole career organised at the Ludwig

Museum by Siegfried Gohr in 1978, touched on related

issues. Both exhibitions were motivated in part by a wish

to show the intelligence and long travail which lay

beneath one of the acknowledged masterpieces of

painting in our century La Grande Parade 1 954.

That canvas had been widely regarded as an isolated

hangover of an earlier genre, and its place as the

culmination of Leger's career was only imperfectly


This exhibition has a different starting point and another goal. It begins at the moment when Leger,

after a flirtation with abstraction in the mid-twenties,

returned to the components of the large compositions of

the early years of the decade - the female figure,

reclining or standing in isolation, and still life, especially

plant forms and flowers. It was the moment that Leger

again took up his favourite analytical tool, the pencil, and

began his relentless study of the single object in space.

These careful drawings, showing an obsession with

volume, defined by light, shade and contour, are the key

to the artist's late work. For Leger each figure and object

has a metaphysical, as well as a corporeal, presence and

from this point on, he strives to find a way of establishing

a balance in the composition which acknowledges the

distinct identity and significance of such apparent details.

In this, Leger takes a fundamentally different course from

that of his close contemporary Beckmann who was

equally committed to the figure as the principal subject of

his painting. There are many unexplored parallels

between Beckmann and Leger, especially in their interest

in the circus, in acrobats, in figures in motion, and in their

reactions to America. However, for Beckmann, the figure becomes a vehicle for allegory, while in the case of Leger,

it stands for the essential dignity of humanity, whatever

the ostensible subject. Leger is the great metaphysical neo-classical

painter of the middle years of our century. In his studies

of a pair of gloves, a tree root, a rope or a plant form,


La Grande Parade, undated, tapestry

225 x 314 cms, Private collection, New York

and later, the hands of a construction worker, he distils

the forms of animate and inanimate life, and in his late compositions, he builds these elements into grand

subjects, worthy of the human spirit.

It is a paradox that for all his ambition to create an art that would address a broad public, Leger had remarkably few opportunities to work in this area,

other than in temporary manifestations like the great

exhibitions, or as in the final decade of his life, in his mosaics and stained-glass projects for the church. Even in

these, the working process seems almost cursory; final

compositions that are close to the initial transcriptions,

with little of the reconsideration or development which,

for instance, marked the hundreds of studies which

Matisse made for the chapel at Vence. In contrast, the restless elaboration in the studio of such themes as the

Composition aux Deux Perroquets, Les Constructeurs, La Partie de Campagne and La Grande Parade, before

their final resolution into a grand composition, is

reminiscent of Old Master practice and especially that of

the revolutionary neo-classical painter with whom Leger so identified - Jacques-Louis David. For Leger, Tetat defmitif , as the final compositions are described, is the

public performance after all the rehearsals.

It is ironic that Leger, who envisaged a more

public role for the artist in the wider environment, was

obliged to reserve his major effort for paintings that

would inevitably hang in galleries, albeit public galleries;

only after his death were a number of large scale

decorative projects and tapestries realized. It is also

notable that in introducing aspects of contemporary life

into his painting, he was careful to employ distancing

devices, like the pre-war, rather than modern, car in

La Partie de Campagne, which elevate his compositions

beyond time, taking them into the Arcadian sphere inhabited by that other great French classicist Nicolas


Nicholas Serota


This is an exhibition which has been several years in the

making and its ultimate realisation is due to the generous

contributions of many individuals and institutions. In the

early stages of the project we benefited greatly from the

advice of Peter de Francia, painter, and author of the

most recent monograph on Leger, and of Christopher

Green, whose research and writing have done so much

to illuminate the early career. Once the exhibition was in

active preparation, we were fortunate to be working

with Dr. Peter Beye and his colleagues at the

Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Dr. Karin von Maur and Dr. Ina

Conzen-Meairs, whose commitment to the idea and

helpful suggestions on the scope of the project made it

feasible for us to contemplate a comprehensive


A number of people were instrumental at an

early stage in helping to establish the foundations for the exhibition. In Paris, Dominique Bozo, then Director of

the Musee National d'Art Moderne at the Centre

Georges Pompidou, his successor Bernard Ceysson, and

their colleagues, Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, Christian

Derouet, Henri Cazals, Alfred Pacquement and Bernand Blistene were more encouraging of the prospect of loans

from their great Leger collection than one might have

reasonably expected, while Maurice Jardot at Galerie

Louise Leiris not only offered full co-operation, but also advice on the content of the exhibition and introductions

to several lenders. In Biot, Georges Bauquier and the

staff of the Musee National Fernand Leger were

unfailingly helpful and generous. In New York, Thomas

Messer and Diane Waldman of the Solomon R.

Guggenheim Museum were extremely sympathetic to

the project, in spite of the fact that our timing necessarily

coincided with their own fiftieth anniversary exhibition.

Sidney Janis, a friend of Leger and himself the maker of many important Leger exhibitions, shared his knowledge

and gave every possible support, as did Klaus Perls of the Perls Galleries and William Acquavella, who kindly

agreed to release works from his planned Leger

exhibition. In Basel, Ernst Beyeler gave early support. It is invidious to single out any one lender to

an exhibition which depends on the generosity of so

many, but we would particularly like to thank James

D. Wood, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, for

agreeing to break his remarkable new installation of the

collection so that we could benefit from the inclusion of

the magnificent Plongeurs sur Fond Jaune. We should,

however, also like to convey our warmest thanks to all

those who have agreed to part with cherished works so

that they may join the exhibition. David Britt has kindly translated essays and

quotations from German and French with his customary

elegance. We would also like to thank Arnold Newman

forgiving us permission to publish his photograph of

Leger in New York and Martin S. James for permission to

publish photographs of Leger and farm machinery which

he took at Rouses Point in the summer of 1 944. We are

especially pleased to establish a connection between this

exhibition devoted to late work and one of Leger's

closest associates during his stay in America.

Nicholas Serota

Revolution and Tradition

The Metamorphosis of the Conception of Realism

in the Late Works of Fern and Leger

Ina Conzen-Meairs

Fernand Leger is considered one of the central figures in the art of our century. As a rule, however, it is

the works from before 1930, created in response to

Cubism and the Purist and Neo-Plasticist movements,

that are regarded as influential. Leger is credited as being

the first, even in advance of the Italian Futurists, not only

to recognise the novel fascination of an environment

imprinted by technology and industrialisation, but also to

translate it without compromise into a personal language

of forms derived from the vitality and power of modern

phenomena. Leger's numerous statements from this

period, which complement the paintings in a clear voice,

are witness to a conclusive and, from its theoretical point

of departure, modern conception. Thus his 'nouveau

realisme' does not set out to reproduce the new

environment in a conventional, i 1 1 usion istic manner,


leaves the evocative power of the creative medium to

form equivalents to the beauty of the modern age:

I understand it, realism in painting should be the

simultaneous fusion of the three basic pictorial elements

of line, form and colour.' 1



The greatest sense of reality is generated by a

composition which consists of 'constantly changing


.' that incorporate 'all pictorial means'. 2

Everything anecdotal, subject-like, he views as unmodern

and unsuited for the communication of the novelty of the

contemporary feeling for life: 'Modern painting, however,

rejects subject matter and composes images without

taking notice of natural proportions'. ;

Leger convincingly achieved these conditions

not only in the dynamic, tubo-cubistic works before

World War I, but also in the paintings with human figures

which appeared in greater number after 1917. Because the figures seem schematised and composed of

individual parts like machines, they remain purely

mechanistic form-combinations. The picture retains its

object-character, as the Purists associated with Leger,

Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, vehemently demanded.

It follows 'the same necessities as every other industrial

and commercial creation of man' 4 and should not point to

any other dimension of significance outside itself.

However, in spite of this, Leger's ambition to reveal the

inherent beauty of modern life, with all its formal

structure, ultimately confers a certain referential function

on the pictorial work.

Compared with the works completed before

1928/1930, the later figurative compositions seem at first

the result of a complete artistic reconsideration. The

gleaming machines and fragmentary forms disappear

successively from his pictures. In the 1930s works evolve

that are peopled with organically conceived figures and

objects, and in the 1940s and 1950s there follow spatially

organised compositions of almost epic quality. The

solemn effect of the human figures suggests an earnest, weighty content.

Theoretically, as well, there seems to be an

increasing aversion to the artistic achievements of

modernity: 'The time of the often criticised art without

real subject (Tart pour Tart') and the art without object (abstract art) seems to be over. We are experiencing a

new return to the meaningful subject which the common people can understand'. 5 And by 1931 he has already

formulated his conviction that abstract art, though

necessary for the liberation of pictorial elements, has

remained elitist and inaccessible for the masses.

Leger again and again demands a more humane, i.e. a

more human-related art. 6 His conception of realism has

changed significantly. It is no longer the purely artistic

that stands in the foreground, but the hope for a greater

intelligibility and a broader impact for his art. To have the

common touch was, in fact, part of Leger's conception of

realism from the very beginning, but at first he believed

that an innate sensibility for beauty would enable

ordinary people to appreciate the value of an art work

consisting of abstract harmonies.

The desire for a return to subject matter does not, however, involve the complete renunciation of the

principle of the autonomous picture, but is rather the

reluctant concession to the taste of the masses

constrained by traditional education. Accordingly in 1938, while still carried along by the Socialist wave of the

period of the 'Front Populaire' he formulated his hope

for an improved aesthetic education of the people and

simultaneously disclosed his uncertainty in response to

the question of how a popular art could be achieved without rendering it as a Renaissance-like imitation of


'But in the meantime, for the modern painter

who has escaped the restriction of the 'narrative subject', whose paintings are only

grasped by an elite, there arise difficult, even

frightening questions, should he know that he

is called upon for a personal achievement in

the service of the new social classes without

immediately finding an answer

The masses

of the people have to educate themselves

Then they would slowly gain access to the

beautiful things on the condition, however,

that contemporary artists, in order to be more readily comprehended, do not shove

some botched, inferior art under their noses'. 7

The issue arises as to which alternative Leger envisages for himself, since neither 'veristic' painting, as

practised by some of his contemporaries with great

success, nor the traditional illusionism of Socialist

Realism, provides the answer. 8 In his murals Leger

remains true to the principles of abstraction. As a genre subordinate to architecture, it has the function of

enhancing spatial awareness through colour contrast and

thus remains the ideal terrain for abstract formulations.

However, the easel painting which stands by itself cannot

yet entirely surrender the possibility of thematic

associations. 9 Thus from the 1930s, the development of

his easel painting takes a path parallel to the abstract

mural and glass-paintings and becomes the true field for experiment in Leger's search for a popular painting beyond imitation of nature.

The beginning of the period of grand subjects

and their principal dialectic was characterised by Leger as

follows: 'I venture out to the great 'sujet'; but, I repeat,

my painting always remains object painting: it starts around 1936 with Adam et Eve (pi. no. 34). My figures

humanise themselves further, but I always stick to the

Adam et Eve, 1935-39


pictorial circumstance - no eloquence, no romanticism.' 10

The tendency to treat the human figure as the

main subject is already heralded in the large paintings of

women from the 1920s, but Leger himself identifies the

turning-point as the middle of the 1 930s with good

reason. Only at that point do his figure compositions gain

a new formal compactness and impressiveness. They are

more organically composed and encompassed by a

flowing contour. The individual shapes of the bodies are


massive and plainly distorted. 1

The main works from this group Composition auxTrois Figures 1932 (pi. no. 3), Marie I'Acrobate 1934

(pi. no. 14), Adam et Eve 1935-39 (pi. no. 34),

Composition aux Deux Perroquets 1935-39 (pi. no. 32);

are compositionally divided into two picture-halves in

which monumental human figures and free-floating

objects are unrelatedly confronted. With this

compositional synchronising of human figure and object,

the object character of the figure, so important for

Leger's realism, remains intact, and any narrative

component is avoided.

The empirical relationship between people,

and between people and objects, are largely denied in

these works. And even when the figures are occasionally

dressed in contemporary manner as, for example, Adam

in a striped leotard in Adam et Eve, they do not seem

like human beings encountered here and now, but as

idols set in an indefinably distant and spiritual space.

This impression is not even diminished by the fact that

some of the figures are suspended in a movement of stepping towards the viewer, for as in Egyptian or archaic

statuary, this posture is not meant to suggest a dramatic

Marie I'Acrobate, 1934

Composition aux Deux Perroquets, 1935-39

act (something that is missing entirely in the works from

the 1930s) but is one of spellbound presence. Nevertheless, the flowing contours endow the figures

with an inner rhythm which leaves room for

interpretation of their calm posture as potential strength.

Leger now no longer sees his aim as one of

evoking the dynamic. In view of the hectic nature of modern life, he is concerned with creating contemplative

resting-points: 'Let us take the time in this fast and ever- changing life which harasses us and tears us to pieces;

to have the strength to remain slow and calm, to work

outside the elements of disintegration that surround us.

To comprehend life in its slow and calm sense. The work

of art requires a temperate climate in order to develop

fully. In this heightened tempo which is the law of life, to

determine fixed points, to hold onto them and to slowly work on the achievement of the future. :

The effect of the immovable, of the eternal

quality of the figure compositions of the 1930s, must

therefore be viewed as part of a certain sociopolitical

message. Marcuse, whose interpretation of the central

function of art in the constitution of a new reality corresponds in many points with Leger's ideas,

emphasises that only through 'quiet' can a work of art

become the medium of cognition: 'The quiet of a picture' enables us 'to truly see, hear and feel what we are and

what the things are'. Only through calm can 'the aesthetic

and political dimensions unite' and 'lay the foundation for

a society as an art work'. 13

From the beginning Leger was convinced that the role of art was to support modern man, who had lost


his religious connections, in his search for a 'substitute

for the diminished religion'/ 4 It should mean a heightening of the quality of life for the working man.

This notion of beauty is obtained in the early

works and murals primarily by the contrasting

arrangement of the abstract elements of composition.

The later, 'quiet', figurative paintings, on the other hand,

draw their effect above all from the formal

expressiveness of the human shapes. At the same time,

the monumentalisation and expressive, even distorted,

shaping of human bodies has a definite metaphorical connotation: it is an expression of the hope that man will not remain the slave of the machine, and the system,

but that he will have the possibility to realise himself and

to liberate his spirit in order to ascend to a new dignity.

The immediate motive for Leger's

reconsideration of the function of his art was certainly

his political engagement after the early 1 930s. He was

not only_ associated with the 'Association d'Ecrivains et

Artistes Revolutionaires', founded in 1932, but also with

the 'Maison de la Culture' (founded in 1934) - the aim of

both organisations was to transmit culture to the

proletarian workers. However, the doctrines of an

orthodox Communist understanding of art are not

reflected in his works. Thus, the 'realisme francais'

propagated by Louis Aragon excluded Leger's 'nouveau

realisme' as well as the personal visions of the

surrealists. 15 This does not come as a surprise, in as much

as Leger never calls for revolt in his