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.
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.
Continue reading in Financial Times