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The Constructor

Fernand Léger’s modernist art resounded with a belief that people made the world – and could make it better.

Anya Berger, who translated some of the great socialist thought of the twentieth century into English, had a print of Fernand Léger’s The Outing (1951) at the foot of her care home bed when she died in 2018. It was part of the series of works Léger made inspired by the French Popular Front policy – at a political moment which coincided with Tribune’s foundation across the channel in 1937 – of allowing two weeks’ paid holiday across all industries and workers. It was a new kind of mass leisure. However short-lived that moment of joy and optimism, its repercussions lasted.

Tate Liverpool’s Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures (23 Nov 2018 – 17 Mar 2019) offers a narrative of how Léger’s work got to that point. It starts, in time for the 1918 centenary, with the experience of the Great War. Despite being gassed, Léger, 33 when he joined up, seemed to enjoy it with the sanguine vigour with which he approached almost everything. He had not grown up isolated enough to experience the bourgeois exposure to other classes which Sartre underwent in the next war, but he still felt he ‘discovered the people of France’ in all their regional varieties, and 

It was in the trenches that I really seized the quality of objects. I thought back on my first abstract studies, and a quite different idea concerning the means, the use and application of abstract art took root in my mind.

On leave in Paris, Léger met Trotsky (they talked about the idea of polychroming Moscow) and around 1915 or ’16, he saw his first Chaplin film with Guillaume Apollinaire. After the war, he collaborated on Mechanical Ballet (1923-4), starting and opening with images of a cubist Charlie Chaplin, scored by George Antheil, and proceeding with a kaleidoscoped, zoomed-in-and-out, inverted choreography of everyday objects. Later, he wrote to  Sergei Eisenstein ‘you are fortunate in belonging to a profession which is socially oriented to the masses. We [painters] are isolated by the fact that our public is an exclusive one.’ The discovery of film came too late for him to retrain entirely, but his painting is a response to a photographed world. 

Fernand Léger’s 1954 work Two Women Holding Flowers.

In a 1913 lecture Léger defined pictorial realism as ‘the simultaneous ordering of the three great plastic components: lines, forms and colours’. This essential principle stayed the same all the way to La Partie de campagne, or in this show, Two Women Holding Flowers (1954), in which coloured shapes wash over the front of monochrome figures and forms, giving the transparent illusion of depth. It’s possibly just the effect of their ageing, but the pre-Mechanical Ballet paintings tend to look better in reproduction, and those after it are virtually unchanged in the flesh. The thick black edges between objects created by early celluloid – the solidifying of shadows into black shapes – began to set a rhythm which lasted all the way through his work. It also gave him the freedom to enlarge or rotate past what would previously had been possible. ‘Thanks to the screen’, he said in 1925, ‘the prejudice against things being larger than in nature has been done away with.’ 

As the ‘Poetic Objects’ room of this exhibition shows, this could be a fairly dreary sidetrack of surrealist leaves and shells. The last, ‘Grand Subject’ room of the 1950s shows that with the inclusion of even a hint of human presence, it became infectiously enthusiastic. In I have killed, a 1918 book processing the experience of the Great War illustrated by Léger, the poet Blaise Cendrars wrote

The hands of men and women have made all that I carry with me. All races, all climates, all beliefs have collaborated. The oldest traditions and the most modern techniques.

By Leisure – Homage to Louis David (1948 – 9) or Study for ‘The Constructors’: The Team at Rest (1950), the sentiment has turned to something more like Brecht’s line, in a poem translated by Anya and John Berger, advising artists to 

‘Give us the world of men as it is,
Made by men and changeable.’

It’s a shame, then, that these works have to share a room with a ugly wall of vinyl transfers explaining ‘Fernand Léger’s Circles of Modernism’ which would’ve been better in a proper exhibition catalogue. But it’s an intelligent piece of curating which has the audio from the adjacent show bleed into the last room the way George Antheil bled into the first. 

Tate Liverpool have juxtaposed this Léger retrospective with an exhibition of films and installations by the Korean artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho; these take their title from William Morris’s fiction of a socialist utopia, News from Nowhere (1890). This contextualises Léger’s pattern designs in the last room: the idea of making art literally the fabric of everyday life is Morris-like, if the precise aesthetic was not. But Moon and Jeon’s vision of the future is dystopian. After an apparently man-made apocalypse, what remains of human society in the late twenty-first century is controlled by a small number of rival corporations. A woman works in a sterile-looking lab, reconstructing elements from a pre-apocalyptic sculptor’s studio. 

It’s probably uncharitable to ask if Moon and Jeon’s work stands up to a juxtaposition with Léger but, taken together, the exhibitions make an argument. Worse than Chaplin’s complaint that ‘machinery that gives abundance has left us in want’, it has taken us to the brink of extinction through climate change. If that machinery is still ours to control, we might have a choice between one future and the other.