A Twentieth Century Master in Auckland
The Object in the Art of Fernand Léger

JOHN TARLTON

Objects attract me and not the rest.
Fernand Léger
Not in ideas, but things.
William Carlos Williams

The art of Fernand Léger could perhaps be summarised as a continual wooing of the object: for objects play an important role in the work, development and artistic philosophy of this visual poet of modern life.

From his early youth, spent on his father's cattle farm in Argentan, to his experiences during two world wars, Léger was fascinated with the visual potentialities of those articles that man used to embellish work, pleasure, creation and destruction. With the turn of the century and world-wide manufacturing interests turning toward mass production, he realised the overwhelming impact that objects had upon man's life. 'There is a more than man, animal and plant-there is also the object. Objects have a plastic power which nothing can disturb' he wrote. Throughout his creative years Léger used these articles to elaborate and intensify his compositions - and in turn to influence and inspire most art movements and trends of the last five decades.

Although Léger's dependence upon objects is only one component of a multi-faceted artistic philosophy it is none the less a vital one. His selection and depiction of ordinary utilitarian items as major reference points for composition indicates a turning-point in the course of modern art.

Fernand Léger Composition with White Horse 1945
oil on canvas, 66 x 91 cm (private collection, New York)

Léger was one of the first major artists to render objects solely for the simplicity and beauty of their respective forms. Duchamp and the Dadaists' use of objects, which involved taking the items out of their original context and making them focal points for philosophical interpretation, redirected their primary purpose and made them work as catalysts for intellectualisation. The Surrealists utilised ordinary objects within their art for metaphysical reasons; or for the capacity of chosen objects to call up certain associations in the viewer's mind. Objects were used as symbols for an ethereal reality - one superimposed and totally foreign to their original purpose.

But any type of Freudian or objective-correlative interpretation of the sort implied in the objects painted by Dali or Ernst is completely alien to Léger's philosophy. Léger's use of objects was fundamentally non-symbolic. He employed objects for their possibilities of design and density. His ties, cards, pipes, letters, vapours, mists and components of machinery were used for their purity of form, for their ability to stabilise designs, and for their static or dynamic qualities. Léger's objects act as two-dimensional sculptural forms of heavy outline that bind and architecturally construct foundations and establish within the work a solidity which would otherwise not be possible.

In Léger's pencil drawing Three Women, executed in 1920, we see his 'cult of the object' being formalised. The disjointed nudes create a triangular rhythm: while interspersed throughout the composition are repetitions of circular and square forms which are themselves repeated on a larger scale in the heads and body-joints.

Fernand Léger Three Women (Le Grand Déjeuner) 1920
pencil, 36.8 x 51.4 cm (collection of the Rijksmuseum Kroller Muller, Otterlo)

Léger treated human forms as compositional objects by disconnecting the body and reassembling it into sympathetic rhythms and shapes. Long flowing hair becomes a stylised and frozen movement. The torso is flattened out, while its outline shapes are manipulated into background structure. Facial features are treated with primitive simplification. The nuances and seductive qualities of the human form are reduced to a mass-produced sameness, dissolving romanticised individuality into the clear and precise aspects of pure form.

The dependence upon objects is represented by the figures clutching various items. The figures are drawn with the same intensity as the objects scattered about the entire composition. Vase, table, coffee cup and spoon are given the same representative power as the geometric, abstracted hands, body and face forms. Picture frames and window sills punctuate the drawing, giving clear indication of Léger's deployment of objects in composition for balance and design.

Throughout the drawing Three Women no one element is allowed to dominate. Objects are given equal importance with the human form by Léger's artistic transformation of mass into automated solidity and opaqueness. The three nudes are completely surrounded by objects - objects of comfort and security, objects associated with the consumer and with the artistic aspects of modern everyday life.

In the painting Composition with White Horse, a later work completed in 1945, Léger has retained his insistence upon an object-oriented composition. Léger presents a different attitude from Picasso's austere and desolate groupings of acrobats void of decoration. Léger's painting of a similar subject is full of life, colour, movement, and his unqualified love of objects. While Picasso established pathos and a type of brooding melancholy, Léger encompassed and celebrated the follies of circus life.

It is a life of elaborately-striped balls, brightly-coloured ladders, rigging, gaudy structures and sturdy, thick-limbed acrobats, animated with full carnival gaiety and undeflatable optimism. The white horse is adorned with golden bridle and chequered blanket. Rings and rope dance happily as the three centrally-poised acrobats perform. Everyone and everything is surrounded by objects. The human forms are now more flesh-like and earthy, yet they are still dealt with as object forms. Again Léger treats all aspects of the composition with the same intensity of colour and form. Even the flat background areas are related to objects. They exist within the painting as colourful stage sets and sections of tent, executed with the same directness as the performers or their all-important props.

The interdependence of objects, and Léger's work-philosophy in using them, was perhaps best stated by the artist himself when he wrote: 'It is not the beauty of the thing which one is painting that matters, but rather the means which one adopts to re-create the object even if it is only a nail. The nail must retain its dignity as an object. A painted nail should have the same importance as a face.'

 Whether he took them from real life or invented after prolonged observation, Léger succeeded in distributing throughout his paintings objects which work in an integrated way within the composition, and - uppermost in Léger's philosophy - retain their own character and significance as objects.

An important event in the arts in New Zealand took place in September when the Auckland City Art Gallery showed an exhibition of works by one of the masters of the modern movement - Fernand Léger. The exhibition was put together under the auspices of the International Programme of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. About forty-four works - borrowed from private collections and museums such as MOMA itself, the Guggenheim, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Rijksmuseum, and the Musée National d'Arte Moderne in Paris - were shown, including paintings, drawings and Léger's experimental film, Ballet Mechanique.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 2 October/November 1976