Fernand Leger

I started reading After Modern Art 1945-2000 (David Hopkins; Oxford University Press, 2000), whose first chapter outlines the politics of modernism. Although I was familiar with the popular notion that abstract expressionism was funded by the US as a reaction to social realism, reality is always far subtler:

Art & Language’s opening image [1] can clearly be seen as a demonstration, in line with the thought of historians such as Guilbaut and Leja, that Abstract Expressionism was unwittingly infused with the politics of the Cold War. It is important, however, to stress that this is a selective and inevitably partial interpretation of history. Its value lies in accounting for the extent to which US-based Modernism quickly commanded authority in the West. In fact the impetus behind official American backing for Abstract Expressionism and its offshoots came as much from ‘local’ European antagonisms as from the imagined evils of Russian Communism.

(Hopkins, David. After Modern Art 1945-2000 (Oxford History of Art) (p. 12). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition)

The chapter also touches on the notion (and this is something that Grayson Perry talks about too) of concepts emerging from the depths of otherwise subconscious-driven work – i.e. after the fact. This is opposed in a sense to concept-driven work, which risks being rather one-dimensional, or obtusely ‘saying’ something that could be expressed perfectly well in a short written sentence.

Segueing painfully, the narrator continued: Fernand Leger was mentioned then as a member of the French Communist Party (PFC). Communists were expelled from the government in 1947, coalescing with the US’s Marshall Plan which poured aid money into Western Europe with the idea of bringing centrist political stability to Western Europe in opposition both to communism and far-right spread; arguably this was as much about control as about ‘stability’. Interestingly, this mirrored the remit of the USSR’s Molotov Plan.

Putting that perhaps irrelevant information aside, Leger struck me as someone who escaped me until now. Here is his ‘Playing Card and Pipe (Carte et pipe)’, whose name and composition amused me:

© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017. Photo credit: Tate

…along with his ‘Two women holding flowers (Deux femmes tenant des fleurs)’:

Two Women Holding Flowers (Deux femmes tenant des fleurs)

…and this one, ‘Star of the sea (L’Étoile de mer)’:

Fernand Leger:

His work is so honest and fresh – like comic book art or indeed (perhaps more appropriately) pop art. I have been considering outlines lately, and how we actually see… I like to gain clues from the way that children represent real-world objects in their drawings. Edge detection is a very important first step in visual reproduction – I think that is why Leger seems so innocent as well as being a great playful composer.


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