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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Notes on ‘Drawing now: Between the lines of contemporary art’ (Part 1)

“What do we mean by conceptual? Are conceptual drawings theoretical, abstract, intangible, or ambiguous?”  (Drawing Now: Between the Lines of Contemporary Art. Tracey, 2008)

Drawing Now is a book by the editors of TRACEY containing drawings by a number of contemporary artists, seemingly selected for their range of styles and concepts in order to demonstrate the potential of the discipline. The editors describe drawing today as a “positive, celebratory” – a simultaneous contemporary conceptual exploration with the self-conscious adoption of traditional materials and techniques, in an era where the notion of art being crafted by the hand of the artist, or any hand at all, is no longer necessarily true.

This is precisely what makes drawing so ever-new: the very process of creation can become a sort of performance in the contemporary context; this is fodder to be played with as much as the materials themselves. And because it remains the mainstay of the first stage of creation, it does not need to worry itself with pretensions of more complex modes of expression – it resists convention. As John Berger says, drawing is becoming. Or as Picasso says, it is thinking.

“Drawing is the primal means of symbolic communication”, continues the introduction. “It predates and embraces writing, and functions as a tool of conceptualisation parallel with language.”

The book’s discussion is divided into three themes, which I will summarise briefly (as much as I can given that many concepts are new to me) before talking about a few of the artists that leapt out at me (not literally although I would prefer that, please, in the next edition), because it so beautifully illustrates ideas about perception and reality that remain important questions in a number of fields, e.g. philosophy (Theory of Mind), neuroscience (visual processing) and physics – basically they are questions about the nature of reality and which parts of it we perceive – how we perceive. This is important because we can so easily make assumptions about reality and the way that we see, forgetting that we are trapped inside a limiting frame of reference (the body), that we build our ideas on assumed foundations that are not really there, and that we are – speaking on behalf of mankind – of rather limited mental capacity.

The first theme, ‘playing with appearance’ refers to Derrida’s ‘Memoirs of the Blind’, which I read then, but I will need to read again because I have not read anything by Derrida before and – well, just try. It is taxing. But: “The draftsman always sees himself to be prey to that which each time is universal and singular and would thus have to be called unbeseen“. Derrida writes about drawing kind of like language – the drawn image being not only akin to writing in that it is an imperfect visual code for what is happening in our mind (semiotics), but also in us looking at lines on paper and associating them with verbal signs (we can break down writing and drawing to the same element – the line). He also describes seeing as a type of blindness, in terms of the central role that vision has played in the development of the philosophies of the past centuries leading up to the present. Another idea is that self-portraiture is a blind act in terms of the artist never being able to truly see themselves. Derrida also talks about drawing as having to work against the way that our visual processing functions – to as quickly as possible contextualise light information entering the eye, even if that means skimming over information. Drawing is learning to see, however: an attempt to undo the assumptions and generalisations that allow us to go about our daily lives. But this is also a folly to think we could be representing some new object, because whatever it is that we express, we are doing so out of our conscious minds; in this way everything that we draw is a product of everything we have experienced and are. We have carefully spilled a little of our consciousness onto the paper itself. Indeed, from the neuroscientific perspectice, we have never experienced the world as it is: it can only occur through the ‘matrix’ of our hard- and software.

I have to cut that short as I will never get down to any drawing at all if I continue to read and regurgitate. So I will continue in a couple of days with the second and third parts of the discussion discussion and an expansion of the source material – it will be necessary for me to explore the source material because without it, it is almost impossible for the unfamiliar to understand the concepts so very briefly touched upon in the discussion of Drawing Now.