Fernand Léger

Fernand Léger was a French painter, sculptor, and filmmaker. In his early works he created a personal form of cubism which he gradually modified into a more figurative, populist style. His boldly simplified treatment of modern subject matter has caused him to be regarded as a forerunner of pop art. Léger initially trained as an architect, before moving in 1900 to Paris. He enrolled at the School of Decorative Arts after his application to the École des Beaux-Arts was rejected. He nevertheless attended the Beaux-Arts as a non-enrolled student, studying with Gérôme and others, while also studying at the Académie Julian.

He began to work seriously as a painter only at the age of 25. At this point, his work showed the influence of impressionism. A new emphasis on drawing and geometry appeared in Léger's work after he saw the Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d'Automne in 1907. In 1909, he moved to Montparnasse and met such leaders of the avant-garde as Archipenko, Lipchitz, Chagall, Joseph Csaky and Robert Delaunay. In 1911 the hanging committee of the Salon des Indépendants placed together the painters that would soon be identified as 'Cubists'. Léger's paintings, from then until 1914, became increasingly abstract. Their tubular, conical, and cubed forms are laconically rendered in rough patches of primary colors plus green, black and white, as seen in the series of paintings with the title Contrasting Forms.

Léger's experiences in World War I had a significant effect on his work, he spent two years at the front in Argonne where he produced many sketches of artillery pieces, airplanes, and soldiers. In September 1916, he almost died after a mustard gas attack by the German troops at Verdun. This was the beginning of his "mechanical period", during which the figures and objects he painted were characterized by sleekly rendered tubular and machine-like forms. The frontal compositions, firm contours, and smoothly blended colors of these paintings frequently recall the works of Henri Rousseau. His still life compositions from this period are dominated by stable, interlocking rectangular formations in vertical and horizontal orientation.

In December 1919 he married Jeanne-Augustine Lohy. Starting in 1927, the character of Léger's work gradually changed as organic and irregular forms assumed greater importance. In 1931, Léger made his first visit to the United States, where he traveled to New York City and Chicago. In 1935, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City presented an exhibition of his work. During World War II Léger lived in the United States. He taught at Yale University, and found inspiration for a new series of paintings in the novel sight of industrial refuse in the landscape. The shock of juxtaposed natural forms and mechanical elements exemplified what he called the "law of contrast".

Upon his return to France in 1945, he joined the Communist Party. During this period his work became less abstract, and he produced many monumental figure compositions depicting scenes of popular life featuring acrobats, builders, divers, and country outings. After the death of his wife in 1950, Léger married Nadia Khodossevitch in 1952. In his final years he lectured in Bern, designed mosaics and stained-glass windows for the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, and painted Country Outing, The Camper, and the series The Big Parade. Fernand Léger died at his home in 1955.

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