Whitehot Magazine

November 2013: Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis @ Philadelphia Museum of Art

The City, 1919. Fernand Léger, French, 1881 ‑ 1955. Oil on canvas, 7 feet 7 inches x 9 feet 9 1/2 inches (231.1 x 298.4 cm).
Philadelphia Museum of Art, A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1952. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis
Philadelphia Museum of Art
October 14, 2013 – January 5, 2014

by Jill Conner

Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art captures a glimpse of Paris in the 1920s after France had recovered from the devastation of World War I to become a vibrant center of Modern art. Curator Anna Vallye describes this exhibition as a series of encounters that revealed new hope and energy. New social and cultural freedoms evolved, replacing previous norms. Neon lights illuminated storefronts and streets as a larger, densely packed city emerged. Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis focuses on Fernand Léger’s urban masterpiece “The City,” from 1919 as well as work by those in his immediate circle such as Marcel Duchamp, Cassandre, Amédée Ozenfant, Le Corbusier and Francis Picabia. This exhibition also marks the beginning of pluralism as artists worked in multiple disciplines to rebuild the bridge between art and life. By including significant work of film, theater design, graphic and advertising design as well as architecture, this exhibition reflects the juissance of an era that embraced new technologies to fit the speed of a new mass market.

Beyond the towering scale of “The City” that measures 7-feet in width by 9-feet in height, paintings on a smaller scale populate two of the museum’s galleries and present the early evolution of the city into an industrial object that appeared clashingly colorful, cubist-like as well as highly layered with found materials, also known as collage. Léger’s “Smoke on Rooftops,” (1911) looks out across a sketchy gray-toned city that is surrounded by round white clouds. The buildings are a series of right angles that bear no specific details beyond their slow transformation into a collection of abstract surfaces. Robert Delaunay’s “The Eiffel Tower, No. 2,” (1910-11) and “Three Part Windows,” (1912) portray a shift in aesthetics, from representing the textures and expressions of what one sees toward focusing on the pixilation of light as it breaks down into a multitude of color. Harmony, it could be suggested, was suddenly located more in the range of hues than within daily objects themselves as seen in Marcel Duchamp’s brown-toned “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 1).” (1911)

The breakdown of form into cones and swivels appear in Léger’s pre-World War I paintings titled “Contrast of Forms,” (1913-14) and “Houses under Trees.” (1913) However both compositions reveal a narrow color palette of white, blue, red, green and yellow whereas Robert and Sonia Delaunay each imbued their composition with an array of vibrant colors as seen in a small hand-held pamphlet of poetry titled “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France,” (1913) and “Political Drama.” (1914) Not only did these artists break down form but they did so using all colors to recapture depth and allude to physical movement. “Composition No. VI / Compositie 9,” (1914) by Piet Mondrian portrays the artist’s well-known representation of black lines that structure squares spaces throughout the canvas that are filled with different shades of white, gray and blue.

During 1918 in the wake of World War I, Fernand Léger’s figural representations become almost robotic as skin tones appear silvery gray in “Acrobats at the Circus.” Logos are more prominent in “Flag,” (1919) showing the growing effects of commercialization upon urban life. Thus the stark verticals within “The City,” feature not only a variety of colors such as red, purple, green, yellow, blue and black, but the abstract subject matter appeared more symmetrical and orderly, suggesting the order of a grid, while other illusions such as working citizens, roadways, telephone towers and subway steps weave rapidly throughout.

Collage and painting became competing genres at this point since both represented flat, overlapping forms. Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis concludes with a selection of silent films that present a detailed focus upon the peak of the Industrial Era. “La Roue (The Wheel),” by Abel Gance from 1922 features the motion of locomotive wheels while Man Ray’s “La Retour à la Raison (The Return to Reason),” (1923) and Duchamp’s “Anemic Cinema,” (1926) present themselves as studies of circular forms that rotate repetitively into a state of hypnosis. These ideas extended to the realms of theater, printed media and architecture but they appear less compelling than the dramatic shifts that took place in painting, showing the fall of the figure and the rise of abstraction – all a clear response to increased distractions that resulted from wartime industrialism. 


Les Disques, 1918. Fernand Léger, French, 1881 ‑ 1955. Oil on canvas,
 105 1/2 × 81 7/8 × 1 9/16 inches (268 × 208 × 3.9 cm).
Musée d'Art Modern de la Ville de Paris.  

No. VI / Composition No. II, 1920. Piet Mondrian, Dutch, 1872 ‑ 1944. Oil on canvas, 39 3/16 × 39 3/8 inches
(99.5 × 100 cm). Tate: Purchased 1967.

Design from Décors de Théâtre, 1930. Alexandra Exter, Russian (born Ukraine), 1882 ‑ 1949. Pochoir print, 20 1/2 x 13 inches (52.1 x 33 cm)Framed: 29 1/2 × 23 1/2 × 1 1/4 inches (74.9 × 59.7 × 3.2 cm). Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.  

Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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