restricted access Fernand Léger’s Filmic Architecture
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Fernand Léger’s Filmic Architecture
Fernand Léger: Painting in Space, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, April 9–July 3, 1916.
Fernand Léger: Painting in Space. Edited by Katia Baudin. Cologne: Museum Ludwig, 2016. Pp. 312. £ 32.00 (cloth).

Throughout his work, Fernand Léger (1881–1955) seemed to embrace the technical-industrial modernity of his time. He made paintings of men within the glass, steel, and concrete of the modern city; he made paintings that celebrated workers and technicians—the new men for a new age. In these works the distinction between body and architecture, between man and machine, is often blurred. He made paintings that celebrated the new consumer culture of the interwar years, in which “man” seemingly becomes what he buys. After the early 1920s, he often rendered his figures as if they were indeed part object, part machine, prefabricated: their limbs seemingly drawn from a repository of stylized, manufactured parts.1 And he made a film, Ballet mécanique (1924), that in its style and content apparently celebrated the speed and chaos of industrial modernity, successfully hyperbolizing the sensation of living within it.

Yet, for all that, there remains evidence throughout Léger’s œuvre that modernity troubled him. In particular, there was the pervasive question of what to do about the human subject, and especially its vessel, the vulnerable, fragile body. Léger—for all his enthusiasm for projects such as Purism, which seemed to derogate the organic to the mechanical and to promise, in various iterations, modes of the mechanized man—remained, in his core values, a traditional humanist. His own experiences of modernity at its extremes, especially in the trenches around Verdun in 1915–16, perhaps led to a certain wariness about ideals that subordinated bodies to the machine and to the vast scale of the modern city.2 Even if Ballet mécanique took its lead from, on one hand, Vinicio Paladini and Ivo Pannaggi’s Futurist Ballo meccanico futurista (1922) and, on the other, Francis Picabia’s “mechanomorph” [End Page 185] Ballet mécanique (1915)—works that respectively extolled the virtues of machine-man and problematized the elision of the human by the instrumental—Léger’s insistence on the authenticity of human experience led him to question man’s place in modernity as much as it inspired visions of modernizing him to fit it. This tension was especially palpable in the Museum Ludwig’s recent exhibition “Fernand Léger: Painting in Space.” Curated by Katia Baudin, it was the first show devoted to Léger’s mural and architectural works; it was also the most significant of three recent shows which demonstrated that Léger’s œuvre still has much to offer audiences seeking to understand the relationship of western man to the new milieu that transformed lived experience between the late nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century.3 What characterized all three exhibitions was a detailed attention to the relation between the œuvre and the public sphere, treating Léger’s paintings, films, and written works as an integrated, if tensely related, totality.

The projection of his visual art into the public domain began at the same moment, the early 1920s, as Léger achieved significant success in the art market through his contract with Léonce Ronsenberg. The Ludwig’s exhibition did much to stress that this was, indeed, actual projection: its premise seemed to be that the subsequent inspiration for Léger’s architectural interventions lay in his filmic, para-cinematic, and theatrical projects of that period. If, before World War I, easel painting had offered Léger a conventional framing device through which to observe and contain modernity, later, projection and performance, then the mural, removed those boundaries, placing the subject in dialogue with its social space.4 Léger’s work for the stage, notably with the Ballets Suédois, gave him new opportunities to consider the stylized presentation of bodies. His collaboration on one particular film, Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (1924), allowed him to work closely with modernist architect Robert Mallet-Stevens. Prefacing the exhibition with projections of the Kiesler print of Ballet mécanique and L’Inhumaine, along with...