Fernand Léger’s Filmic Architecture
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 a modern production of the Suédois’s Skating Rink (1922), might have stressed the importance of this new departure, but it was also clearly the weakest point of the whole show. The digital transfers were heavily pixelated and their poor quality was both exaggerated by the size of their projection and corrupted by sunlight from outside the space. An exhibition that elsewhere paid scrupulous attention to the historical conditions of art’s making and manifestation here completely ignored them: Ballet mécanique would certainly have never been shown in a projection of this size in the ciné clubs that briefly became its principal domain, whilst L’Inhumaine, a commercial cinematic release, would have been, in a darkened theater. Furthermore, L’Inhumaine is more than two hours long, and whilst little known and certainly deserving of detailed attention, this was hardly the milieu in which to pay it.5
Immediately, however, this questionable introduction was balanced by the establishing of detailed relationships between film and other media. Léger’s first venture into “film,” after all, was a beautifully illustrated scenario: La fin du monde, filmée par l’ange de ND (1919). With text by his friend Blaise Cendrars, it is questionable if this volume was ever seriously intended to be realized as a film. Rather, it exists as an early manifestation of the paracinematic—cinema by other means—a mode to which Léger would contribute more than once.6 Elsewhere, the intermedial relations within Léger’s œuvre emphasized the bodily fragment and the fragmenting body. Baudin used the little-seen painting Hommage à la danse (1925), dedicated to the lead dancer and choreographer of the Ballets Suédois, Jean Börlin, to make a parallel with the autonomous, “dancing” legs to be seen in Ballet mécanique.
The crudely cut and painted figures that compose Charlot cubiste (1924) have immediate parallels in both the disintegrating mannequin of Charlot at the start of Ballet mécanique (“Charlot” was the principal name under which Charlie Chaplin was licensed in France) and in Léger’s illustrations for Yvan Goll’s cinepoem Die Chapliniade (1920). However, Baudin included not the familiar triumvirate of figures that Léger left behind but a lesser known variant, from the Musée Pierre Noël, in which the haste of production, and the inherent rawness of the subject, is emphasized by the unprimed wood of the figure’s body (fig. 1). This attention to Chaplin, and to a body forever on the threshold of catastrophe, highlighted a tension in the cohesive and quasi-industrial bodies that inhabit Léger’s paintings of the 1920s. This tension is emblematic of the unresolved dynamic in Léger’s thought between enthusiasm for modernity and the anxieties of a post-Kantian humanism seeking to locate authentic experience within the synthetic spaces that modernity had to offer. That questioning of the status of the human in a new world could [End Page 186] be seen not only in Charlot cubiste and Ballet mécanique, but in the alienated figures of the ink sketch Bus Stop (c. 1919). What becomes clear across the development of the œuvre is that unlike, say, Robert Longo’s prototypical yuppies of the “Men in the Cities” series (1979–80), who writhe in anguish or ecstasy at their isolation, the fate of Léger’s figures is to wait, passively, for modernity to happen to them.
Léger’s commission for Ricciotto Canudo’s production of Skating Rink would see him venture into spaces where the ordinary bodies of modernity—whose vulnerability Chaplin had so successfully allegorized—acted out their own heavily stylized masculinity. The project derived from Canudo’s poem “Skating Rink á Tabarin. Ballet” (1920), which was in turn inspired by Chaplin’s comedy for Mutual, The Rink (1917). Both poem and ballet reconfigured Chaplin’s comedy of corporeal failure in terms of a poetic amour fou in conflict with the proletarian crowd. To better fit the ballet to Chaplin’s milieu—both that invoked by the film and that in which his early films were watched—Léger went in search of costumes and Börlin of gestures in the “Apache” night clubs of the working-class arrondisements. The ballet would reify the limited, vernacular self-fashioning of young working-class men into a spectacle for the haut-bourgeois audience that frequented the Suédois, a process that had already begun with the adaptation of the just-about stylized violence of prewar Apache dances into performances at Maxims and the Moulin Rouge.7 But the Apaches also gave Léger an alternative typology of the modern body, one that, like Chaplin, expressed its humanity as much in opposition to as through the milieu that it inhabited. We might even see a parallel between the dance moves that Börlin derived from these clubs and what Jean Epstein would describe as Chaplin’s neurasthenic twitches.8 [End Page 187]
Curatorial attention then turned to the ways in which Léger first successfully intercalated real bodies into his art within architectural space. This initially took the form of a proposal, in collaboration with the sculptor Jósef Csáky, for the collector Jacques Doucet’s house in 1923, then collaborations with Mallet-Stevens, for the 1925 Exposition des Arts décoratifs, and with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, for the Pavilion de l’Ésprit Nouveau, in 1924. As for many other modernists (for example, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell in England, or Sonia Delaunay-Terk in France), such moves beyond the canvas took the form of interior design, and especially the carpet. If a painting, hung vertically, stilled its spectator and could bear no more than an implied mobility, the transposition of its motifs to the horizontal fundamentally changed that dynamic by displacing the latency of abstract dynamism onto actual, moving bodies. Film was one solution to modernism’s discontent with painting’s stasis; interior design was another. One of the striking features of this move is the convergence of ideas around particular primary geometric forms: the Ludwig show included a 1926 preparatory design by Léger that might have been made by Grant and Bell for the Omega Workshop a decade earlier. By the mid 1920s, Léger also seemed to learn from both de Stijl and Purism (or more particularly Le Corbusier) about the ways in which the abstract components of the picture plane could be disaggregated and exchanged across three dimensions to become equivalents in architecture, furniture, or bodies. This venture into architectural space by a successful young artist brought with it a degree of publicity in the specialist press–and having damned the Ludwig’s poor use of projection, here I must praise its use of technology. The repeated deployment of tablets throughout the exhibition allowed page-by-page scrutiny of magazines and sequences of photographs. Given the flow that characterizes page design in many modernist publications, this was an enlightened decision for their display and offered an excellent paradigm for future exhibitions of such material.
From the mid 1920s Léger would undertake a series of architectural projects, producing murals whose content reflected the changing style of his easel painting. These projects followed two principal paths: the first was the production of murals for the private homes of collectors, usually undertaken in newly built spaces; the second was the proposal, and more rarely the actual creation, of public works. These were often associated with major institutional projects, organized by devolved agencies of the state to engage and “improve” in some way its constituents. The first direction perhaps offered Léger the greatest opportunity for formal experiment: as Jan de Heer notes in the catalog, Léger’s abstract intervention in the modernized medieval house of the architectural writer Jean Badovici emphasized spatiality and effectively “destroyed” the walls of its inner courtyard (79). The use of layered planes and primary colors thus opened up space for the body that architecture might deny. However, such projects were necessarily intermittent. Furthermore, spaces where the mural might have a truly radical effect, such as Badovici’s home in Vézelay, were comparatively rare; most commissions were for projects that in their modern architecture already adhered to the formal precepts of spatial relation that governed Léger’s painting. In such contexts, the mural ran the danger of merely being architectural decoration, rather than an intervention that reconfigured the space on its own terms.
The tension between Léger’s humanist sympathies and the architectural forms with which he was asked to work became apparent in his address to the Congrès d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in Athens in 1933. In using that speech to accuse architects of “going too far,” perhaps Léger was on the one hand challenging the new practice of providing radical domestic spaces for wealthy clients—spaces to which he might contribute, but which his work could not truly effect—while on the other hand recognizing a discrepancy between an architecture that extended that elite style into the central, commercial districts of cities and peripheral, public housing projects, and the human scale of the bodies that were meant to inhabit such architecture (107). Léger’s institutional affiliations may have begun with participation in Mallet-Stevens’s futile project to design a “modern” French embassy at the Arts décoratifs exhibition in Paris in 1925, but by the mid-1930s his politics led him towards grandiose schemes that both represented “the people” and bought public art to classes and spaces that had previously been excluded from high culture. A common political commitment led to a number of collaborations with Charlotte Perriand, ranging from a rejected design for the office of the Socialist education minister, Jean Zay, in 1937, to the open-air panorama that was the French Agricultural Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of the same year. As Kathrin Michel observes in the catalog, Perriand and Léger [End Page 188] sought to make a contingent political statement with the pavilion, one that, in representing the traditions of French peasant life and integrating them with modernity—especially in the context of recent government reforms—sought to reclaim the mythology of rural life from political conservatives, who had largely enjoyed sole exploitation of it since World War I (134). In these institutional projects we see the fulfillment of the modernist goal of incorporating art and technology into everyday life. It is, however, a gap closed not so much by the autonomous activity of the artist as by the artist as agent of the nascent, instrumentalizing social-democratic state. There is, furthermore, a profound utopianism-in-denial about these projects: the Pavilion des Temps Nouveaux in 1937 included a real plane, a small civil airliner. A more perspicacious designer might have included a dive-bomber.
Léger had the distinction of seeing his work included in two consecutive World’s Fairs. However, where in the 1937 iteration he represented the state and its people, on behalf of trade unions and government, in 1939 in New York he represented capital on behalf of a corporation, painting The City of Light on the side of the Consolidated Edison Pavilion. Indeed, Léger’s later proposals and achieved projects in the USA suggest that the dichotomy he recognized in his 1933 address to CIAM was never properly resolved. This is, perhaps, unsurprising: as Matthew Affron noted, Léger’s work and thought, as a whole, is constituted around a series of oppositions that are never fully resolved, nor a single term embraced, with the machine object at their center.9 Léger undertook a series of commissions in New York, notably a decorative intervention in 1938–39 for the apartment of Nelson Rockefeller and then a more forceful engagement with another Rockefeller property, the Hawes Guest House in Pocantino, in 1939. One of the high points of the exhibition, however, was its reconstruction of the living room that Léger later produced for the architect who facilitated the Rockefeller projects, Wallace K. Harrison (fig. 2). A catalog essay by Baudin finely detailed Léger’s relationship with Harrison, whilst a shorter text by Petra Mandt covered the specific history of the version of The Divers (Le Plongeurs, 1942) painted for the architect. By this time, Léger’s hard, “machined” bodies of the early 1920s had become softened by the pervasive biomorphism of the 1930s, universalizing “man” by uniting him with ancestors and landscape. The Museum Ludwig was gifted this work in 1986 and the exhibition made exemplary use of its large scale to recreate something of its intended effect.
Another of Harrison’s projects was for Radio City at Rockefeller Center, New York. For this enterprise, Léger proposed a cinematic mural: a white marble screen in the lobby, carrying projected images of Manhattan. Harrison commented later that the projection booth was actually built and implied that Léger had also imagined a moving mural running alongside the building’s escalators (187–189). The studies for these murals suggest the use of color film and hint at the kind of rapid, fragmented editing that had characterized Ballet mécanique. However, in other aspects, notably the use of lettering in studies I and IV, there is a stylistic unity with works going all the way back to La fin du monde, whilst the billows that drift from steamship smokestacks invoke the disruption of the screen that characterizes Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta, or the Smoke of New York (1920–21), which Léger almost certainly saw in 1923.
The shortcomings of Léger’s artistic vision and the unresolved conflict between institutional and private commissions become apparent in these later works—notably around the questions of projection and the status of modern man in a public sphere constituted by capital. Having condemned the discrepancies of scale between the human and the skyscraper in 1933, while in exile in 1942 Léger would be overwhelmed by New York’s play of projected color from advertising signs on the dwarfed human body. He would write, “That kind of color, the color of the projector, is free; free in space.”10 That projected color was shown by the exhibition to have informed the different iterations of The Divers, on which Léger had been working since 1940 and which reached completion in 1942–43 (fig. 3). But it was not, of course, free: his universal, biomorphic figures were bathed in the light of capital. What Léger was witnessing in the 1940s was the formation of what Theodor Adorno, in the same wartime exile, would label as der neue Menschentypus (the new type of man), a form of subjectivity in which the language of advertisement had supplanted the rhetoric of self-expression to such an extent that the subject was impervious to the formative effects of culture.11 If Adorno, with his materialist precepts, could recognize and theorize this derogation of the human, the consequence of Léger’s humanism was oversight and, ultimately, the marginalization of his once-significant interventions on the status of man in modernity. [End Page 189]
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1. Christopher Green, Léger and the Avant-garde (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 244.
2. The widespread understanding of Léger’s war service perhaps takes his comments on it, made after World War II, at face value. A more critical reading emerges in Christian Derouet (ed.), Fernand Léger: un correspondance de guerre à Louis Poughon, 1914–1918 (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1997) and in the use made of those letters in Arthur Marwick, “The Great War in Print and Paint: Henri Barbusse and Fernand Léger,” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 37, no. 4 (2002): 509–521. Here we see Léger trying to get transferred out of a combat engineers unit to a camouflage unit, and the letters suggest that rather than being gassed, as he later claimed, he was hospitalized for exhaustion, and “pulled strings” to stay out of the front line when he recovered.
3. The other two exhibitions were “Léger. Modern Art and the Metropolis,” Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 14, 2013–January 5, 2014, and “Fernand Léger. Reconstruire le réel,” Musée Fernand Léger, Biot, March 1–June 2, 2014.
4. For this aspect of Léger’s early work see Judy Sund, “Fernand Léger and Unanimism: Where there’s smoke. . .,” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 7, no. 1 (1984): 49–56.
5. The only detailed study of the film to date is Dorothee Binder’s MA thesis, “Der Film L’Inhumaine und sein Verhältnis zu Kunst und Architektur der zwanziger Jahre,” (Faculty of History and the Arts, Ludwig-Maximillians-Universität München, 2005).
6. For the initial framing of the concept of the “paracinematic,” see Jonathan Walley, “The Material of Film and the Idea of Cinema: Contrasting Practices in Sixties and Seventies Avant-Garde Film,” October 103 (2003): 15–30. For a development of the concept in the contexts of high modernism see Pavle Levi, “Cinema by Other Means,” October 131 (2010): 51–68.
7. Several scenes in Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915–16) were shot using dancers drawn from the Apache sub-culture, rather than professionals. These dances are far more aggressive than those of professionals in surviving documentary footage or later adaptations.
8. Jean Epstein, “Magnification and other Writings,” trans. Stuart Liebman, October, 3, (Spring 1977): 13. See also Rae Beth Gordon, “From Charcot to Charlot: Unconscious Imitation and Spectatorship in French Cabaret and Early Cinema,” Critical Inquiry, 27, no. 3 (2001): 515–549.
9. Matthew Affron, “Léger’s Modernism: Subjects and Objects” in Carolyn Lanchner, Fernand Léger, (New York: Museum of Modern Art: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 121–148, 129.
10. Fernand Léger, “Experiencing Color in Space on Broadway,” in Dora Vallier, “La vie fait l’œuvre de Fernand Léger,” Cahiers d’Art, 2 (1954): 154. English translation by Ruth Ann Krueger Meyer, “Fernand Léger’s Mural Paintings, 1922–55,” (Ph.D diss. University of Minnesota, 1980), 250.
11. Theodor Adorno, “Problem des neuen Menschentypus,” June 23, 1941, ms. Theodor W. Adorno-Archiv, Frankfurt am Main. See also Robert Hullot-Kentor, “Right Listening and a New Type of Human Being,” in Things Beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 193–209. [End Page 191]