Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis
By Bobbie Leigh
What was new almost a century still seems new- not shockingly new, but fresh and inventive. At the end of World War I in 1918 until roughly the mid-1920s, Paris was buzzing. “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, explores this ebullient period with the films, architectural models, set designs, advertising of a group of avant-garde artists.
The centerpiece of the show is Léger’s huge 1918 post-Cubist painting “The City.” . A friend of the painter’s described this monumental painting as “ … a new living universe in the aftermath of a cosmic explosion.” That’s another way of explaining the immense social changes that greeted the painter in Paris after four years in the army.
In September 1916, Léger almost died during a mustard gas attack in Verdun. At that time, he explained: “The crudeness, variety, humor, and downright perfection of certain men around me, their precise sense of utilitarian reality and its application in the midst of the life-and-death drama we were in… made me want to paint in slang with all its color and mobility.” During his recuperation, Léger painted one of his best known works, “The Card Players,” in 1917. It is when we see his early iconic images — robot-like tubular figures and machine-like forms that he used throughout his career. Léger’s war experiences fueled his interest in the everyday life of ordinary people. When he returned to Paris, he was captivated by the crowds from all sectors of society, the fast-moving traffic, the electric lights, and mass transportation in a new modern city.
No matter where you stand gazing at “The City,” whether close up or at a distance, there’s no point of view, no set focus, or horizon line, just bold colors, contrasting forms, and graphic images. A few partial depictions of people along some stairs are barely visible. This is a semi-abstract painting by a young man thrilled to be back in Paris and excited by its dynamism. It has a mural-like quality that seems to continue beyond its borders and conveys a fascination with a city in perpetual motion.
After viewing such an immense work you don’t expect to be dazzled by what comes next, but other works by Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Robert Delaunay and his wife Sonia Delaunay-Terk among others never disappoint. One of the highlights of the show is a graphic book by Delaunay -Terk and text by Léger’s good friend, poet Blaise Cendrars. The book’s title is “The Prose of the Transsiberian and the Little Jean of France.” It was created accordion-style with text by Cendrars on the right printed in 12 different fonts – suggesting the different moods experienced by the poet in 1905 during his train trip at the time of the first Russian Revolution. Parallel to the text are Delaunay-Terk’s drawings, large colorful disks though the last section features the Eiffel Tower, a recurring theme in films and other paintings on view. In fact, the show opens with a wall-sized projection of a film taken by Thomas Edison as he ascends the Eiffel Tower, viewing Paris through a cage of industrial steel.
Another recurring icon is Charlie Chaplin of whom Léger wrote: “The art of invention is Charlot’s alone; everyone else practices the art of imitation.” The painter probably saw several films of Chaplin at his neighborhood movie house. For Léger, Chaplin best personified what he was looking for in his paintings—surprise. In Chaplin, he also saw the reinvention of an older form of comedy stretching back to Greek theater. As his films show, Léger doesn’t try to imitate theater. For him, “The cinema is the machine age. The theater is the horse-and-buggy age.” In film as well as posters and advertising art, Léger used fragmented forms, geometric solids, cylinders, cubes, and cones. With his enthusiasm for all that was modern and urban, in the 1920s Léger began to concentrate on film. He also worked on theater design and even costumes.
Playful Chaplin images also have a starring role in “Ballet Mecanique,” a post-Cubist film made in 1923-24. It consists of a series of repeated images of a woman’s eyes and lips, a washerwoman climbing steep stairs, and in true Dada fashion, it’s probably more about movement rather than meaning.
The curator Anna Vallye, has assembled works in various media –painting, film, theater, advertising that explores a utopian vision of Paris of the 1920s. The show is a reminder of an exuberant time. We still celebrate new technologies as did Léger, but today we have many doubts where it will lead us.
On view through January 5, 2014 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
If You Go:
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is pleased to announce four exclusive hotel packages in conjunction with Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis, on view from October 14, 2013 through January 5, 2014, that combine a premier overnight experience with tickets to the exhibition, as well as 10% off in the Museum Store and a complimentary Léger-themed dessert in the Museum’s Stephen Starr-operated Granite Hill restaurant. Visitors can choose from the Alexander Inn, the Four Seasons, the Inn at Penn, and the Rittenhouse Hotel. Guests may reserve rooms and receive two tickets guaranteeing admission to Léger without date or time restrictions during exhibition hours.
The Alexander Inn
12th and Spruce Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Includes room rate, two untimed tickets to Léger, daily breakfast buffet, Wi-Fi, 24-hour access to a fitness room, and discounted parking.
Weekend/weekday from $199*
Four Seasons Hotel – Philadelphia
One Logan Square
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Includes room rate, two untimed tickets to Léger, breakfast for two in the Fountain Restaurant, valet overnight parking, complimentary basic internet, and the option to purchase VIP untimed tickets to the Barnes Foundation.
Weekend/weekday from $359*
The Inn at Penn – A Hilton Hotel
3600 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Includes a deluxe guestroom for two, two untimed tickets to Léger, and a full American breakfast in the University Club.
Weekend/weekday from $179*
The Rittenhouse Hotel
210 W. Rittenhouse Square
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Includes the room rate, two untimed tickets to Léger, complimentary Wi-Fi, shoe shine, and newspaper delivery.
Weekend/weekday from $309*
*Hotel package prices do not include taxes and gratuities and are subject to availability.