No art too good for the workers

Fernand Léger drew from popular entertainment and working life to make Cubism less inaccessible

Art
Joyous balance: “The Acrobat and his Partner”, 1948, by Fernand Léger (© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018)

Cubism might have been the most important of the flurry of artistic “isms” that marked the first two decades of the 20th century, but it was also one of the least visually appealing. The style, as it was developed around 1907 by Picasso and Braque, set out to fracture forms — a bottle, a violin, a person — and reconstitute them to be seen from multiple viewpoints simultaneously. Their initial paintings had little colour and were technical experiments in dun shades. They were, however, both hugely influential and shocking: as the New York Times asked in 1911, “What do they mean? Have those responsible for them taken leave of their senses? Is it art or madness? Who knows?”

Among those who followed Picasso and Braque’s lead were Juan Gris, Robert Delaunay, Jean Metzinger, Alexander Archipenko and Jacques Lipchitz, but the artist who did most to wrench this style of intellectual enquiry into something more colourful and approachable was Fernand Léger (1881-1955). His version of Cubism was based on pattern, simplified forms and, above all, primary colours: “Man needs colour to live,” he said. “It’s just as necessary an element as fire and water.”

Some 50 of the artist’s works are on display in Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures  (until March 17, 2019) at Tate Liverpool. They show how he moved on from his early Cubist paintings and their tendency towards abstraction, with both landscapes and figures being broken into patterns of discs and random shapes to something more distinctive. It was his experience of war, where he served at the front for two years and was invalided out following a mustard gas attack, that changed his art: “I was stunned by the sight of the breech of a 75 millimetre in the sunlight. It was the magic of light on the white metal. That’s all it took for me to forget the abstract art of 1912–1913.” He now wanted, he said, “to paint in slang with all its colour and mobility”.

Echoes of that gun would appear in the tubes and mechanical components that appeared in his art through the 1920s (indeed he was known for a time as a “tubist”). However, the other revelation of Léger’s war years was coming into prolonged contact with working men and he consequently aimed at making art that would both reflect and be accessible to all.

He expanded his range beyond easel paintings to include murals, stained glass, tapestries and film and became an influential teacher. His pictures, meanwhile, took on a crisp monumentality — figures and backgrounds outlined in black with large areas of unmodulated colour: there is more than a hint of Mondrian’s De Stijl grids in Léger’s work. And many of his subjects came from popular entertainments — cyclists, musicians, acrobats — and from working life.

Among his most ambitious works were images of dock workers (The Big Black Divers, 1944, showing a knot of intertwined figures in bright colours) and builders (The Constructors, 1950). This latter subject, represented in the exhibition by a study showing a group of builders taking a break from putting up a steel-frame building, is an example of his socialism in action (he joined the French Communist Party on his post-war return from exile in America). The working man, however, was less keen on Léger than he was on them, and when the finished painting was installed in the café of the Renault motor factory, the artist was disappointed that the workers paid so little attention to it.

Léger was always an independent artist and in his work he found a way to combine many of the competing strands of early 20th-century art — colour, dynamism, abstraction, the figurative, the city, the machine age, and three-dimensionality. “Let us gaze wide-eyed at present-day life, which rolls, moves, and overflows alongside us,” he said. And, having done so, “Let us endeavour to dam it up, canalise it, organise it plastically.” People were among the things to be organised plastically too, which is why he never painted portraits. What he did do though was strike a balance, often a joyous one, between real life and formal experimentation.

Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1557) had the ill- fortune to be born in Venice with Titian and Giorgione as peers and with Giovanni Bellini in his pomp. Although he had great talent it was not as great as theirs and it was his fate always to work in the shadow of others, something that was reflected in the trajectory of his career. He left Venice to set himself up on the Veneto in less glamorous locations such as Treviso, Bergamo and Ancona — although there was a foray to Rome to work on the papal apartments where, needless to say, he came up against the young Raphael.

As a result — and as the National Gallery’s lovely exhibition of his portraits (until February 10, 2019) shows — he tended not to work for the Renaissance’s grandees but rather for its merchant and intellectual class. This though did not stop him from being an innovator. Lotto specialised in double portraits, such as his 1523 marriage portrait of Marsilio Cassotti and Faustina Assonica; in subject paintings that contained portraits (the deposed Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus stands in for the Virgin in his 1506 The Virgin in Glory between Saints Anthony Abbot and Louis of Toulouse); and in unusually wide-format portraits, such as his 1527 depiction of Andrea Odoni, which consequently has space not just for the collector of antiquities but for his collection too.

Nevertheless, Lotto’s career was a struggle — “Art did not earn me what I spent,” he wrote — and in 1552 he gave up and retreated from the world to become a lay brother at the Holy House of Loreto. Whatever consolations his faith gave him, his wonderful portraits show that he deserved much better from the world at large.