Forget what Léger can offer the city; what can the city offer the painter?

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ID_IC_MEIS_LEGER_AP_001Poor Fernand Léger. He is a man trapped in sociology. His paintings aren’t looked at for their own sake anymore but for what they show us about city life in the early 20th century.

You can see why Léger’s art is approached sociologically when you look at his most famous painting “The City,” painted in 1919. “The City” is owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The current exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum, “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis,” features “The City” as its central work. It is because of this painting that Léger is often called “the painter of the modern city.”

In “The City” we see, well, the city. We see the jumble of shapes and colors, the snatches of advertisements, the confusion of content that had already become, by the early decades of the 20th century, characteristic of the urban environment. In paintings like “The City,” and in any number of canvases Léger painted in following years, we find a painter coming to terms visually with the new and startling aspects of that urban environment. It makes sense that Léger was startled. He’d been sent off to fight WWI in 1914, like so many other young Frenchmen. The sights and sounds of the Great War pulverized his sensibilities. When he got back to Paris a few years later, his sensibilities were pulverized some more. The city was being lit up and mechanized with all sorts of new fangled devices, just like the battlefields.

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