Prior to serving in World War I, Lger developed a style that maximized the contrasts among the constituent parts of his composition. As he defined it, "Contrast=dissonance, and hence a maximum expressive effect." The Contraste de formes (1912-1914) series is exemplary of this tendency to work towards pure pictorial effect with no concern for conveying the appearance or nature of the subject. In the trenches, however, this abstract language began to seem irrelevant to Lger, and, returning to Paris toward the end of the war, he looked to the world around him for imagery more pertinent to modern life. As Lger describes, this shift was the direct result of his war-time experiences:
During those four war years I was abruptly thrust into a reality which was both blinding and new. When I left Paris my style was thoroughly abstract: period of pictorial liberation. Suddenly, without any break, I found myself on a level with the whole of French people... At the same time I was dazzled by the breech of a 75-millimetre gun which was standing uncovered in the sunlight: the magic of light on white metal. This was enough to make me forget the abstract art of 1912-13. A complete revelation to me, both as a man and as a painter. The exuberance, the variety, the humor, the perfection of certain types of men with whom I found myself; their exact sense of useful realities and of their timely application in the middle of this life-and-death drama into which we had been plunged. More than that: I found them poets, inventors of everyday poetic images--I am thinking of their colorful and adaptable use of slang. Once I had got my teeth into that sort of reality I never let go of objects again. (Quoted in G.H. Hamilton, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940, New York, 1981, p. 254)
In his post-war paintings, Lger initiated a "return to subject-matter" and incorporated motifs emblematic of the burgeoning mechanization and urbanization to which he was witness, including cityscapes, factories, typographers, engines, propellers and other mechanical devices. Similar to the Futurists, Lger used the machine and the city as icons of the dynamism, energy and movement of the industrial age. Although the post-war paintings reflected Lger's newly affirmed commitment to subject-matter, the language with which he explored the themes of the modern metropolis did not alter dramatically after the war. The juxtaposition of discontinuous planes and the play of flat, cut-out forms demonstrates his continued development of the collage techniques of Synthetic Cubism, and the presentation of the myriad visual and aural stimuli of the city confirms his continued interest in simultaneity. Moreover, Lger continued to strive for a "maximum expressive effect" achieved through the depiction of clashing pictorial elements. Beginning in 1918, however, he began to introduce chiaroscuro into his compositions as another means of heightening the tension between opposing elements. As he describes:
In order to find it, I apply the law of plastic contrasts, which I think has never been applied until today. I group contrary ideas together; flat surfaces as opposed to modeled surfaces; volumetric figures opposed to the flat facades of houses; molded volumes of plumes of smoke opposed to active surfaces of architecture; pure, flat forms opposed to gray, modulated forms or the reverse. (F. Lger, "Notes on the Mechanical Element," in E.F. Fry, ed., Functions of Painting, New York, 1973)
In addition, Lger placed a greater emphasis on using formal means to convey the nature of the subject. As Christopher Green describes, "the rotating energy of the painting is openly an equivalent of the energy released by the machines, and Lger allows nothing to obscure this fact" (C. Green, op. cit., p. 144).
In La ville (fig. 1), his largest and most ambitious canvas from this period, Lger employs contrasting pictorial devices to convey the cacophonous intensity of the urban environment, depicting the city as a well-choreographed scene of plastered posters, painted surfaces, bright lights, glowing signs, towering silhouettes of buildings and anonymous figures.
A similar energy is conveyed in the present work, where the dynamic intensity of the image is achieved through the strong central field of force, the use of brilliant primary colors--the blues, reds, and yellows found in posters, shop windows and street signals--and the chaotic juxtaposition of flat, angular planes and rounded, volumetric forms. In this painting, the focus is no longer on the city as a dynamic site of activity but on a figure who is integrated so flawlessly into his mechanized surroundings that he is barely distinguishable from them. The mechanical nature of the cylinders, cones, discs and flat surfaces composing the figure allude to parts of the human body but are more accurately described as those of a machine, causing the typographer to assume the identity of a mechanical apparatus. The red poster, whose message is cropped by the figure, is the most revealing indication of the theme of the painting as the discontinuous forms splayed in opposing directions render both figure and environment abstracted beyond recognition.
The theme of the typographer, reworked in several paintings between 1918 and 1920 (figs. 2-4), is particularly interesting given Lger's experimentation with typography and illustration during this period. In 1919 he contributed illustrations, influenced by Apollinaire's calligrammes, to the Blaise Cendrars' film La fin du monde, and he created posters for Abel Gances' film La roue (1922) and Marcel L'Herbier's film L'inhumaine (1923). Jodi Hauptman describes the significance of Lger's use of the typographer motif as an emblem of modern life:
Lger chose the typographer as a figure through whom he could understand the modern city. And in exploring the typographer's function and importance in a world increasingly defined by spectacle and signs, Lger, I would suggest, began to identify with him. 'Present-day life,' he insisted, more fragmented and faster moving than life in previous eras, has had to accept as its means of expression an art of dynamic divisionism. The typographer's--and Lger's--abilities are up to the task; both are able to bring together violent contrasts of color, to decorate those interminable walls of governmental and other buildings,' to bring dissonant forms into vital conflict. In collaborating with Cendrars on La fin du monde, Lger actually played the part of the typographer, using fonts and point size to activate the space of the illustrations as well as the Paris of the author's text. (J. Hauptman, "Imaging Cities," in C. Lachner, Fernand Lger, New York, 1998, p. 81)
(fig. 1) Fernand Lger, La ville, 1919
Philadelphia Museum of Art
(fig. 2) Fernand Lger, Le typographe, 1919
Philadelphia Museum of Art
(fig. 3) Fernand Lger, Le typographe (2 tat), 1919
Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich
(fig. 4) Fernand Lger, Le typographe, 1919
Rijksmuseum Krller-Mller, Otterlo
Composition (Le typographe)
Oil on canvas
This painting has been requested for the exhibition Fernand L/aeger, to be held at the Nassau County Museum of Art, January 1999-March 1999.
Signed and dated 'F.LGER 17-18' (lower right); signed again, titled and dated again 'COMPOSITION F. LGER 17-18' (on the reverse)
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Art in our Time, 10th Anniversary Exhibition, May-September 1939, no. 171.
Philadelphia, Museum of Art, The Callery Collection, January-February 1945, p. 46 (illustrated).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Large-Scale Modern Paintings, April-May 1947.
Chicago, The Art Institute; San Francisco, Museum of Art, and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Lger: A Survey of His Art, April 1953-January 1954, p. 85, no. 14 (illustrated, p. 25).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Paintings From Private Collections, May-September 1955.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Fernand Lger, February-May 1998, pp. 186-187 (illustrated in color, p. 187).
98 x 72 in. (249.5 x 183.5 cm.)
F. Mathey, exh. cat., Fernand Leger 1881-1955, Muse des Arts Dcoratifs, Paris, 1956, p. 128.
C. Green, "Lger and l'Esprit Nouveau 1912-1928," in exh. cat., Lger and Purist Paris, Tate Gallery, London, 1970, pp. 54 and 98, no. 7 (illustrated, p. 54).
M. Richet, ed., exh. cat., Fernand Lger, Grand Palais, Paris, 1971, p. 10.
C. Green, Lger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven, 1976, pp. 151 and 159 (illustrated in color, pl. 6).
C. Green, "Lgers Krieg, die Kriegszeit Avantgarde und 'La Partie de Cartes,'" in exh. cat., Fernand Lger 1881-1955, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Berlin, 1980, p. 152 (illustrated in color).
R. Buck, ed., exh. cat., Fernand Lger, Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1981, pp. 31 and 33, fig. 17 (illustrated, p. 34).
G. Bauquier, Fernand Lger catalogue raisonn, Paris, 1990, vol. I (1903-1919), pp. 262-263, no. 146 (illustrated in color, p. 263).
D. Kosinski, ed., exh. cat., Fernand Lger 1911-1924: The Rhythm of Modern Life, Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg, 1994, p. 24, fig. 4 (illustrated).
Meric Callery, New York.
Wallace Harrison, New York.
Harold Diamond, New York.
Stephen Mazoh, New York.
Acquired from the above by the late owner in 1989.