The French artist Fernand Léger is often misunderstood as a cubist, but his work spans the gamut of styles that inhabited the universe of modern art. His forty year career is represented by a diverse, evolving style that reflected the artistic issues of the time as new art movements were being born.
Léger was born in Argentan, Orne, Basse-Normandie, and was raised on a cattle ranch. At the age of 16, he began his training as an architect, and moved to Paris when he was 19 to become an architectural draftsman. He was able to support himself this way while training in various schools, including the School of Decorative Arts, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and Académie Julian. However, it was only when he turned 25 that Léger seriously started to pursue a life as a painter.
While his early work was impressionistic, Léger’s post-impressionist work drew on cubism - however, his style deviated from the technique of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso and concentrated more on cylindrical shapes (some would refer to it as ‘tubism’, and sometimes not affectionately). Léger would go on to form the Puteaux Group with some of his contemporaries in order to separate themselves from the cubist movement of Braque and Picasso.
By 1914, Léger’s work was influenced by the Italian Futurists, and continued to become more abstract. But that same year, he was drafted into the French Army, and spent two years during World War 1 on the front lines. His experiences from the war coalesced into paintings that began his ‘mechanical period’, where machines and objects would dominate his canvases.
During the 1920’s, Léger experimented with several artistic movements. His friendship with the French architect Le Corbusier spurred him to incorporate elements of Purism (which used mathematics as an answer to cubism’s randomness). Léger even tried his hand at making movies. By the 1940’s no medium was safe – he would produce everything from paintings to murals to sculptures and even stained glass windows, continuing to work up until his death in 1955.
Some of his famous works:
The Card Players (1917) – His vision of war – fraught with confusion, massive machine people, and a not so innocuous card game?
Adam and Eve (1935) – There are a couple of versions of this painting, but look at Adam – is he wearing a tattoo or a bathing suit?
La Grande Parade sur fond rouge (1953) – One of his final works, it’s got the confidence of a master, and the light touch of an artist who knows how to play.