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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Fernand Leger produced his own personalised form of Cubism, categorised by primary colours, spherical shapes and a three dimensional finish.

Leger artwork is characterised by robotically formed humans. This signature style continued throughout his career, even when experimenting in other areas of his work. The artist's career came at a time when man and machine were working together in harmony like never before. The industrial age was in full swing and Leger's paintings portrayed a comfortable combination. Beyond instantly recognisable paintings such as Nudes in the Forest and Contrast of Forms, Leger would take in all manner of influences into his career. These would show their heads at various stages of his development.

An ambitious, open minded artist, Leger would make use of many different media during his life including paint, ceramic, film, theatre and dance sets, glass, print and book arts. There seemed no end to his innovation and desire to stretch himself artistically. It was the the 1907 retrospective of Paul Cézanne at the Salon d'Automne which started to encourage Leger into becoming bolder and more experimental early in his career. Prior to this, his training at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs and Académie Julian in the French capital had produced a more impressionist feel to his work. He clearly now felt empowered and inspired to work more abstract and expressively. Monet was, naturally, the key influence on the impressionist style early on. He was the master and driving force behind that movement's rise to prominence. Artist Leger would also meet the likes of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Henri Rousseau during his career and it is clearly no coincidence that the former two were early exponents of the Cubist art which he was himself so involved.

In the early 20th century Fernand would slowly build recognition for his cubist paintings through regular exhibitions across Paris. His style was unique but close enough to other Cubists like Picasso, Braque and Gris for him to be grouped together with them. Wassily Kandinsky is believed to also have inspired the development of Leger, with another Russian, Kazimir Malevich, also producing work which bears resemblances to this artist's own. Specifically the prime colours of the two artists draw obvious comparisons. Artist Leger wanted to see art as accessible to all. This anti-establishment feeling was rife amongst artists of the 20th century and represented a general resentment towards the established classes. Academic styles of art had been losing popularity for many centuries, with the likes of Leger, Miro, Rothko and Pollock now seeking to truly complete the transformation. The Pop Art movement which includes Warhol, Lichtenstein and Hockney found inspiration from this fresh way of thinking, incorporating pop culture to continue this development ever onwards. Indeed, Neo-expressionist, Basquiat, underlines how art was now starting to spread into the American minorities for the first time.

It was around the 1910s that several Leger exhibitions would help to establish his reputation as a Cubist painter, a movement which would become highly significant over the coming decades. He was then drawn into WWI in which he experienced several incidents and injuries that would inspire several changes in the content that he included in his paintings, if not the style which was already starting to solidify. It was the human figure which remained most in his mind after the extraordinary experiences of serving in the war, in the relationships that he had and also the horrors of things that he witnessed. This impact was common on many artists, with some sadly never even returning from service, such was the huge number of fatalities that occurred. It was then around the early 1920s that machinery would start to theme most of his cubist paintings and this was a direct influence from Le Corbusier who already held similar interests in terms of artistic content.

The artist would continue to work productively throughout the 1920s and would also sometimes indicate influence from the Futurism movement as well. He started to turn his attention to other creative outlets as well, such as book illustrations. He also became involved in theatrical productions, where his talents would be divided between costume and stage design, two very different disciplines that came together within each show. Film and photography were growing interests at the time for many and he eventually worked on a film production of his own, titled Ballet Mechanique, in 1924. He would direct this piece, and collaborated with the likes of Dudley Murphy, George Antheil and Man Ray on this project. His growing reputation was allowing all manner of different projects to be put in front of him in the form of varied commissions, many of which he took on in the spirit of curiosity and experimentation. He did not want to only be seen as a painter or draughtsman, but as a well rounded artist with a variety of skills.

If you examine the work of Leger across the 1920s you will find an interesting variety of influences. Some of the types of content found during this period will remind us of French figurative art from several centuries previous, such as from the likes of Poussin and Corot. Specifically, that is the the choices of mother and child portraits as well as figures within the countryside in carefully planned compositions. On the other hand we are also aware of the relationship between this artist and Henri Rousseau, a member of the Primitive movement who was entirely self-trained - his background could not be any different to the others mentioned here, but some technical aspects of his work were also merged into the unique approach used by Leger. Indeed, both of these individuals continue to be appreciate, even loved by many art followers in the present day, particularly within the younger generations who tend to be more interested in contemporary art than any other period.

By the 1940s the artist would spend time teaching within the US as he sought refuge from WWII. Speaking to younger audiences perhaps renewed his enthusiasm and he continued to work on new ideas. He chose to return to France once the war had finished and became politically active, perhaps with the hope that the awful recent period of history could be learnt from and never repeated. In revealing his socialist leanings, we are given a clue as to some of the reasons for the content that he used in previous decades. His concentration on the common man links closely with many of the principles of left-wing politics and his views would have been shared by many other artists in France at this time, where such ideas were commonplace and openly discussed. He was described as being concerned about humanity in general, rather than being particularly aligned to a specific manifesto and so would be unlikely to have expressed his views aggressively to others.

Leger would continue to lecture into the 1950s and found work doing so in Switzerland. His wife passed away but he re-married just two years later, in 1952. He took on some commissions in Venezuela and Brazil but by this time was approaching his last days. It is impressive to see how active and well travelled he remained right up until his own death in 1955. He had already established his name within the upper reaches of art history and Leger continues to be highly regarded today, with his work being considered both influential but also highly unique and contemporary. His combination of Cubism and mechanised content was entirely fresh and even today makes his work from that period be instantly recognisable as his own. Whilst he shared many ideas in a technical sense with other artists of the early to mid 20th century, the way in which he delivered them to the canvas was clearly different. Academics have also found the overall movement of Cubism to be a movement worth teaching in depth, with this artist's name featuring prominently in most cases.