The painter Fernand Léger found his beauty in the machine

Reflecting on the definition of art, the French cubist Fernand Léger came to the conclusion in 1923 that true beauty is hidden in the machine. The form, the colour, and the absence of ambition to be a work of art, were the pinnacle of the aesthetic ideal. According to Leger, a mechanical object has as much reason to be seen as beautiful as a landscape. He firmly said that at a time when people were less faithful to stick to it and were living through a difficult time, the need for beauty increased. Leger acknowledged a need he had long underestimated.

So you didn’t necessarily have to look for that beauty in nature, or in the imagination of that nature in the Louvre, but it can also be found in the device. Leger thought of the machine very well, both as a child of his age and as a person sensitive to trends. Nature was opposed to mechanics, and the Dutch writer F. Bordevik describes the relationship between the two appropriately in his account Snoring monsters (1933): “Man’s most beautiful grace is not the horse. It is the animal which has been nurtured to full maturity in the pod of the mother factory, needs no learning, and is at once ready for anything in the world of passing. It has an artistic life of the first order, and man is the creator of its perfection.” .”

When Leger formulated his ideas about machines and mechanics, it was more than ten years after he had reached a turning point in his work. He destroyed his Impressionist works (later regretting it a bit) because he wanted more attention to form and less to the use of color (something he partly returned to after World War I).

in the gallery Fernand Léger and the roofs of Paris In the Kröller-Müller Museum it is about the period when he said goodbye to Impressionism and became a foreman of Cubism. Landscapes and people were replaced by cities and cone-shaped pieces of people. The story of the cubist Leger is largely known, but the “discovery” of a painting on the back of his painting Le Quartz Guellet Displayed in this gallery is wonderful.

Fernand Leger, July fourteenth (1912-1913) Redivivus’s photo

Watch with a tilted head

Army made Le Quartz Guellet (1912-1913) just before World War I as a wedding gift to his friend Mark Duchin. The French flags to be found among the round and rectangular surfaces, along with the title, are remarkably enough for an abstract painting that leaves little to the imagination. Duchin died in World War I, after which the painting was put away by the widow so as not to encounter what was once. So the painting remained unknown for a long time.

In the 1990s, when people noticed that there was still something left on the back of the canvas, a thick layer of glue prevented them from examining it properly. The layer of glue has now been removed and there appears to be a whole painting behind that fits the “Roofs Over Paris” series. Just before World War I, Léger made several scenes of city life from his studio, and in this one – just like a few others – you can see thick plumes of smoke covering the roofs.

A great find, of course you want to show it as a gallery maker.

You can do this by placing the painting in a glass display case so that the visitor can see both sides. But what do you do if, when displaying one plate, you have to turn the other a quarter turn? Would you choose the work that Leger did for his friend, or the work that Leger left? One of them should lie on his side. There’s nothing wrong with it: some paintings have hung upside down for years (Mondrian in Dusseldorf, Van Gogh in Stedelijk), and you’ll often see people nodding their heads in a museum. He who tilts his head hopes for a new perspective and, perhaps, for secrets. Something often comes out of this, with cubists more likely than landscape painters.


in the gallery Leisure and rooftops in Paris Chosen to present the newfound work, Smoke on the roofs (1911-1912), hanging in the right position hanging on his side this cheerful patriotic act of the 14th of July. Works with Plumes of Smoke were crucial to Léger’s move towards Cubism, but also noteworthy for the circular shapes found in those clouds of smoke—the reason why Léger was described by the critic jokingly as a ‘tubist’ rather than a cubist.

The canvas with smoke is much more interesting than that of the French holiday. On the one hand, this is due to those flags that are starting to irritate you, but above all you see in those columns of smoke a precursor of the beauty of the mechanism that Leger will talk about years later. The colors are stronger than in, say, the gray he put in a forest two years ago (Nude figures in a forest, 1909-1911). Work is a wonderful pioneer Calligrapher (1919), which belongs to the permanent collection of Kröller-Müller and is also on display in the exhibition, and goes along with The woman in bluewhich Leger also made in 1912.

Smoke on the roofs It was from the time when Léger said goodbye to the influence of Cézanne and was more influenced by Picasso and Braque (both works that show similarities can be seen in the exhibition, just like that of Robert Delaunay). Reality recedes more and more into the background and the landscape of the roofs resembles a mechanical world, a world at that moment on the eve of man as a machine, or as fodder for a war machine.

Fernand Leger, Calligrapher (1919) Photo by Rick Klein Gutink/KMM

And this brings you back to Leger’s view of beauty in 1923. Landscape is not seen as an ideal form of beauty he argues, but rather the still prevailing idea that painted landscapes show the insignificance of man. We see. Draw dark clouds, rocks, or a wide plain: the viewer knows that man is but a small crumb that disappears against the background of nature (and cannot capture its true form). However, this pettiness is most evident in the machines and the art he wanted to do something with.

No one has been able to depict this insignificance, say its superfluous, so crushingly as the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely with his agonizingly useless machinery. But Léger also depicts the machine, even if it is in his printing press, for example, or in clouds of smoke. Those gray plumes indicate that people are at home, producing steam and communicating with each other through those clouds. At the same time: they cover the roofs, the city, the people. The whole is a landscape in which a person seems superfluous in that “cloudy” Paris.

And what happens if you turn those clouds of smoke over Paris a quarter turn, or tilt your head at Kröller-Müller? Then suddenly you see not only plumes of smoke, but also menacing white robes that make the city and the people disappear.

the book Fernand Léger and the roofs of Paris van Sjraar van Heugten is published by Tijdsbeeld Publishers (144 p. 30 €). Inl:

Read also: Fernand Leger still has a lot to tell us in 2018

Fernand Léger, The Card Game (1917)

© 2022 Kroller-Müller Museum Collection, c / o Pictoright Amsterdam 2022

Fernand Leger, Nude figures in a forest(1909-1911)
Kroller-Müller Museum

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