How the French artist Fernand Léger uses “harassment” to make monumental art

Time to read: 12–15 minutes

“Let us take the time in this fast and ever-changing life which harasses us and tears us to pieces; to have the strength to remain slow and calm. To work outside the elements of disintegration that surrounds us. To comprehend life in it slow and calm sense. The work of art requires a temperate climate in order to develop fully. In this heightened tempo which is the law of life, to determine fixed points to hold onto them and to slowly work on the achievement of the future”

Fernand Léger – Das Figürliche Werk

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Isn’t it remarkable that these words were written at the beginning of the last century!

The writer is Fernand Léger, architectural draftsman, writer, educator, painter, sculptor, muralist, film maker and even stained glass window designer. A genius of multi-media! He was an unconventional social activist and modern artist, founder of a style coined “tubism”. The current exhibition at Museum Ludwig shows another lesser- known side of this versatile talent. The artist who painted large wall murals in public and private spaces. Léger believed he could animate the environment by intersecting the physical space with his emblems of color. These include among others; large murals and photo collages for the pavilions of World Fair in Paris in 1937. In addition to a number of enormous wall paintings in the United Nations Headquarters in New York as well as many murals for private homes and architectural structures and facades. He wanted to move the masses.

For over 10 years, I have been offering ArtTalks. These are public dialogues in Cologne museums on artists and artistic themes. My focus is not to pour art historical knowledge into people’s minds as they follow behind me, but to create an art experience in the museum where participants feel encouraged to interact with me and each other. I love participants questions and comments. They show people are thinking, responding, engaging with what they see and feel. These heartfelt impulses help people develop a better relationship to their own creativity and to what moves them in art!

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In our JoinCreativePeople book project on dynamic companies, we write about what we care about. We are passionate about taking the spirit of creativity into the today’s increasingly digital workplace. About helping people access their creativity using design thinking. To come up with innovative solutions to complex problems and to respond to users needs with new products and services that make the world a little bit better.

Artists are innovators per definition. They access their creativity constantly. They are constantly in flow, changing and experimenting. They create controversy and change by challenging the status quo. Sometimes they work with constraints and sometimes they use constraints as incubators to make change happen. Artists and creative thinkers need this friction. They bounce off of conventional ways of thinking in order to grow and pursue their own personal ways of transforming ideas into visual reality and for solving artistic problems.

Artists see and experience the world differently. You could say, that creative people march to the beat of a different drummer since they follow their own voice. They learn to accept constant failure because they fail often. And they use failure as a springboard for marking the steps towards success. Design thinkers and artist tests and try out new possibilities in a combination of trail and error. In an iterative process. They are constantly asking themselves if they are still on track. Or has the questions changed? Do we need to reframe? This is the same mode of creative, flexible flow thinking, constant questioning and experimentation that we want to bring into our design thinking workshops!

Fernand Léger was an original painter of iconic dimensions. I’ll showcase his achievements and some artistic highlights from the Cologne exhibition the text below. I wrote the essay during my preparations for the ArtTalks which I held in Museum Ludwig in June 2016.

Easel painting was not Léger first profession. The son of a Norman dairy farmer, he arrived in Paris in 1900 and at first, earned his daily baguette as an architectural draftsman. At the same time as Picasso and Braque, Fernand Léger created his version of Cubism, later named Tubism, because of the use of tubular stylized shapes like pipes and cylinders. The pictorial elements of his painting evolved before WW1, during the heyday of modernism in Paris. This artistic language can be described as a reduction of forms to geometric shapes which are applied in flat planes of color. In this way, the painted objects are broken down from their 3 dimensional shape the 2 dimension surface of the picture plane. Léger, like the Futurists, saw great potential in the modern industrial age. He was fascinated with the power of machines, the speed of industrial change and use of industrial materials like steel. But also with machine weaponry, especially after his near-death experiences in WW1. And although he was influenced by the new possibilities and beauty of early technology, he admired natural processes as well. Not to forget, he also drew from and was inspired by natural organic forms.

“An example: if I compose a picture using as objects a scrap of bark, a scrap of butterfly wing and a purely imaginary form, you probably won’t recognize the bark, or the butterfly wing, and you’ll say: ‘What does this stand for? It is an abstract picture. No it’s a representational picture’ … There is no such thing as ‘abstract’, or ‘concrete’ either. There is a good picture and a bad picture. There is the picture that moves you and the picture that leaves you cold … A picture has a value in itself, like a musical score, like a poem.”

His artistic language was that of the modern visual world. Even his “machine aesthetic” reflected this sense of humanity and positive mind-set which acknowledge and reflect his proletarian social values. Léger is considered by some as a precursor of Pop Art. Pop Art uses visual language of mass commercial media as well as an exaggerated, “blow-up” style. Léger’s technique and simplified figures might remind one of the visual impact and style of Pop Art, especially the large billboards. Later in his career, he turns more to portraits, circus figures and people in leisure activities. His artistic style or language is easily recognizable; biomorphic or abstracted organic forms and figures that are monumental – like large, round sculptures – but flattened onto the surface. And even when Léger was painting in his “machine aesthetic” style, it was not cold and heartless. On the contrary, the themes of his works, be they people, still lives or landscapes, all reflected the warmth and positivity of humanity. Léger’s use of colors is legendary. Strong, powerful dense application of color, he is once quoted as saying, “let’s bring in color, it is as necessary as water and fire.”

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Fernand Léger inspired students as an teacher and art educator. Initially, he tried to get accepted into the elite French Art Academy, but he was considered too radical and his application was rejected. He attended classes anyway! Later Léger founded the first school of European modern art to teach abstraction. This school was set up along the lines of a medieval workshop. It was located in a Parisian warehouse, not far from his Montparnasse atelier. In the 1920s, his students regularly worked together with him on the huge murals. When he was not allowed into the US due to McCarthyism, his students travel into the country and completed the murals for him. Léger’s free anti-establishment art school was set up without hierarchical character of the traditional academies. He later commented that the 3 years of his life were “wasted” at the national French art academy and this experience was formative. (Remind anyone of the college drop-outs Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and/or Steve Jobs? Or even Woody Allen??)

Leger definitely knew and appreciated the benefits of interdisciplinary and artistic collaboration. Not only did he work side-by-side with his students but also with writers, architects, musicians, film makers and designers. He was clearly thinking outside the box, outside of the limits of the easel painting and the rectangular frame. He persistently strove to integrate 2-dimensions into the 3-dimensions of space. What is particularly noteworthy is that his roomscapes or murals sought to impact the space of the room or into the house design of Le Corbusier and/or of Charlotte Perriand – but to complement and harmonize, not to compete with it!

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The Museum Ludwig show also featured some of Legér’s experimental films on large screens. The Unhuman Woman, for example, is the story of the irresistible Claire and the mad scientist who brought her back to life in his sci-fi laboratory. And yes, the futuristic film with fantastic film set was created by Léger. The Skating Rink, stage design, murals and costumes by Legér. It is basically an abstract painting brought to life through the dancers who move as if they were skating over frozen ice. Their padded costumes makes them look like a kaleidoscope of moving geometric shapes. The best of the 3 films shown in the show, is in my opinion, the Ballet mecanique (1924). No script or narrative, but a pure piece of very early, visual music. A dadist (collaboration with Man Ray) tour de force of pulsating rhythms and speed. Lots of intense close-ups, moving pistons and fast film cuts. It is one of the most significant avant-garde films in history and it is fascinating to watch!

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Circling back to the Léger quote at the beginning of this text. What interests me most here is Leger’s perception of time, of speed, of feeling “harassed” by the pace of change. He wrote the passage at the beginning of this text at a time of modern industrial might and mechanical prowess. Léger considered himself a modernist and a progressive thinker. How would the artist react to today’s digital transformation, constant change and hyper speed? He writes of “harassment” and propagates a move towards organic growth and mindfulness evidenced today in movements like slow food, yoga practice, mindfulness and the like.

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Our intention when writing our JCP book, is similar. This is to bring the focus back to the creative individual and his and her needs and creative potential. To respond to and design a healthy environment where individuals can discover their creative confidence, use their passion to create meaning in their lives, to make their own “monumental” meaningful contributions that they feel good about. We introduce a model of how to understand and use the changes of global digitalization to create a congruence between the development of the creative individual and the company that does not “harasses us and tear us to pieces” . We believe innovation can be a good thing for everybody and we find this inspiring!
Karla Schlaepfer


“Painting in Space” Museum Ludwig Cologne: April 9th–July 3rd 2016

Karla’s next Arttalk in Museum Ludwig Cologne is on September 1, at 10 and 18.30h

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