Fernand of Forms. It was Paul Cézanne who

Fernand Léger “Contrasts of Forms” (1914)            Matthew DarbyBetween the years of 1912 to 1914, Fernand Léger produced an extensive cycle of images, this series is known today as Contrasts of Forms. The cycle includes a wide variety of traditional and highly spirited modernist subjects, such as landscapes, figure studies and still lifes. However, at its core is a set of compositions constructed from geometric stylisations such as spheres, cubes and cylinders. 3 I had the pleasure of being able to see a painting taken out of this series, on view at the Courtauld Gallery in London. I think initially what enraptured me was its candour and sincerity. Prior, moving to Paris in 1900, Léger held the occupation as an architectural draughtsman, I think it’s important to note because this trade carries roots within the paintings to come. When Léger began working seriously as a painter, he was shown the influence of impressionism, as seen in “Le Jardin de ma Mére” (1905). In 1907 Légers’ art would undergo a great transformation –  he was introduced to Paul Cézanne, who was indeed apart of impressionism, however, he was always slightly different, he wanted more, he wanted to paint life just as he saw it, with all its motion, sound and energy. Like Cézanne, Léger paints on a 2-dimensional surface whilst doing so creating the illusion of 3-dimensions, this is evident in the series Contrasts of Forms. It was Paul Cézanne who was to begin the transformation of impressionism, he took what he needed from the impressionists, to go on to,  constructing it into an integrated system of line, form and colour. Cézanne’s lesson, as Léger constructed it, was simply this: “Pictorial contrasts used in their purest sense (complementary colours, lines and forms) are henceforth the structural basis of modern pictures.” 5 Belle Époque, Paris’ most beautiful era was a period in Western history, a period characterised by optimism, regional peace, groundbreaking innovations surrounding technology and science,  economic prosperity, an unforeseeable amount of change. The series Contrasts of Forms was established during the frenetic search for new modes of artistic expression, as one avant-garde was overtaken by the next. (I think it’s important to note that 1913 was also the year Marcel Duchamp presented his first “readymade”). All this must have worked its way into the collective subconscious, creating a feeling that matters were accelerating out of control. 8 You can gather this impression from a painting by Georges Braque “Arbres a la Estaque” (1908). There is a feeling of anticipation in Contrasts of Forms, in all the works made during this time for that matter. The bold shapes, realised with stark lines, counter-acting, layering across one and other – producing this enigmatic energy, which I can’t help but think there is something underlying there. I get the feeling that the Fernand Léger foresaw a change, he perhaps questioned the time in which he was living; how long this most beautiful era can last. I gather that there is a certain symmetry within the colours themselves, the blue for example continually reflecting itself. It feels as if this mass aray of steel beams, bolting out of the ground in various directions really give the painting a lot of tension. In reflection of this statement, 1913 is the period which marks the invention of stainless steel by a man called Harry Brearley. I believe this is important to note when viewing the artwork. Furthermore,  the colours, allow for this construction of pictorial depth – you really do get this feeling of distance, that Leger possibly felt unconnected to what was happening in the world. But at the same time, a sense of immediacy; this is realised in the foreground, it’s almost like these forms are jumping out at you. In terms of how I’d feel personally –  It makes me anxious to think of a whole new world growing up beside of me. An uneasy feeling pervaded the close of the 19th century. Culture, and history in general, it seemed, had reached a point of culmination.  The art reflects a world that is broken up and fragmented – cubism, futurism, surrealism and constructivism –  share an understanding of themselves as contributing towards the formation of such a world.9 The transition in painting was a reflection as to what was happening in ordinary life, as for the first time, human beings are placed in a condition where we have control over nature, thus creating the idea of freedom which henceforth would bring around ideas surrounding communism in Russia. Aside of that, Contrasts of Forms represents the painter engaging in the essential transformation of the conventions of representation; he does so, by replacing them with an abstract motif – he said this to be “a necessary response to the processes of modernization in everyday life.” 6 and thus reflected in Légers’ exaggeration of the metropolis, mechanised travel, and new communication technologies.  Moreover, Its evident that the painter synthesized a lot of influences, italian Futurism and as I mentioned previously the various ‘isms’. All which I’m sure Leger took what he needed, to go on creating his own universal language. In 1909, Pablo Picasso painted “Maisons à Horta” his first cubist painting, this marks another great period of change in Légers’ artistic life. During the winter of 1908 Picasso and Georges Braque established a connection which would carry them through the formative years of cubism influencing other painters, (along with Léger), Juan Gris, Kazimir Malevich, Jacques Villon, Jean Metzinger, and a large group of others. The cubists, wanted a better understanding of nature, they wanted to feel, to record this world constantly changing – to reflect in the painting what life shows them, in all aspects, feeling, movement, volume, weight, mass – they wanted to be honest and when you look beyond a likeness, there is a possibility to describe so much more. To add, Cézanne greatly influenced the pioneers of cubism,(as seen in “Town of Gardanne” which was painted in c.1885, so complex and subtle his style that they were able only gradually to assimilate its meaning. They developed more literally and much further than his perception of geometrical forms unlying the confusion of nature2 –  which links back to the idea of the sense of being disconnected from the world. Further, another painter of Cézannes generation, Henri Rousseau, with a primitive, directness and a certain integrity in his art encouraged the likes of Picasso, Braque, Juan Gris, Léger and others of the cubist circle to invent and conceive forms, rather than to imitate natural appearance. For me, Légers “Contrasts of Forms” (1914) is simply contrasts and forms in the medium of oil paint, composed on a flax like surface. The composition is striking, it’s immediate. But I like it because I don’t feel it means a thing, nor do I want to, not with this painting. This painting disconnected me from my own reality, into another world where things are simply contrasts and forms, where colour is simplified, and now stands as a representation of all of the colours combined. The sharp, rugged outline surrounding the forms creates contrast within the shapes. The way Léger applies paint, leaving very brushy marks, an uneven distribution of paint seems to be very rash and incoherent to the surface of the canvas, it creates a relationship between positive and negative space throughout the painting. By using black and white, colour is used to support the structure of the painting. Line is symbolic, it portrays all form, each line is a reflection of the next; each flows into each other creating some kind of cosmic harmony of shapes and sizes within the painting. Like music 1, you don’t need to understand, you can receive so much from this work just by looking and feeling the forms and shapes as they almost move right in front of you – Wassily Kandinsky, who is believed to have been able to see colours in association with sound provides a perfect example of this, Wassily Kandinsky, “Improvisation, 28”. (1912). The same period as Contrasts of Forms. When Léger was requested for war in 1914, he would never return to Contrasts of Forms,to suggest that it was the first world war which brought the Contrasts of Forms series to an end, would be correct, However, also insufficient. The war had a profound impact on Léger, revealing the personal and institutional threads of his artistic life. In conclusion, Fernand Léger’s Contrasts of Forms allowed me to, “see in nature the cylinder, the sphere, the cone” 4