Tate Liverpool show emphasises the vitality and optimism of the artist's work amid the rising forces of nationalism
In 1937, artist Fernand Léger (1881-1955) collaborated with the designer Charlotte Perriand on Essential Happiness, New Pleasures, a large-scale photomural depicting a bold utopian vision of rural life and community at the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Paris.
At the end of the event, the temporary piece was dismantled and was only recreated in 2011. Now, the 9m by 3m artwork is one of the major highlights of Fernand Léger: New Times, New Pleasures at Tate Liverpool, the first exhibition in the UK of Léger’s work for 30 years.
Léger’s collaboration with Perriand was a natural result of his immersion in the Paris creative world, where he embraced new mass visual communication such as photography, cinema, neon signs and billboards and mixed with protagonists of many creative disciplines. Léger had moved to Paris in 1900 after training as an architect and went on to be particularly influenced by the work of post-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne. Léger’s distinctive style initially focused on the aesthetics of the mechanical age and modern city life, but later incorporated more organic, natural forms as well.
He was a natural collaborator, in particular with film makers, where his set designs allowed him to draw on both his architectural and artistic skills. According to exhibition assistant curator Laura Bruni, his architectural background also informed his early work in the 1920s and 1930s.
‘You can clearly see his training as an architect. He was an architect before he became a painter. Engaging with building spaces through painting was a major concern for Léger,’ she says.
The exhibition includes material on Léger’s close friend Le Corbusier whom he met in 1920, as well as photographs jointly attributed to Leger, Perriand and Corbusier’s cousin Pierre Jeanneret.
Léger had first met Perriand in 1930 and the two remained friends for the rest of his life, spending time together in Paris and Normandy, often with Le Corbusier as well. Perriand was appointed to create the collage for the Agriculture Pavilion at the Paris exhibition and, with Léger, devised an open circular wooden structure covered in oversized photo montages. Perriand sourced, commissioned and cropped and arranged the photographic imagery, which included images of the French countryside - modern agriculture was considered vital for economic recovery - as well as women in traditional Breton dress, women at leisure and images of thrusting arms carrying flowers. She then asked Léger to add the colour to the composition.
‘The work comes alive with Léger’s colours,’ says Bruni, adding that both Léger and Perriand believed in the importance of leisure time and the role of modernisation in delivering this.
The exhibition stresses the significance of the 1937 exhibition. This display of 43 national pavilions was something of a pivotal pre-war moment, bringing together myriad creative figures, including Picasso, whose powerful anti-fascist painting Guernica was exhibited by civil war-hit Spain, and expressing increasingly clashing national ideologies - imposing Nazi Germany and Russian pavilions were designed by Albert Speer and Boris Iofan respectively. As well as the collaboration with Perriand, Léger contributed other murals including The Transmission of Energy, a depiction of hydro-electric power.
Bold colours, along with his characteristically strong and chunky figures are probably what most people readily associate with Léger’s work today. While there are certainly plenty of such works on show, in this new exhibition, Bruni hopes that visitors will ‘reassess this towering figure of modernism’ and in particular gain a new insight into his social and political engagement. Exhibits include work that reflects his experience as a soldier in the First World War and the photomurals from the 1930s that functioned as socialist propaganda for the Front Populaire. Léger spent the Second World War in America and, on his return to France in 1945, joined the Communist Party.
‘Fernand Léger was a socially engaged artist who really believed that the way to improve everyone’s life was through art,’ says Bruni.
Above all, his work has an optimism and vitality that still shines through a century or so on, at a time when Europe is faced with the rising forces of destructive nationalism anew.