Brussels with Fernand Léger

Inaugurated on 9 February, at BOZAR (Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels), an anthological exhibition of the French Fernand Léger (1881-1955), whose artistic path is intertwined with Art History of the first half of the 20th century.

The exhibition is structured upon 10 nucleuses, scattered throughout the majestic Art Deco building, authored by Victor Horta (1861-1947), revealing an artist with an initial cubist nexus, having also a period marked by a futuristic influence, and with a last decade during which he is a clear-cut supporter of the neorealism trend of post-World War II. The expography follows the logic of other shows with the same common thread, with a representative selection of works of art, from several public and private collections, together with documents of that time, catalogues and wall texts that match the commissariat’s frame with quotes from the artist, without narrative trickeries or re-conceptualizations. The most recent ones of Grand Palais, in Paris, had already this trait in my view, particular the one of Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso (1887-1918), in 2016, or Alexander Calder (1898-1976), at the Tate Modern in London, also in 2016. A curatorship record with a documental and historical content, which allows the contemplative enjoyment of the artist’s production, with the use of clear and informative tools and mediation contents. The mechanism begins, therefore, with the artist’s words on one of the typical concepts of the modernism of the early 20th century, who have in Fernand Léger one of its references:

“My aim is to try to lay down this notion: that there are no categories or hierarchies of Beauty – this is the worst possible error. Beauty is everywhere; perhaps more is the arrangement of your saucepans on the while walls of your kitchen than in your eighteenth-century living room or in the official museums.”

Beauty is Everywhere is the starting point for the debate on the concept of beauty that typifies the work of the French artist, which turns the painting into the master key between the arts of his time. The exhibition covers five decades of creativity, revealing how Léger was able to reinvent his work, analysing the society of the spectacle that unfurled around him.

Fernand Léger began his artistic training when he was 14 years old, as an apprentice of a Norman architect. In 1900, he set sail to Paris and joined the School of Decorative Arts, after having been refused by the School of Fine Arts. After 1908, he started to coexist with artists such as the Lithuanian sculptor Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), the French painter Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) and the Russian Marc Chagall (1887-1985). The group was installed in a building known as “Ruche” and, among all, relations of friendship that included aesthetic complicities were formed. He met Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) in 1911, and felt enthusiasm for cubism, while abandoning the impressionist influences that marked his first endeavours. Cubism, conceptually and stylistically, would ultimately be Fernand Léger’s footprint during most of his career, being also the most dominant genre of the show analysed. To cubism he would add the admiration for mechanical objects, in particular by tanks, approaching futurism, and as a result of having been recruited to the trenches in the First World War. The human figure would gradually start to emerge in his work, especially during the 20s, in the industrial context. Due to his experimentalist character, coinciding with the spirit of the time, and with the paths of many other artists, he would also experience cinema and photography. He would even direct and produce the film Ballet Mécanique (1924), with a Dadaist and post-cubist framework.

World War II forced him to go into exile in the US, where he was a professor, for example, at Yale University. He returned to France in 1945 and then manufactured the stained glass of the Church of the Sacré-Cœur d’Audincourt (Doubs, France), whose studies are one of the ex-libris of this exhibition held in Brussels. In drawing, we see all the technical excellence of Fernand Léger, and it also becomes clear the importance of the studies of colour and shapes for this generation of modernists. Léger conceived, also at that time, the panel to the Palace of Nations in New York.

The consciousness of the war and its horrors never remained indifferent to the artists, much less to the Europeans, and that context was perhaps the one that made Fernand Léger engage and join the Communist Party in 1945, with his work acquiring a neorealist overtone, focused on the working classes and the proletariat, exercising, while mashing his several artistic tendencies, a special influence on the Russian constructivism. In turn, the advertising posters influenced his latest works, in which a separation between design and colour becomes obvious, with the black contours of figures as a plastic trait. Les Loisirs-Hommage à Louis David, in 1949, is one of the stunning works of this last phase, which we can find at the BOZAR in Brussels, until 3 June.

Helena Mendes Pereira (n.1985) is curator and researcher in artistic and cultural contemporary practices. Often, she adventures at dramaturgy and collaborates, as a producer, in projects related to music and theatre, where she has many of its professional bases. Has a degree in Art History (FLUP); attended the specialization in Museology (FLUP), and the post-graduation in Arts Management (UCP); has a Master's degree in Communication, Art and Culture (ICS-UMinho) and is doing a PhD in Communication Sciences with a thesis about Art Market after 25 April 1974. He is currently chief curator of shairart and Professor of Contemporary Art while maintaining effective collaboration in various projects of curating and education and cultural mediation, with Cerveira Art Biennial Foundation, entity which took her first steps in 2007.

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