Let us gaze wide-eyed at present-day life, which rolls, moves, and over-flows alongside us.

(Fernand Léger)

The glorious luminosity, colourful flora and gentle climate of the Côte d’Azur attracted many painters to the area, some for short painting holidays, others who resided for several years or for the rest of their lives. Marc Chagall, Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Edvard Munch among them. Chagall and Matisse are honoured by the City of Nice with National Museums dedicated to their work and life.

One of the many pleasant ways to enjoy a sunny afternoon on the Côte is to drive westward from Nice, hugging the coast and then climbing towards the medieval village of Biot. The route affords spectacular views, both towards the turquoise Mediterranean and the undulating hills all around. Occupied for centuries by the Romans, then by the Knights Templars, Biot was taken over by pirates in the 14th century. Compared to its tumultuous history, today Biot enjoys a quiet existence, as a leading manufacturer of oil jars and art village where potters, glass blowers and ceramists attract the tourist trade of the Côte d’Azur.

Saving these delights for another day, we are heading to the Musée National Fernand Léger, at the foot of the hill. Just as we thought the GPS has led us astray, a large colourful mosaic comes into view. The building designed by architect Andreï Svetchine incorporated a giant mosaic planned by Fernand Léger but never realised. Here, it guides the visitor towards their destination while unexpectedly blending into the surrounding landscape.

The opening of the museum in 1960 was marked by a party of five thousand guests, graced by literary and artistic celebrities including Picasso, Braque and Chagall.

From Cubism to Realism

“Each art era has its own realism”, wrote Léger in 1937. He though realism varies following variations in the artist’s environment. Although considered a Cubist, Fernand Léger’s representation of reality is different from that of Picasso, Braque and Gris, who defined the movement at the start of the 20th century. His style was designated by a critic as “Tubism” to describe Léger’s extensive use of tubular shapes. He is considered by some as the forerunner of Pop Art, given the brightly coloured, flat treatment of everyday objects in his paintings. Having several styles attached to his name is an indication of an artist’s versatility and curiosity. In Léger’s case, this quality is confirmed by the variety of media in which he worked: pencil, large paintings, graphics, murals, ceramics, film.

Fernand Léger liked the circus, the modern city, and also machinery and technology. Looking at his paintings, we see his fascination with mechanical movement: trains, bicycles, industrial equipment. He liked to paint people, and for the people.

Two events had a significant impact on the life and work of Léger: the war and his first trip to America. During the First world war, Léger served in the French Army and nearly died at Verdun. The experience of being in the midst of “life and death drama” made him want to abandon abstract art and “paint in slang with all its colour and mobility”. 1917 marks the start of Léger’s “mechanical” period with figures and objects taking tubular, machine-like shapes.

He made several trips to the United States, the first in 1931. During the Second world war, he lived in America, returning to France in 1945. Like Picasso, he joined the Communist party, who remained, however, critical of Léger’s flavour of realism.

Painting women

From the dance of curves and colours suggesting body forms in Nude Model in the Studio to the athletic women of the 1950’s murals, women are a strong, solid presence in Legér’s work.

During the 1930s Léger drew several portraits of his mistress Simone Herman, her pensive face resting on one hand. This pose became a subject in itself, a repetitive motif he applied to other portraits. Hiding half of the woman’s face, covering one eye, the pose seems to suggest that hand and eye need to unite in order to portray the entire woman. The portraits of his wife Nadia are more revealing: not only we see both her eyes, but also her subtle smile, the decoration of her blouse emphasising the simplicity of the few lines that describe her features.

In later paintings and drawings, women appear in more traditional attitudes: with flowers, with a vase, or a book, in her arms a child, or a bird, often presenting an asymmetrical figure, long black hair covering part of the face.

It is interesting to compare the dynamism of the 1954 painting of Two Women Holding Flowers with the silence of the exquisite 1924 La Lecture. In the earlier work, the story is subtly narrated through a series of contrasts: between the two women, (one standing, one reclining, one dressed, one naked), between the shapes, between the colours. In the large 1954 oil painting, one woman is sitting while the other reclines, but here their forms intermingle and contort into a shape that fits the shape of the canvas. Flat areas of yellow, orange, red and blue rest on parts of the black and grey figures.

The line, the colour, the object

The bodies of the Two Women Holding Flowers are outlined in thick strong black lines, the confident line that was already evident in his many pencil and ink drawings. In the painting, touches of grey add depth to an otherwise two-dimensional composition.

In his early work, Léger painted circles and tubes, rendered three dimensional by rhythmic repetition of light and shade. He also experimented with the introduction of letters into the composition, like in the very graphic ABC (1917). In a tribute to Paul Eluard following the death of the poet, Léger painted four large panels incorporating famous lines from Eluard’s poem Liberté.

With his bold, graphic style and simplified treatment of the subject matter, Léger is considered a forerunner of Pop Art. But as a painter, he regarded colour as the most important element. Léger believed colour is essential for all men.

Man needs colour to live; it's just as necessary an element as fire and water.

The flat, expressionless figures come to life with big, bold areas of even colour. Like the later Pop artists, Léger began to introduce everyday objects into his paintings: house plants, books, vases, but also bicycles, machines, scaffolding.

Art for all

Fernand Léger is a modern painter and a modernist. He belongs to a time characterised by artistic innovation and artists’ social involvement. On his return from America in 1945, Léger joined the French Communist Party. One can only speculate as to what aspect of his experience of living in the US led him to embrace the socialist ideology.

He believed that art should represent all people and should enrich the lives of everybody. So he painted people working on building sites as well as people enjoying their leisure. He worked in a variety of mediums, from tapestry and mosaics to film, stained-glass windows and polychrome ceramic sculptures. His ambition was to bring art to as many people as possible, and he regarded his monumental murals as the achievement of this dream.